The original Insidious (2011) was a welcome return to indie horror form for director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, who followed up their original breakthrough film, Saw, with a couple of misguided and forgettable excursions into major studio territory (anyone remember Dead Silence?). Insidious was intimate, original, a little insane, and genuinely creepy; it also established some of the stylistic and narrative devices that Wan would utilize for large-scale horror success with The Conjuring a couple of years later.
Plus, it was a hit, which meant the “we have a new horror franchise!” signs lit up at the offices of original backer Film District. So Insidious 2 came along in 2013, with Wan and Whannell taking up camera and pen again, but it proved to be an unnecessary, overplotted, and often incoherent sequel that actually dissipated the good will of its predecessor. Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), a prequel, was directed by Whannell himself from a streamlined script, making for a marginally better film but still something of a wheel-spinner.
Which brings us to Insidious: The Last Key. When you get to the fourth film in a franchise, particularly in the horror genre, the thing is often sputtering along on fumes, so I’m happy to report that The Last Key is the best Insidious entry since the first one. And the reason for that is unlikely franchise star Lin Shaye. I say unlikely because, with most horror movies geared these days toward the late-high-school/early-college crowd, and featuring casts that reflect that, it’s improbable that a wise and earthy 74-year-old woman could emerge as the focus of a successful series like this and find a following of her own.
But Shaye’s paranormal investigator, Elise Rainier, is indeed the heart and soul of the Insidious saga–which has forced Whannell (who is back on screenplay duty for this one while Adam Robitel directs) to twist the franchise into even more of a pretzel since Elise actually died at the end of the original movie. Thus with what is essentially the franchise’s fourth chapter, he goes back in time again, as The Last Key taking place after Insidious: Chapter 3 but before the events of the first two films. And this time Elise is squarely the center of the story, as she returns to her own childhood home to investigate a haunting there and finds that she has unresolved supernatural and family business of her own to take care of.
Shaye is a warm, empathetic, and engaging presence in all the films–arguably the best thing about them, really–and this time out, you’re invested in her struggle all the way. The actress transmits a genuine feeling of deep psychological and emotional pain as she returns to the house in which she grew up and is forced to delve back into her own tormented memories. The ultimate shape of the plot is nothing especially new — let’s just say that Elise did not have a happy childhood, in part because of her abilities to contact the other side, but Shaye brings a sense of real grief and sadness to the proceedings.
We do care about Elise at this point, as well as her two dim but likable assistants, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). In this vein, Robitel and Whannell make sure to include a decent amount of character moments for all of them amidst the scares and jolts. The director follows Wan’s formula mostly to a tee, alternating extended sequences of dread-filled silence and frame-filling darkness with jump shocks and some morbid new imagery, as well as yet another excursion into the eerie recesses of the Further. Robitel, who also directed the intermittently spooky found footage chiller The Taking of Deborah Logan, doesn’t do anything groundbreaking here but does provide some genuine scares.
Make no mistake, however, this is Lin Shaye’s show, and Whannell was smart to realize that the series was really about her character. That goes a long way, even in a series that should theoretically be on its last legs by now. But Insidious: The Last Key manages to unlock some humanity and tragedy from a well-worn narrative and revive a meandering franchise while bringing it full circle. Horror movies only ever transcend their limitations and become more than just exploitation when you care about the people, a lesson that Wan (who is still a producer on this series) and Whannell have taken to heart.
Insidious: The Last Key is out in theaters this Friday, Jan. 5.