After the success of the ingeniously gruesome Saw back in 2004, the writer-director team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell took a back seat as subsequent instalments in the horror series ladelled on the gore and moral hypocrisy. The Wan-Whannell project in the years since looks to have been to explore new ways of making retro horror: first with 2006's ventriloquism creepout Dead Silence, beholden as it was in some way to Ealing's Dead of Night portmanteau, and now with Insidious, a contemporary variant on the old haunted-house movie. This is a rollercoaster ride that starts quietly and shifts up to full-on loopy, in ways that are perhaps more entertaining than truly scary; I'm not sure the horror purists are going to go wild for it, but it'll be a scream with the right crowd on a Saturday night.
We open on a portrait of an upwardly mobile couple - a teacher (Patrick Wilson) and his songwriter wife (Rose Byrne) - and their three children: two young boys, and an infant daughter. From the way Mom's thrown when one of the kids tells her she's "really old - maybe even 21", or the sight of Dad in the bathroom, plucking out his grey hairs and applying moisturising eye cream, it's clear these two have fears enough even before their eldest son comes down out of the attic in a sudden and inexplicable comatose state, and somebody - whether human or otherwise, it isn't immediately clear - begins knocking at their door in the midnight hour.
Insidious shares a production team with the low-budget, high-impact Paranormal Activity movies, and - here as there - one might initially question why the couple at the film's centre don't just relocate to a hotel when things start going bump in the night, but the new film addresses that criticism by adding one element (a sick child) that might well make loving parents decide to stay put for as long as possible, and anyway goes on to pull the popcorn-scattered, cola-soaked rug out from under its audience's feet by suggesting it's perhaps not the house that's the issue.
It's almost a pity the second half goes over the top and off the rails as it does, because the first offers consistently good scares and shrieks: the spectral figure poised over the baby's cot; a burglar alarm that cuts right through you; a cheeky phantom-urchin who turns up (in a flat cap!) to the sounds of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips". The "dog-and-pony-show" that follows - involving a couple of bickering ghostbusters (Whannell and Angus Sampson) and a medium in a gas mask (Lin Shaye) - is a ridiculous, but not unenjoyable misdirection, as surely the real boogeyman of Insidious isn't the Darth Maul lookalike who materialises at moments of high crisis (Whannell writes himself a nerdy Starfleet gag, so the resemblance may be deliberate), but - as per the title - someone or something that creeps up on us all in the end. And all the while, the grandfather clock in the hall ticks on...
Insidious opens nationwide today.