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The new Insidious – Insidious Chapter 3 Movie, which is a prequel to those earlier ones, doesn’t really bring much that’s new, but it begins as a rational reliable franchise of slow-burn chills.
The first two Insidious movies – the intense, frightening 2010 original, and its stranger though still effective 2013 sequel – were prime examples of our era’s love for old-school ghost and haunted house tales. (In its own way, the first Insidious was a better recreation of Poltergeist than the more recent official one). Their focused narratives and their use of limited geography came out as both a challenge and an opportunity: The first movie used the claustrophobia for chilling results; while the later acted as a horrific showcase for Patrick Wilson, who expertly played with our uncertainty over his character’s true nature. Insidious Chapter 3 Movie takes place a few years before the events of the previous two films, with sentimental teenage on-the-rise actress Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) trying to get in touch with her late mother.
She seeks help from Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the psychic from the first movie, who is even though out of the business agrees to help the young girl. Things soon go wrong due to the fact that – as Elise tells Quinn – “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you”. And wouldn’t you know it, a presence far more evil than her dear departed mom may have caught a scent of Quinn’s desperation to talk with the dead.
Soon the young girl can hear weird noises and witness strange movements, all the while trying to convince her overworked, harried single dad (Dermot Mulroney) that something not quite normal might be happening. Elise, meanwhile, doesn’t want to involve in the situation: She already knows way too much about the Further, the world where the dead reside – both friendly ghosts and evil demons – and where one sneering spirit has vowed to eventually kill her.
Since the beginning, the Insidious series have been a collaboration between those who gave us Saw – James Wan and Leigh Whannell – and the guy who provided us Paranormal Activity, producer Oren Peli. The previous two movies were directed by Wan, who has since moved on to throwing muscle cars out of cargo planes; this time around, the director is his longtime collaborator and writer Whannell.
While their work can change largely in terms of quality, all of these moviemakers have built their careers on manipulating the helplessness on which terror feeds – the helplessness on the part of both the audience and the characters. In Insidious Chapter 3 Movie, that manifests itself through a car incident that leaves Quinn immobile for a huge part of the Insidious Chapter 3 Movie, her two gigantic leg casts serving as a continuous reminder that she can’t really run away from anyone, either living or dead. The movie’s most affecting aspect is the atmosphere of unavoidability it weaves around this girl stuck in bed: Quinn is a sitting duck, and the movie assures that we know it.
Whannell also makes witty use of shadowy backgrounds, much as Wan did in the first Insidious – positioning figures and objects in the dark recesses of the frame that appear normal until they suddenly aren’t.
But as Elise comes back into the story and the Insidious Chapter 3 Movie sinks deeper and deeper into the Further, the scares begin dissipating, giving way to halfhearted scenes of action, wacky comedy, and forced world-building for the earlier (or later) movies.
The dead seem a little too easily vanquished once one fights back, which retroactively threatens to defuse the tension of the entire film. (I eventually found myself muttering at one point “Oh, is that all they had to do?”). There’s also the minor matter of Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell himself), the two comic relief ghost-hunters from the previous movies, who are introduced here with all types of inside jokes that may fly over the heads of anyone who hasn’t seen those ones too recently. The result is a work that begins as a decent, skillful exercise in horror, but it can’t really keep that energy up to the end. This is so often the issue with this genre – scary setups, followed by dopey resolutions – that you sort of want to give the film a pass. But given its distinguished previous masterpieces, Insidious Chapter 3 Movie doesn’t quite live up to expectations.