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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Insidious: The Last Key (February 2018)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Elise Rainier, naturally attuned to otherworldly realms and a paranormal investigator for many decades, receives a disquieting call from Ted Garza, a man experiencing disturbing paranormal phenomena—in Elise’s childhood home. Despite traumatic memories from her youth, Elise sets out to help Garza, only to discover that the past’s grip on the present is darker than she could have suspected.

Fear Comes Home, But it’s Been Sublet

At a basic level the Insidious films have always been about family conflict and abuse. When the emotional resonance of this turmoil is metaphorically amplified through hauntings and demons, as in the first two installments, we get the best of both worlds. But tilt too much toward family melodrama, or toward the jump scares of demonic apparitions, and you sour Insidious’ special sauce. The first two films struck an excellent balance. Insidious: Chapter 3 was less effective than its predecessors primarily because it was a prequel invested in untying emotional knots that weren’t particularly gripping, and its soap-opera aspects outweighed its scares. (It also dwelt too much on the not-so-interesting demonologists Specs and Tucker). To be fair, Insidious: Chapter 2 contains some lengthy sequences set before the events of the first film, and is therefore at least in part a prequel, but the twisty narrative structure that interconnects the old with the new is commendable. Unfortunately, Insidious: The Last Key is another prequel, and spends yet more time with Specs and Tucker, replicating the weaknesses of Chapter 3 without any new redeeming qualities.

Adam Robitel’s direction is solid, and though I can’t really find fault with the film’s editing, I did find some ineffective staging. The pacing of individual scenes isn’t bad—though in some cases suspenseful moments are drawn out a little too long, sapping them of power, and in others the payoff comes too quickly—but the overall story lacks a sense of rising dramatic tension and a compelling character arc. Part of this lopsidedness results from a script that frontloads a lot of backstory, testing the audience’s goodwill, and later attempts to justify this investment with a surprise the emotional consequences of which are too hurriedly addressed.

The acting is mostly workmanlike. Lin Shaye does what she can, but even her dedicated performance can’t effectively disguise uninspired writing. It feels like she’s being hemmed in. When she declaims, for instance, “I’m going to find it and I’m going to finish it” before the film’s climax, it comes across as a somewhat platitudinous mission statement rather than a deeply felt expression of resolution and commitment. Other lines—like her comment about not having memories, but scars—serve her better, and she brings gravitas as needed. It is refreshing, and a welcome change of pace in horror cinema, which often caters to teens, to see a seventy-four year old actress in the lead. I just wish she’d been given richer material.

Add to these elements a mostly muted color palette, a droning, melancholy score by Joseph Bishara, whose work here seems far more restrained and melodically inclined than in previous outings, mostly unsuccessful attempts at humor, and the overall effect is rather thin and forgettable.

Throughout the entirety of this film there were maybe three or four moments in which I experienced vague disquietude, and only two genuine scares. One of them occurred early on and one of them near the end. The distance between felt longer than it should have.

If you’re heavily invested in this franchise, you’ll want to see Insidious: The Last Key for the revelations about Elise, but don’t expect much more—and remember, she died at the end of the first movie anyway! If you found your interest in this series flagging during either of the previous sequels, skip this one.

Deeper into the Further – Spoilers Ahead

“To end this evil I need to go deeper into the Further,” Elise tells us, and I only wished the film had lived up to that promise. The Further was one of my favorite elements of the original Insidious, which surprised me in its third act by veering away from a standard haunt-fest and turning into a creepy, aesthetically interesting metaphysical thriller. Insidious: Chapter 2 suitably exploited and enriched that vision. The main problem here is that no matter how far Elise sojourns among the dead, she’s retreading old ground.

The come-ons by Specs and Tucker to Melissa and Imogen go from “I’m cringing not laughing” to “That’s majorly creepy” in about ten seconds. The less said about the puns the better.

I don’t think the ending of this movie quite works, and that’s problematic for a story whose beginning and middle feel somewhat airless. Discovering that Elise was so absorbed by her gift that she missed out on the opportunity to save someone being held prisoner by her father in her own home when she was young is powerful stuff, and could have been made poignant. Instead it’s almost brushed aside and used to catalyze Elise’s transformation into someone who takes to whipping her father inside the Further, a scene that drew laughs in my viewing. The reparation of her relationship with her estranged brother Christian, generically played by Bruce Davison, is too pat. The closing act is further weakened by paralleling the gimmick from Insidious: Chapter 3, namely to end with a foreshadowing of familiar elements from the previous (but chronologically subsequent) flicks. In Insidious: Chapter 3 Elise caught a glimpse of the red-faced demon right at the end, and here we see Dalton falling from the ladder, as he did in Insidious. While the first two films created an interesting mythos, I don’t think it’s rich enough for even a passing allusion to it to generate the kind of frisson needed for an effective ending. “Who the hell was that kid?” I heard someone say a few aisles from me.

I feel like both Chapter 3 and The Last Key would have been strengthened by dealing with the consequences of Elise’s death in Insidious and truly exploring the Further. Instead these prequel narratives seem built as an excuse to spend time with her while she was alive, rather than delivering on the Insidious’ franchise potential to build an elaborate supernatural realm and delve into the complexities of demonological behavior.

After two lackluster films, I hope it’s not too discourteous to suggest that we lock the door behind us on this franchise and toss away the key--last or otherwise.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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