Oren Peli’s new production may as well have been called “Paranormal Activity 3: Slightly Higher Budget.” To its credit, “Insidious” works well by combining the scariest elements of the “Paranormal” series with the brutality of the “Saw” series and the shaky camerawork of the “Bourne” series. The problem is, the story has nothing new to say — save for a half-twist that segues into an utterly underwhelming ending.


At Quality 16 and Rave

The parallels between “Insidious” and “Paranormal” are uncanny from the get-go. A quirky couple — pianist Renai (Rose Byrne, “Sunshine”) and high school teacher Josh (Patrick Wilson, “The A-Team”) — and their three children move into a new home for no particular reason, and spooky stuff starts harshing everyone’s mellow. Then (surprise) we find out that the family left their old house because Renai thought it was haunted. An old medium comes into the house to discover (double surprise) it’s not the house that’s haunted — it’s a member of the family.

It seems like Peli wants everyone who presents him with a script to milk as much money out of his “Paranormal” premise as possible, but in spite of the familiar format, writer Leigh Whannell has provided plenty of genuine scare scenarios, and the cinematic quality of “Insidious” is a marked contrast from the documentary-style “Paranormal,” which makes the scares all the more unsettling.

Director James Wan (the “Saw” series) clearly had a hand in the film’s fright factor as well. Instead of relying on the slow escalation of suspense and dread seen in “Paranormal,” Wan barrages the audience with startling demonic manifestations from start to finish. What makes these even more disturbing is their juxtaposition with occasional laugh-out-loud humor. Wan convinces us that we can breathe easy — at least for a few minutes — and then throws another wrench into the mix. There are other pluses, too: The dialogue between Renai and Josh is sincere and affectionate, the acting is better than decent and there’s even a cute little “Saw” reference on Josh’s classroom chalkboard.

But Josh’s cluelessness begs the question — what’s with the male characters in Peli’s films? It seems like they’re all bumbling cowards who deflect discussions of a spiritual realm with bad jokes and perpetual denial, all in the face of incontrovertible evidence. It’s just lazy to make a character’s stubborn folly the catalyst that drives the plot forward.

That’s just a minor hitch, though — the worst part of “Insidious” is the laughable ending. The best stories have a subtle allusion to their thematic undercurrent, but “Insidious” builds tension to a fever pitch and dispels it with a plot thread that comes straight out of left field. When Renai and Josh reach wit’s end, they call on a medium. She walks into the house, surveys the situation and acts as a deus ex machina, introducing an absurd element into the story in a desperate attempt to distinguish it from “Paranormal.”

“Insidious” does its job as a horror film, and the astral projection theme adds an interesting twist. Still, the premise borrows a bit too heavily from its predecessors. Peli needs to stop trying to capitalize off his first film and start giving viewers a new reason to cringe.

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