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Haunted house; 'Insidious' is scary, spine-tingling and entertaining

One of the demons is wearing what looks like a Darth Maul Halloween mask.

And the finale is both a tad too literal and a lot too long and drawn out.

But that doesn't spoil what is, without a doubt, the spookiest and most entertaining horror flick since "Paranormal Activity."

"Insidious" is a haunted house tale in the "Poltergeist" mold -- a child in jeopardy, a mother (Rose Byrne) struggling to get her head around what may be happening, a father (Patrick Wilson) in denial.

Renai and Josh and their three kids have just moved into a nice, older wooden two-story home that should be out of the reach of a high school science teacher and his stay-at-home wife. Well, she does dabble in songwriting.

But at home alone, she's hearing things in this quiet, creaky house. So does their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins). He investigates, and next thing you know, he's in a coma that medical science can't explain. As Renai stares mournfully at her little boy as the nurse explains how to lubricate the breathing tube she'll have to remove, clean and insert every day, the quietly chilling home settles into mourning.

"I feel like the universe is just seeing how far I'll bend before I break."

She doesn't know the half of it. James Wan, graduating from the "torture-porn" genre he helped launch with "Saw" and working with both his "Saw" screenwriter/collaborator Leigh Whannell and producer Oren Peli ("Paranormal Activity"), builds tension with glimpses of cadaverous faces, people in odd costumes and the like. Doors open and close, whispers rumble through the baby monitor.

And the hairs rise on the back of your neck.

Neither Renai nor her husband doubt her sanity, a convention of these movies. She's seeing bloody handprints on her comatose son's sheets and little boys dressed in 1920s clothes in her kid's closet. She knows something's up. Josh is oddly tuned-out.

Wan and Whannell then turn the movie on its head, getting Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey), and through her a team straight out of the "X-Files," tech nerd/conspiracy buffs dressed like Mormon missionaries. These goofy ghostbusters (played by Whannell and Angus Sampson) give the movie a comical proactive spin -- with self-designed gadgets and a boss (Lin Shaye) with a plan.

The best horror movies get the audience talking back to the screen, and "Insidious" does that, and how. You'll have to fight the urge to yell "Don't go in there" or "Something just kicked your front door in, don't turn off the alarm, you idiot!"

Wan makes great use of silences and empty black space, furtive glances of something that the rational mind says should not be there. "Insidious" is a textbook piece of horror in that regard.

It falls to Byrne to sell the reality of all this, and she does -- a woman paralyzed by fear, but made brave because she has to be. She's a mother, after all.

One can cast a jaundiced eye at Wan and Whannell's role in the popularization of grim, soul-crushing torture porn. But their departure from it is fun and full of jolts. It's PG-13 and nobody has to hack off their own anything.

Nothing "Insidious" about that.



3 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell    

DIRECTOR: James Wan    

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language    

THE LOWDOWN: A family discovers dark forces at work in their new home.    

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