“Insidious” was an impressive accomplishment to a large degree because it managed to get away with a familiar bag of scary tricks: One of a gazillion haunted house movies with jump scares galore, James Wan’s cheaply-produced horror movie resurrected an old-school William Castle charm as it plowed through the usual ghostly motions. Four movies later, it’s still going through those motions, but over the last seven years it has also undergone a fascinating shift in context — away from the plight of the haunted, and more toward demonologist Elise (Lin Shaye), becoming the rare franchise of any genre to foreground a septuagenarian woman as its hero.
“Insidious: The Last Key” fleshes out her backstory with a clever structural gimmick: It’s a sequel to the prequel of “Insidious: Chapter 3” and a prequel to the original “Insidious,” which ended with Elise’s death. As a result, her character arc is informed as much by her evolving abilities as the foreshadowing of her impending death. Set in 2010, “The Last Key” finds the gifted woman revisiting her traumatic past and assembling the supernatural business that stole the show in the first movie. With Shaye’s performance as its anchor, the movie is often a perceptive character study, at least until it’s hijacked by the same bland trickery that so often fogs up horror movies with more to offer.
In “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 3,” Elise surfaces once an initial haunting has been established and duty calls; “The Last Key” positions her as the star from the outset, with a dramatic flashback to her childhood on the outskirts of a prison in Five Keys, New Mexico in 1952. It’s here that young Elise faces regular abuse at the hands of her psychotic father (a crazy-eyed Josh Stewart) whenever she makes claims about creepy ghosts popping up around their home at inconvenient hours of the night. Pretty soon, she’s locked in a shadowy basement, where lights flash on and off as a whispery voice beckons her to do terrifying things. Though her father remains unconvinced about his daughter’s powers, he gives her sufficient reason to feel ashamed of them. “Death,” he tells her, “is no cause for celebration.”
Cut to decades later, where Elise has finally found her place, if not the totality of her mission. In the aftermath of “Insidious: Chapter 3,” she has set up shop with the dopey paranormal investigators who steal the show each time out, oafish Tucker (Angus Sampson) and geeky Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also scripted). The Keystone Cops by way of the Ghostbusters, this awkward pair continue to trail Elise into haunted homes with cameras galore, and their penchant for comic relief remains as appealing as ever. Tucker’s ongoing attempts to add some flair to the trio’s business operations is a recurring highlight (his recurring stab at a company motto, “She’s psychic, we’re sidekick,” perplexes everyone around him). It doesn’t take long for the group to find a new gig, this time conveniently located back in New Mexico, in the same grungy house where Elise grew up.
Before long, she’s revisiting old ghosts from her childhood in an effort to expunge a haunting that turns out to be something more than that. The surprise of the second act — a rescue operation that has nothing to do with the astral plane — speaks to the efforts of Whannell’s screenplay to stay a few steps ahead of audience expectations. The movie does that, to a point, but once Elise uncovers the root of the hauntings from her youth it has a lot less to offer. An emerging subplot involves her estranged brother and newly discovered niece (Caitlin Gerard), but that’s mostly just stuffing for the eventual horror show.
While a handful of flashbacks flesh out Elise’s troubled upbringing, “The Last Key” eventually sets them aside, as Adam Robitel’s serviceable direction settles into the usual color-by-numbers scenario. Neon blue hallways, loaded with ample smoke and shadows, consume the frame as Elise wanders through The Further to confront the monstrosities behind all the chaos. For “Insidious” newbies, The Further is a dungeon-like limbo where demons lurk around every corner, but “Insidious” newbies probably haven’t gotten this far. “The Last Key” operates at the pleasure of its precedents, arriving at its final act with a ritualistic sigh.
Which is not to say that some of the jump scares lack bite. One compelling bit that finds Elise opening a series of briefcases within the tight confines of a tunnel brilliantly toys with expectations: Will something ghastly surface from behind the luggage, or within it? No matter what you expect to happen, the jolt of a punchline still hits hard.
Yet “The Last Key” can’t shake the ghosts of inevitability, and as Wan continues to flesh out his other horror universe, “The Conjuring,” it’s no surprise that his less substantial series is winding down. The cheesy dialogue and dime store philosophizing has a tendency to sound sleepy, even though Elise remains a compelling figure informed her struggle to make sense out of her gift. The last shot of the movie finds her alone in the dark, facing her own mortality, and it’s the most authentic moment that all four movies have to offer.
Shaye brings so much ferocity and sadness to the performance it’s a wonder she doesn’t land more substantial roles. “Demons follow me everywhere,” she says, shaking her head as if the lines don’t really matter. Elise may be tasked with exorcising supernatural threats, but “Insidious: The Last Key” is haunted by the possibility that all those things going bump in the night matter less than the woman tasked with taking them out.
“Insidious: The Last Key” opens nationwide on Friday, January 5.
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