Written and Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, and Lin Shaye
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you..."
One of the great things about Insidious: Chapter 2 was Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s willingness to explore the deepest reaches of their own mythology. It’s a big, weird, gonzo sequel with the audacity to echo everything from Back to the Future II to Psycho II while spinning its own uniquely twisted tale. Perhaps sensing that there was no going any bigger (or further, if you will), Whannell (now flying solo as writer and director) has scaled things back with Insidious: Chapter 3, a prequel that brings the franchise back to its simpler roots as it fills in some pertinent gaps didn’t even seem to exist. Did you even know you wanted to see a movie where Lynn Shaye’s Elise takes the lead as a kick-ass ghostbuster?
Chapter 3 almost feels inside-out. Rather than repeat the familiar scenario of a family turning to Elise and company after experiencing a haunting, this one begins with high school senior Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) seeking the psychic out for some more benign help: as she is still reeling from the loss of her mother, Quinn wants nothing more than to contact her one more time to say goodbye. Elise reluctantly assists with a warning that contacting the dead will only invite other malevolent spirits, and the film eventually obliges when Quinn and her father (Dermot Mulroney) must confront the latest demon to crawl its way from The Further.
But this isn’t completely their story, nor is Whannell particularly motivated to one-up the juicy backstory of the Bride in Black from the previous film: we’re privy to bits and pieces of the story behind this new demon, a decrepit, asthmatic ghoul with a breathing apparatus, but he largely slinks in the shadows. Instead, Insidious: Chapter 3 is an intriguing horror movie that’s more interested in shedding light on its returning human characters than it is peeling back the layers of mystery from its monsters. Even as it continues to develop Quinn’s story, it hangs back and ligers on Elise’s own recent trauma by revealing a heartbreaking backstory involving her own recent loss.
It’s very much her story as well, as she has to confront her own demons—some mental, some quite very real—in order to help Quinn battle hers. Insidious 3’s success as a prequel rests on this decision: while the decision to work backwards might feel like a cop-out to keep the franchise from moving ahead and building on the tease from the last sequel, it brilliantly allows a former supporting character to take center stage by adding unforeseen layers of depth to Elise’s motivations. So many prequels are preoccupied only with arranging predetermined puzzle pieces, and, while Whannell can’t completely resist this (we learn how Tucker & Specs manage to team up with their psychic partner), this film is more concerned with telling a story you don’t already know.
Doing so not only subtly alters the previous films but also allows Chapter 3 to mostly stand on its own as it weaves Elise’s tale of personal redemption into Quinn’s fight for survival. While Chapter 2 obviously revealed that she has honed her craft for decades, this film finds her at a crossroads, and Shaye’s performance blends despair, desperation, and tenacity as she molds Elise into the character we’ve known from the past two films. After serving as a bit player in Hollywood for decades, it’s so heartening to see Shaye grab this opportunity by the throat and revel in it. Her career turn as horror’s reigning matriarch culminates with her own trip into The Further, where she righteously meets and dispatches demons in rousing fashion.
Not that Insidious 3 is exactly a nonstop funhouse ride by any means. Menace hangs thickly, the shroud of death and loss shrouding nearly every beat. Dark figures lurk in the background, portentously looming over the characters before emerging with a jolt. Whannell has clearly benefitted from his decade-long partnership with Wan, as his directorial debut exudes the same oppressive tension as the latter’s best work. This latest chapter is arguably the meanest and most sinister one yet: each jump scare has been cleverly crafted to feel like an assault, and the imagery is more ghastly than it is gnarly. Even The Further has been pared down to a purgatorial, Fulci-esque wasteland of deep shadows and ashen fog, and Whannell transforms the Brenners’ apartment into a claustrophobic nightmare of ominous tracking shots, leftover Overlook Hotel décor, and unnerving, screeching orchestral strings (composer Joseph Bishara arguably deserves as much credit as anyone for establishing this franchise’s intense aesthetic).
Only the well-timed, occasional levity from Tucker and Specks breaks the grim, foreboding mood: after two entries, Insidious remains committed to scaring the fuck out of audiences, and that’s commendable considering how many franchises peter out as soon as they give up the ghost. With its third chapter, this franchise has etched itself a spot in the pantheon of essential haunted house horror—not a bad fate for a series that almost feels like genre alphabet soup given the myriad of influences and ingredients it’s mixed together.
It’s perhaps the most sterling example that originality isn’t quite so vital as long as filmmakers are driven to mold familiar recipes into something that carries its own distinct flavor. Most importantly, it always helps that they find some type of compelling story to tell, something that seemed to elude the folks behind the Poltergeist remake. Insidious: Chapter 3 only makes that film’s existence even more bewildering and perfunctory—at least this film grasps at some meaning beyond its brand name. Maybe the big end-game to this film's meaning is an excuse for Lin Shaye to shit-talk a demon, but sometimes that's enough.
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