Let’s give James Wan a hand. Slant doesn’t grade on a curve, but if we did, Insidious might have ranked as highly as Certified Copy. Wan’s latest is, like Saw and Dead Silence before it, a conflation of the horror genre’s laziest tropes and visual shorthands, less film than funhouse ride, but it’s a frequently scary funhouse ride that presents itself as such: Wan’s anxious visual aesthetic, all herky-jerky zooms in and out of scenes and pans across the exterior of his story’s ostensibly haunted manse, doesn’t suggest the comings and goings of otherworldly beings so much as the woozy motions of a rusted carnival car making its way through a hall of horrors.
The story of a husband and wife (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) who learn that their son—not their house—is haunted, Insidious is tricked out with fiercely suggestive scares. Wan, a fan of old Universal horror freak-outs, thankfully leaves the faux-morality of the Saw universe at the door, then resists the urge to shoot his story’s paranormal activity with camcorders. This is a scarcely fashionable entertainment, then, notable also for the sense of reason exhibited by its characters. After one too many strange happenings (a horrifying face in a window, an even more horrifying voice heard in a baby monitor), Josh and Renai accept with scant hysteria that something is wrong with their house and do what few rarely do in movies such as this: they move the fuck out. Too bad the creepy crawlies hitch a ride in their U-Haul.
There’s nothing new under Insidious’s creaky floorboards: Its mythology—of “astral projections” and life-hungry beings residing in a beyond identified as “the further”—is straight out of Poltergeist. But the film subtly foreshadows a bit of important business regarding one character’s past, and its answer to Zelda Rubenstein’s Tangina is performed with persuasive naturalism by the dog-licking tan addict from There’s Something About Mary. Not that you’ll remember any of that anyway: What really sticks in the mind is its petrifying flashes of lost souls, malevolent or not, haunting the living with their grins, pointy fingers, and, sometimes unnecessarily, eager tongues. You dread them like Robert Blake in Lost Highway, wondering when, if ever, they’ll finally cross over.