Insidious Chapter 3 – The third entry in the new series from the people who brought us Saw is a very decent horror, if hardly revolutionary
With the Insidious canon, the writer-producer team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell are building another franchise along the lines of their time-bending Saw series. Having established an intriguing multiverse for Lin Shaye’s homebody psychic to investigate in 2013’s second instalment, this entry makes a whole decent fist of a tale about a bedbound teenager (the cheerful, sympathetic Stefanie Scott) attracting demonic interest after trying to reach out to her late mother.
Whannell, making his directorial first ever debut, does a perfect job in assembling the nuts and bolts of his own script, loyally fusing up Shaye’s screen time while adding some pleasing, thrilling scenes tracking the evil’s heavy-tar footprints through the Scott household. The envelope remains resolutely unpushed, and the need to function as a multiplex scare-machine precludes the emotionality of The Babadook. Yet, with its slowburn ravels and leftfield jump scares, it’s been more carefully constructed than most franchise’s third chapters.
After devoting two installments to the haunting of the Lambert family — specifically, a creepy old hag that had attached itself to Josh (Patrick Wilson) from childhood — the “Insidious” series seemed poised to carry on as a series of “Ghostbusters”-style adventures involving the paranormal investigators Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) and their mentor Elise (Shaye), who returned to the franchise in ghostly form after dying (at Josh’s hands) in the first movie. But curiously, Whannell (who scripted both prior “Insidious” films, as well as the Wan-directed “Saw” and “Dead Silence”) sidelines those amiable folks for much of Insidious Chapter 3 which happens “a few years” before the events of the earlier installments.
We’re introduced to yet another family who has unknowingly let a demonic entity into their lives: widower Sean Brenner (Dermot Mulroney), his teenage daughter Quinn (Stefanie Scott) and naughty preteen son Alex (Tate Berney). Quinn is still recovering from the death of her cancer-stricken mom, whom she has been trying to contact through the spirit world. But being one shrewd party advises early on, “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you” — which, in Quinn’s case, means the presence she’s started to feel watching over her is anything but natural motherly.
Where one of the greatest strengths of Wan’s “Insidious” films was their credible family dynamics (involving Barbara Hershey’s amazingly meddlesome grandmother), Insidious Chapter 3 so often feels like a second-tier 1980s sitcom that you spend a plentiful of the movie wondering if Whannell was heading for parody (like last year’s short went viral, “Too Many Cooks”). Mulroney does his absolute best (but yet not that convincing) Tony Danza as the worn out single dad who doesn’t know how to pronounce “quinoa,” forgets that his daughter is a vegetarian, and can’t stop screaming at his son to get ready for school (this character’s sole defining trait).
We also get an adorable boy next door (Ashton Moio) who makes eye contacts with Quinn (and gets dagger glances back from Dad), and, standing in for the strange upstairs neighbor, a patient suffering from ectoplasmic emphysema (Michael Reid MacKay) whose restless spirit failed to vacate the premises along with his body. Shortly, strange voices are blowing through the ventilation shaft next to Quinn’s bed, gigantic cracks appearing in the ceiling, and tar-like footprints streaking across the floor.
Is this calling for an exorcist, or simply Mr. Clean? Splitting the difference, the Brenners seek out Elise, first seen here as a widow who’s turned her back on the spirit world after parting there searching for her late husband and leading some unwanted ghostly companies on the return (a revelation that directly ties the new movie to its predecessors). Elise has arguably been the breakout (human) character of the “Insidious” films, and Shaye gives her the kind of elder-statesman glow that Donald Pleasance brought to the “Halloween” series.
The younger sibling of New Line Cinema founder Bob, Shaye was an usual featured player in that studio’s films (including the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) before becoming a member of the Farrelly brothers’ stock company, but Elise is the plum role of her long career, and she plays it with the delight (even when she’s being petrified) of an old working expert who’s been waiting for her moment in the spotlight.
It’s all the more puzzling, then, that Insidious Chapter 3 keeps Shaye in the shadows for so much of its running time, and keeps Specs and Tucker (featured as clumsy practitioners of a YouTube ghostbusting channel) on hold for even much longer.
During most of that time, Whannell tries his hand at the kind of atmospheric, slow-burn scares that made Wan’s movies textbook examples of what Roger Ebert called “bruised forearm films” (referred as the intensity with which they cause your date to exhaust your antebrachium). But whereas Wan (who retains a producer credit here, and makes a cameo appearance) is the kind of director who can effortlessly turn a billowing curtain or creaking floorboard into an intolerable indication of dread, Whannell hardly makes the neck hairs quiver, let alone stand at attention. The only risk of arm injury here comes from the frequent checking of one’s watch.
Around the first hour of airing, once Whannell ultimately unites the entire ghost-hunting crew back together once again, Insidious Chapter 3 blasts off a few fleeting sparks of pleasure and conjures up a couple of memorably thrilling images (including that of a half-formed woman with no face, hands, or feet). But what, ultimately, can one say about a film in which the family being haunted looks more embalmed than the ghosts doing the haunting?
While none of the “Insidious” films have cost very much, this is the first one that can be said to look cheap, with the flatly lit, washed-out digital cinematography of Brian Pearson a poor replacement for the smoothly elegance John R. Leonetti brought to the previous installments in the series. A distribution note: Insidious Chapter 3 marks the first film to go out under Universal/Focus’ revived Gramercy Pictures brand, intended to become the studio’s new genre-film label.