Last month, the Poltergeist remake landed with a thud in theaters. Of course that deafening silence—which was not created by terror—is due to a variety factors, not least of which is attempting to redo Spielberg. However, there was always an unspoken problem with revisiting that specific story since it’s been remade countless times already…most especially by James Wan with both his Insidious films and The Conjuring.
Indeed, the set-up for Insidious: Chapter 3 had been to finally get away from the family in supernatural suburban peril and to put the focus on the most interesting characters of the last two entries of the series (and who were not so coincidentally the best characters in the original Poltergeist film as well): the paranormal investigators. A triumvirate of both high camp and genuine pathos, Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, and Leigh Whannell (who also co-wrote the last two films) bumble their way from one demonic haunting to the next with homespun kitchen table philosophy from Shaye, and two-thirds of the Three Stooges from the others.
Thus a movie just about the three of them in Insidious: Chapter 3 seemed quite appealing. Unfortunately, that is not the film delivered in the third Insidious entry. Perhaps because The Conjuring beat the franchise to the punch of doing a “serious horror” ghostbusters movie, or simply because they decided it would be easier narratively if Shaye’s Elise didn’t have to interact with her co-stars from the Great Beyond after her death, Insidious: Chapter 3 returns to the same Poltergeist formula of the previous two entries. And eventually, we’re going to want to get out of that neighborhood.
When Insidious: Chapter 3 opens, we are introduced to 18-year-old Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) on the fateful day she meets Elise Rainier (Shaye), a kindly if eccentric psychic that lives a town over. Actually a prequel rather than a sequel to the previous Insidious films, the threequel finds Elise very much alive but having not even yet met her plucky sidekicks in Tucker (Sampson) and Specs (Whannell). She’s even out of the paranormal investigation game all together since her husband took his own life a year earlier, and there is also a woman in black in the spirit netherworld of the Further, who has promised she will strangle Elise to death if she ever attempts to leave her plane of existence again. But Quinn is such a nice looking and sweet girl, who only wants to reconnect with her recently deceased mother, that Elise can’t help but acquiesce…until she sees something waiting for Quinn in the dark.
While attempting to reach out to her mother, Quinn has unintentionally made contact with a demon that stalks her family’s apartment building; a demon that feasts on your soul for all eternity. And it’s waiting in the dark for whenever Quinn goes to sleep. Hardly news that her single, widowed father Sean Brenner (Dermot Mulroney) wants to hear when he gets home from work every day.
Beginning prior to the events of the previous films is a perfectly solid idea, but immediately Insidious: Chapter 3 starts with one foot in the grave, and it’s not because of any tenement-squatting demonic entities; it’s the fact that we’re in said tenement building for most of the picture. Obviously, for these kind of stories to work, we must care about the victims of supernatural malfeasance before the ghost hunters lock onto the prey. Yet from the word go, the Brenner household feels sketchily drawn both on page and onscreen.
Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote with director Wan two of the most influential horror movies of the last 11 years (Saw and Insidious), has taken over as the sole writer and director of this installment. But for his first feature, he is following very much in the footsteps of what Wan did before, causing the path to feel well-worn and overly familiar, right down to the many, many jump scares and composer Joseph Bishara’s piano-smashing melodies that accompany them.
After two films with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne dealing with all manner of supernatural oddities, there is a narrative shorthand to the Brenner family, which feels so broadly drawn that the characters appear tertiary in their own lead roles. Sean is a mechanic father who is grieving so much over his dead wife that he absent-mindedly ignores his daughter’s needs, forcing Quinn to act as parent to her younger brother Alex (Tate Berney). Yet, none of this actually feeds into the characters’ interactions with ghosts or even each other. Indeed, Alex disappears from the plot like Quinn’s only apparent two friends for whenever the story is done with them, and the usually reliable Mulroney (who just had a strong guest spot on Shameless) essentially sleepwalks through the redundant “skeptical dad” character beat that he’s forced to hit again and again.
Scott makes for a sympathetic and pitiable presence as the demon continues to break her mentally and physically—leading to one of the film’s few franchise-patented winks, such as when Papa Sean and a doctor ignore her cries of ghosts and a near mental breakdown as they put a neck brace on her after the demon already broke both her legs a few days prior to this. However, it is not a role that requires more than a rolodex of pained, horrified expressions.
No, this movie belongs to Lin Shaye, and whenever the picture actually realizes that, it’s a much better movie. Still, playing Elise like a kindly grandmother who’s probably read one too many New Age medicine books, this cheery, west coast alternative to an exorcist again gets all the best creepy-earnest lines that Whannell can still turn out on a dime: “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you!” And when she is espousing about the doom of the Further, or even entering it to have showdowns with demons and the Woman in Black, the picture captures some of that campy jump scare magic. Thus it remains inexplicable as to why this movie belongs to tormented haunted house family #501.
Visually, Whannell does not yet display the confidence of Wan, and a number of his domestic scenes, while keeping the slow-burn of influential ‘70s horror movies, are still composed in a very modern (see: television) fashion. Still, for his horror moments, he displays some potential with two or three solid set-pieces involving nifty tricks of verticality and darkness. The best is when a relatively comforting daylight scene at home in mid-afternoon transitions into a demonic version of the end of Rear Window, save with even more helplessness as Quinn lies broken on the floor while she can only see the feet of the demon as it slowly closes the curtain, shuts her door, and finally shuts the computer laptop until it’s the two of them in the dark.
It’s just when the lights come back on, the movie loses more than just its menace.
But you can meet me in the Further…or on Twitter….