"Insidious" is the kind of movie you could watch with your eyes closed and still feel engrossed by it.
It's a haunted-house thriller filled with all the usual creaking doors, groaning floors and things that go bump in the night, but it'll also grab you with some disturbing, raspy whispers on a baby monitor, a few melancholy piano plunkings and the panicky bleating of an alarm as a front door is mysteriously flung open in the middle of the night.
The grandfather clock in the hall tick-tocks in time to the dripping water from the kitchen faucet, and the cumulative cacophony is unsettling on a level you may not even actively recognize - but, at the same time, it's kind of a kick. (The titles are also super noisy, with their frantic, screechy strings, which one can only assume was meant as parody. At least, we hope.)
But director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, who originated the "Saw" series, also use silence quite skillfully to build real fear and suspense. They don't offer anything you haven't experienced before in the genre - and it doesn't take too long to figure out this is their version of "Poltergeist" - but they put the pieces together effectively. You know the scares are coming, and yet you hold your breath waiting for them to happen. And it certainly helps their cause to have a cast led by actors who can actually act.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as Josh and Renai, a husband and wife who've just moved into a charming, old Craftsman with their two young sons and an infant daughter. He's a schoolteacher, she's a stay-at-home mom and musician, and the long, slow build establishes that things aren't quite right with this place, but maybe they weren't quite right with this family, either.
Then one night, their older son goes investigating in the attic, by himself, in his jammies, carrying a lantern (of course). He falls off a rotted ladder step, which startles him, but he also sees something while he's up there. Soon afterward, he slips into a mysterious coma, which lasts months. But the noises and odd visions and happenings not only persist, they grow stronger and more frightening. Josh and Renai do something people never do in horror movies, something all normal, sane people would do if their house were freaking them out: They move.
But as the ads inform us in what was meant to be a tease but is closer to a spoiler, it's not the house that's haunted.
We'll try not to give the whole thing away ourselves. But "Insidious" does allow Wan and Whannell to trot out every creepy dead-person image imaginable. Again, you've seen them all before, and in the moment they may seem rather amusing. The film's use of Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" is weirdly hilarious but also, admittedly, it sends a shiver.
And just when you think things couldn't get any more tense, some much-needed comic relief comes in the form of a couple of geeky paranormal experts (Whannell himself and Angus Sampson) who try to one-up each other in their usefulness and knowledge. Longtime character actress Lin Shaye ("There's Something About Mary") eventually joins them as the Zelda Rubenstein figure, who comes to retrieve the little boy's lost soul.
She, and everyone else involved, know that the "gotcha" scares are what you came for, but they're here to have a little fun, as well. With "Insidious," these experiences are frequently one and the same.
"Insidious," a Film District release, is rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language. Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.