© 2015 Focus Features
You Can’t Always Get What You Haunt
“If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you.” So says psychic crusader Elise (Lin Shaye), who has been the true heart of the Insidious films all along, and now has the chance to prove her claim. For Insidious: Chapter 3, writer and co-star Leigh Whannell, who together with James Wan also co-created the grisly and popular Saw franchise, takes Wan’s place as director. The narrative focus is different than before, more concerned with the heartache and emotional turmoil that make people prone to malevolent spirits than with the sheer spectacle of its uniquely terrifying netherworld (known as the Further). In Chapter 3, Whannell manages to spin a new tale with only a few deliberate links to 1 and 2, which nonetheless illustrates the spiritual mechanics of the whole franchise more clearly than ever. For the most part, the rules of the Further make more sense with each successive Insidious film, which makes them effective sequels insofar as the concept appeals to a viewer in the first place.
The Insidious world comprises numerous parallel planes of existence, populated by troubled souls both living and dead. Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) is a teenager facing more than the usual heartbreaks of adolescence. Her mother has recently died of cancer, and the loss compounds Quinn’s already stifling anxiety over an audition for theatre school and the start of her successful, independent adult life. Her younger brother Alex (Tate Berney) is a pretty good kid but he still needs a mother’s guidance, a job which by default falls to Quinn. The brother plays a minimal part here, mainly as a symbol of this unasked-for responsibility. He is a dubious catalyst for one or two events later, but with all respect to Berney’s likable performance, the character could have been excised from the script without much trouble. Their father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) is also a good guy, but bearing the loss of his wife and the demands of his job leaves him little shoulder space for his kids to lean on. With the topic of Mom all but banned from her emotionally precarious household, Quinn attempts to communicate with her late mother through vague prayers and entreaties. So far, these invocations have left her frustrated, but with the vague sense that something out there is trying to answer her, and that she needs more qualified help.
Enter Elise, a warm, compassionate person with powerful psychic abilities. Formerly a professional speaker to the dead, she has withdrawn into solitude to grieve for her deceased husband. Partly as a result of that grief, we also learn of a malign entity that she encountered in the Further while reaching out to her beloved. Now this being stalks Elise, threatening her constantly and preventing her from using her gift to do good for others. Those familiar with Chapters 1 and 2 known the outcome of this conflict already, but its origin is a key part of the Chapter 3 plot.
Elise warns Quinn that even casual attempts to contact the dead may invite attack by wicked forces impersonating our loved ones. Not only might Quinn have attracted a harmful impostor, but she also might not have the power to ward it off. After a mysterious “accident” leaves Quinn confined to a wheelchair at home, horrifying nighttime manifestations soon make it clear that whatever she called out of limbo has a dangerous grip on her sanity and possibly her soul. The nature of the entity, distinct from Elise’s own personal demon but with the same agenda of torment and destruction, is sufficiently interesting and terrible that it need not be revealed here. It begins to leave physical traces that even the skeptical Sean cannot deny, but also can do nothing to help. Quinn’s growing vulnerability coax Elise toward the certainty that whatever dangers await, she must master her own fear and help the girl out of trouble.
Two mainstays of the franchise return, the earnest but comical ghost-hunting team of Specs and Tucker (Whannell and Angus Sampson) and the unmistakable nightmare space of the Further, an astral plane where both evil souls and their tortured victims lurk. It lies parallel but invisible to the living world, at least until the time is right for a potentially fatal scaring. Imagine your own childhood home, lit in queasy electric blue, with the interior spaces subtly elongated and rearranged into an eerie labyrinth both alien and horribly familiar. Garish red doors and curtains appear every once in a while, warning travelers of danger and horror just behind them, while perversely hinting that only there can important answers be found. Frozen, grinning spectres act as signposts in this world, but each dark corner may hide something more fierce. This unique conception of life after death is a wondrous invention by Wan and Whannell, which continually recalls the meaning of the film’s title. Despite the savage power of their many antagonistic forces, these movies are at their best when showing evil’s ability to deceive, infiltrate, and hide just out of sight. The Further is a poisoned place where nothing wholesome belongs, a far cry from outright hell but lacking any hopeful signs of a passage into paradise. It is a place of lost and trapped things, a harbor where everything is transitory, trying to reach some other place, and consequently nothing should be trusted.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is less dependent than its siblings on shock scares, but cannot resist a few mean-spirited sucker punches. More impressive are the numerous moments where Whannell opts for silence, revealing a nasty phantom without forcing jangling soundtrack cues up the audience in a fundamental way. Insidious would suffer without its signature score, still scraping and shrieking like Bernard Herrmann strings gone toxic. But where in Wan’s hands it often felt like a blind barrage of slimy kicks and slaps, Whannell scales the soundtrack back just enough to sustain a constant sense of dread and sickness.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is a good sturdy horror movie. Unfortunately, the plot of the third act falls down the stairs into a rather ungainly heap. For better or worse, Whannell lets it lie there. In service to the story we all know will “follow” this prequel, the script pulls a few too many cute faces foreshadowing events to come. A bleaker, more shocking denouement might not have made as much sense, but it would have been more in keeping with the mischievous undertones of the series. Despite a shaky landing, Insidious: Chapter 3 successfully mines brighter spots of humanity from its material than fans of the series may have come to expect. The cast, especially Shaye, ought to be proud of their work, and first-time director Whannell deserves commendation for quite a respectable turn at the wheel.