Before we’re all done marveling at the fact that 2017’s three biggest hits were led by female actresses, here’s a more modest but noteworthy fact: 2018 will begin with the fourth installment of a hit franchise whose hero is not just a woman, but a septuagenarian who takes on boogeymen the youngsters can’t face. Adam Robitel’s Insidious: The Last Key, a sequel to the prequel to the series’ first two outings, brings the saga full circle in a way that should, true to the title, conclude the adventures of Lin Shaye’s ghost-whispering character Elise Rainier. A workmanlike but fan-pleasing picture, it may well earn enough to make producers reconsider that whole “Last” thing — not that such promises are often kept in the horror biz.
Elise, of course, was killed at the end of the first film, only to reappear for Insidious 2 in “The Further,” this saga’s vision of a spirit world where icky-looking baddies torture the souls of mortals. The third film took us back to an earlier episode in Elise’s career as a paranormal investigator-slash-problem solver.
The Last Key, which mostly occurs shortly before the events in the first film, begins with an extended flashback: We meet Elise as a child, being raised in 1950s New Mexico by a stern prison-guard father. She’s seeing ghosts even at this age, and while her mother accepts the reality of her daughter’s spiritual gift, Dad is prepared to beat it out of her. When Elise won’t deny that she’s seeing things, he locks her in the basement, where a hidden portal leads to very scary things. Unwittingly, she helps an evil being enter our dimension. His hands have keys where the fingertips should be, so let’s call him The Man With the Keys.
Back in this century, Elise gets a call from a stranger whose house has a ghost infestation. Trouble is, it’s Elise’s childhood home, where the furniture has for some reason been left as-is (down to the blanket-fort built on the bunk beds) for the half-century or so since she fled home.
Understanding that whatever she unleashed as a child is still attacking the living, Elise heads to New Mexico with her eager young employees Tucker (Angus Sampson, of Mad Max: Fury Road) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, screenwriter of all four Insidious pics). These dudes, to be honest, aren’t good for much: They’re armed with high-tech gizmos but far too few flashlights; they flirt in a more-icky-than-cute way with Elise’s young nieces; and most important, with only Whannell’s rudimentary dialogue to go on, they’re pretty limp in the comic relief department. Their best line is when, introducing themselves to a client, Tucker points at Elise and says, “She’s psychic; we’re sidekick.”
As has been the case since the first film, this one centers on shock cuts and sudden appearances of figures in the shadows. While the franchise’s technical overkill may have mellowed over time (sound effects are far less oppressive here), the delivery of the “boo!”s remains on the cheap and arbitrary side. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t make you jump on occasion.) In only one gag is the film’s obvious manipulation of the viewer structured in a clever and elegant way. Sure, it comes in the middle of one of those “there’s no way anyone would do something this stupid” sequences that fright flicks rely on. So what.
While it’s finding ways to tie real-world horrors into this The Further business, the pic makes good use of Elise’s childhood, both as a reason for us to care about overfamiliar haunted-house stuff and as a means to introduce new blood: those aforementioned nieces (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke), who may be positioned to pick up the ghost-hunting torch should the need arise. Given the economics of the milk-it-’til-it’s-dry horror business (Whannell’s other franchise, Saw, just released its eighth installment), that’s far from impossible.
Production company: Stage 6 Films
Cast: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Bruce Davison
Director: Adam Robitel
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, James Wan
Executive producers: Bailey Conway, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Charles Layton, Couper Samuelson, Steven Schneider, Leigh Whannell
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Melanie Jones
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Timothy Alverson
Composer: Joseph Bishara
Casting director: Terri Taylor
Rated PG-13, 103 minutes