The Poppies of Terra #8 - Red Door, Blue Pill
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Lambert family, we missed you.
The Insidious movies have perhaps one of the fussiest timelines of any horror series. In Insidious (2010) Josh and Renai Lambert, whose son Dalton is in a bad way, recruit psychic Elise Rainier to diagnose the issue, and she determines that Dalton is being stalked by entities from a realm known as The Further. Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) follows up these events, dealing with the collateral haunting, so to speak, of Dalton’s dad Josh, who caught a bad case of the demon cooties while rescuing Dalton from The Further. Next, in our first prequel, Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015), we travel back to dramatic events in the life of Elise before she met the Lamberts. Insidious: The Last Key (2018) occurs after Chapter 3, but still before the first film, so it’s both a sequel and a prequel. But it’s actually doubly a prequel, because large chunks of it deal with extended flashbacks all the way back to Elise’s youth, before the events of any other movie. Oh, and did I mention, even though Chapter 2 is a direct continuation of the first movie, it involves time travel? Sheesh. All of this is enough to put the temporal convolutions of the Hellraiser and Puppet Master flicks to shame.
The Last Key was a let-down for me, and when I reviewed it I concluded by suggesting that “we lock the door behind us on this franchise and toss away the key–last or otherwise.”
Now, with Insidious: The Red Door, set over a decade since our initial meet-n-spook with the Lamberts, we return to their family story.
As we’re soon reminded, Chapter 2 concluded with father Josh and son Dalton being hypnotized so as to forget the traumatic events of the first two movies (a service that should have been offered free of charge to viewers of The Last Key). Josh Lambert is too young to belong to the Silent Generation, but that let’s-forget-everything Jedi mind trick he and his son partake in seems perfectly suited as commentary on the acute difficulties of certain fathers speaking openly with their sons.
And now: Josh’s mom has died, he and Renai have divorced, and he barely speaks with either of his sons, Dalton and Foster. Dalton, meanwhile, is socially shy and draws compulsively. Hmmm, I wonder what fuels his impulses…
This angsty casserole, though far from ideal, could have likely continued to simmer along for decades--if it wasn’t for the inadvertent meddling of an art professor who Dalton meets in college.
Let’s talk about Professor Amargan’s woefully mis-written character. The screenplay, by Scott Teems, treats Amargan as a brilliant, insightful, luminary who knows what her students need better than they do themselves. In reality, Amargan is a laughable bundle of stereotypes, a self-important bully who would have long been sued out of the classroom. Amargar, in Spanish, stemming from the Latin amarus, means to embitter, and Amargan certainly leaves a bitter taste behind. This is, mind you, no fault of the very accomplished Hiam Abbass, who is playing Amargan exactly as written and directed. At any rate, Amargan practices a form of hypnosis to recklessly unleash her students’ most personal traumas in the name of artistic creation, and this is what activates Dalton’s long-repressed memories, which begins the chain reaction of the movie’s plot. The working title must have been Insidious: How College Fucked Up My Life.
Patrick Wilson, who has played Josh for every character appearance, is also here a first-time director, and overall he performs with an assured hand. Several sequences, like the MRI scan, are positively crafty. Wilson also lets character moments breathe. On the other hand, he may have been over-enthusiastic in his application of Leigh Whannell’s advice that sometimes the audience can provide its own soundtrack of whispers and gasps. The Red Door is one of the few films I can think of that’s underscored, which is a pity, because Joseph Bishara’s musical contributions throughout have been distinctive and memorable. The issue can again be traced back to Teems’ rudimentary screenplay. With scripts like those of The Birds (1963) or No Country for Old Men (2007), whose ingenuity draws us in, less is indeed more when it comes to music. Here, less is just less.
Another problem with the screenplay is structural. First, we spend too much time observing characters rediscover things they once knew but which we still remember. Second, it keeps teasing that Josh’s and Dalton’s storylines are going to converge in an interesting, satisfying way, but that meeting of tracks is predictable and underwhelming. Finally, it doesn’t do enough to demarcate the third act from everything that’s gone before. One of the many reasons Top Gun: Maverick was such a smash last year is that its screenplay clearly laid out the mission awaiting its characters, showed the difficulties of training for such a mission, and then made it exceedingly clear the second the mission started. The Red Key could have benefitted from such an approach, building up tension and drawing out the climax. Instead, it squanders critical time in a fraternity-related tangent that goes nowhere, and fumbles the final demonic encounter as a clumsy offshoot of Dalton’s tentative exploration of The Further.
On the plus side, switching the focus from demonological mythology to the Lambert family history imbues the narrative with psychological import. I found the use of Josh’s fraught relationship with his own dad and the way it ultimately plays into the resolution effective and cathartic. Performances all around are good, with Sinclair Daniel, who plays Dalton’s new college friend Chris Winslow, an energizing standout. (Though the script has her too readily accept, and accurately identify, Dalton’s astral abilities).
Early on, Dalton asks his dad if he’s ever sought help for the various issues with which he’s struggling. “Nah, I’m just trying to push through,” Josh replies. Ultimately, that feels like what the movie is doing. At least it’s better than The Last Key. Now that we're hopefully done dealing with keys and doors, maybe it’s time for a little change of pace with a crossover: anyone up for Insidious: Escape Room?