The Insidious franchise works as a slightly higher end carnival spook house. The charm of the first film was in its limited yet effective scares. James Wan took the lack of resources and used it to his advantage, filling rooms with singular light sources and fog machines until they can pull out their lone elaborate ghost to jump scare us. All familiar trappings of a low budget haunted house. Simple, elegant and spooky, if not as memorable as Wan’s more character driven work in The Conjuring series. The second chapter in the Insidious franchise chose to go more elaborate with the scares, but in the process convolute everything with backstory and time travel that dilutes things to nonsense. The third Insidious got closer, but ultimately repetitive and forgettable, though we wisely focus more on medium/psychic Elise Rainier, played by the series’ most consistent lucky charm Lin Shaye.
Now, with Insidious: The Last Key one can see that this series has run its course. One can only go back to the same haunted house so many times before they predict the jump scare moments and see the wires holding things up. This is no fault of Shaye, who remains as committed as ever to this part. The struggle she goes through to accept the horrors of her past are far better portrayed on through Lin Shaye’s visual flourishes of PTSD and precious few moments of nostalgic relief on her face. Especially when thinking back on her poor mother and what happened to her. As she wanders the house she grew up terrified in, the moments of the past brings light & horror to her eyes in ways that give this very typical ghost story a bit of emotional grounding it may not honestly deserve. Thus, we feel far more invested in her pursuit of tracking down the paranormal and stopping it from spreading evil into our world. Clearly, she is the glue holding the film together.
One only wished that those around Elise carried as much weight. Primarily the estranged family members of her distant brother Christian (Bruce Davison), her nieces Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) & Melissa (Spencer Locke) or her abusive father in flashbacks Gerald (Josh Stewart). All of them start with potential to either clash or feed off of Elise’s struggles with her past, but end up either as pawns casted off to the side or plot reveals. Sometimes both at the same time. Hell, the most developed of her family members is her mother (Tessa Ferrer)… and she dies during the prologue. They all could have slowly unraveled the most intriguing lock worth inserting a lost key into; Elise’s mixed emotions on her past. Instead – similarly to Chapter 2 – Insidious The Last Key gives us backstory & previous film connections assuming that’s enough.
Director Adam Robitel works within the ultimately restrictive confines of the typical Insidious franchise and gives it some breath of life with a few creative sequences. Some of the best ones since the initial entry, particularly with the blandly designed yet incredibly well shot KeyFace (Javier Botet). So, his contributions have less to do with the issues inherent to The Last Key as much as those of co-star/producer/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell is not an untalented screenwriter, but there’s constant examples of Whannell’s dialogue not trusting the audience. We see clear visual indicators of what’s going on, but Whannell has to have someone explain this because they don’t trust those watching can catch up. For example, Imogen has to go into The Further and sees a red door. One we’ve seen Elise talk about in previous films & earlier in The Last Key… but Whannell’s Specs blatantly states in horrendous ADR “The Red Door. That must be the one Elise was talking about.” Whannell needs to underline, italicize and embolden every bit of important exposition because he assumes the very simple visual shorthand can’t do any of this.
Of course, brief exposition isn’t necessarily bad at every instance, but when Insidious: The Last Key uses it to spell out what’s clearly there, it shows a total distrust that people watching understand the basics. And when the bar is that low, it turns the characters into far less engaging people. Case in point, Specs and Tucker (Angus Sampson). While never quite a highlight in any of these films, the chemistry they form with Elise during their origins in Chapter 3 and some of their hijinks early on in The Last Key result in a nice chemistry. Yet, as things go along, the two become obviously perverse unsettling characters that prey on Elise’ nieces, making any attempted character payoffs unearned and even creepy by the film’s end. If they were characters whose idiotic attempted romances were looked down upon consistently and not rewarded, it would make them funny yet challenging sidekicks. Instead… it’s treated as cute adorkable behavior to evidently be endeared to.
This stagnation in the writing also hurts a general suspension of disbelief throughout. There’s a twist involving Elise’s father that immediately dips any attempt at grounding Insidious The Last Key in any sort of reality from which the ghastly horrors can become spooky. The surefire element that made the first film work – and what Wan doubled down on for The Conjuring films – was the believable family dynamic. Those were characters we somewhat cared about. Instead, we have Lin Shaye trying her best to make things tolerable and a director working as well as he can within the creatively looping series. All other characters waver between plot device and squandered potential. It may seem like Insidious The Last Key is a terrible film, but it isn’t quite that. It avoids being Insidious Chapter 2 on the pure strength of a few engaging scares and Shaye. Ultimately, this fourth entry ties more directly into the original to give us a sense of closure. So, hopefully that door is closed and keep it locked for good. Or at least until it’s rebooted like everything else.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Key Fingers
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