Director James Wan is best known for inventing the Saw franchise (a franchise that is depressingly successful). Wan directed the first three Saw movies and was producer for the rest of the franchise, so a goreless, spooky haunted house story is a step in a different direction, a direction that requires far more skill than any that is needed for a movie like Saw. To be fair to Wan, it's not a bad effort, there are plenty of worse haunted house stories out there but there are also plenty of better ones too.
A family of five (two adults and three children) moves into their new house. They all start to settle in when Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has a small accident in the attic (yes, they do go into the attic). The accident involves Dalton falling off a ladder but after the initial impact he seems perfectly fine. However, when Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) fails to wake his son, Josh and his wife named Renai, played by Rose Byrne, is informed that their son is in a coma and the doctors cannot puzzle out why. The couple brings their son home and after a few freak occurrences move house but was it the house that was haunted?
The biggest issue with Insidious is that it is completely all over the place meaning, quality wise Insidious is totally uneven. There are moments that are generally good and well crafted; there is a degree of tension, a spooky atmosphere and a few well timed jump scares. There are some bad moments in which the film becomes over generic so the scares are carbon copies of other horror movies and there are also some moments that are downright unconvincing, including Dalton springing into life and the beast itself (which has often been compared to Darth Maul, the resemblance is uncanny). The best moments all come during the first half of the film, James Wan conjures up an acceptable degree of suspense but this suspense is somewhat undone by some rather loud SFX effects. For the first two acts Insidious does play as a perfectly decent haunted house story but as the film draws upon its final conclusion it somewhat falls apart as writer Leigh Whannell conjures up some rather unsurprising and lacklustre plot twists which just adds to the silliness of the story.
The film concludes in a similar vain to Poltergeist and Joe Dante's most recent film The Hole, with a surrealistic trip into another dimension. This is where the film is less impressive than the previous two acts (there is a hyperactive hiccup that notes the start of the film's final act). The issue is that in the film's conclusion to many scares are thrown into the mix so that they are not quite as effective as they should be, the jump scares and the loud sound effects tend to get tedious and tiresome and the monster itself is rather lacking in the imagination department and to be perfectly honest it looks rather silly. There is a cliff hanging ending that was not needed and if one was to use the cynical head it seems that the film's conclusion is paving the way for sequels. Yet while the final act does hinder the film slightly there are some impressive moments, in the first two acts, that can be quite chilling, the harsh voice on the baby monitor is one of the creepiest moments, the front door swinging open is effective and when Foster claims he hate sleeping in his room because Dalton walks around at night tickles the spine.
I would be lying if I was to say that I did not enjoy Insidious but I would be telling the truth if I was to say that Insidious never really scared me. Insidious does indeed have one or two well timed jumps but there is a stark contrast between being surprised and truly frightened. Insidious does keep you on edge with the tense atmosphere during the first two acts but it never reaches the levels of the 1963 classic The Haunting, the 2007 horror film The Orphanage and the 2001 film The Others which all are high points of the haunted house genre. It is unfair to compare a film to such films as very few horror films of late are not quite as brilliant as the three just mentioned. Insidious does fall into the category of generic horror resulting in some the scares not being truly effective as they could have been predicted a mile off. The lead performances (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) are nothing special but they are passable; however Lin Shaye is delightfully hammy as Elise Reiner who deals with the activities of the paranormal. Shaye has one great scene in which the group attempts to contact Dalton but this scene is quickly ruined as it descends into lunacy.
Insidious is by far more entertaining that it is scary, that said there are some decent levels of tension raised and some of the jump scares are effective but they remain nothing more than ordinary jump scares. Insidious attempts to avoid a plot hole that is common with haunted house movies (why not just leave the house?) by making Dalton the one that is haunted, an issue that The Haunting in Connecticut never solved. Insidious remains fun but the conclusion and the cliffhanging climax are lacking in proper scares, tension and quality resulting in Insidious being an entertaining, yet uneven horror flick.