The third film in the “Insidious” series is like the cheap haunted house version of its predecessors, complete with fog machine, a few extra laughs and jump scares. You’ll walk out having often felt terrified, but you won’t be proud of yourself. While “Insidious” and its sequel were moody, well-shot horror films, the prequel “Insidious: Chapter 3” jettisons more than just the first two movies’ central characters. This third outing is blandly photographed and relies more on momentary shocks than a building feeling of dread. Writer Leigh Whannell takes over the director’s chair from frequent collaborator James Wan, and the movie is the poorer for that substitution.
With “Insidious: Chapter 2” closing the book on the horror of its central family the Lamberts (played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), a new focus was needed. As screenwriter, Whannell chose a younger haunting victim this time around with teenaged Quinn (Stefanie Scott). Only Whannell–and studio execs–know if it was purely an attempt to grab more young audience members, but it certainly feels opportunistic. That said, Whannell deserves credit for making the film’s central hero aging psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, returning from the first two films). She gets a few moments to be a badass that had my audience cheering, and she provides a consistent throughline with the first two films. A few other characters, notably Whannell’s Specs and Angus Sampson’s Tucker, are back as well. There are some fun callbacks to the previous movies, including a final scare and a cameo from Wan. As much as the film benefits from viewing its predecessors, as a prequel, ‘Chapter 3’ would stand well alone for anyone who is coming to the series fresh.
In its first moments, “Chapter 3” tells us that it takes place “a few years after the Lambert haunting.” Aspiring actress Quinn arrives at Elise’s doorstep. She is desperate to contact her recently deceased mother, but Elise is reluctant to help, having given up her practice due to the evil she encounters when she reaches into other realms. The psychic relents and tries to contact Quinn’s mother. In what is the film’s least shocking moment, she discovers that Quinn’s own efforts to contact her mother have reached other, more sinister spirits. Though Elise warns Quinn off trying to contact her mother again, Quinn can’t resist, and the apartment she lives in with her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and brother Alex (Tate Berney) begins hosting horrors that leave Quinn desperate for help. Elise senses that Quinn is in danger, and she comes to her aid. Meanwhile, her younger brother Alex seems to exist only to call in Spectral Sightings, aka Specs and Tucker, who also join the fight.
After working on both the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises as a writer, Whannell makes his directorial debut with ‘Chapter 3.’ This round features an entirely different look, tone and approach than the earlier outings. While I can appreciate if Whannell has a desire to establish his own trademarks as a filmmaker, the results aren’t as successful as what fans have seen in the past for the series. Brian Pearson takes over as director of photography here, replacing David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti. Pearson has previously worked on a variety of horror sequels such as “Final Destination 5,” “White Noise 2: The Light” and “The Butterfly Effect 2,” and his work here is serviceable but lacking the style of the first two films, particularly when it comes to the color. “Insidious” and the second film weren’t perfect, but their distinct look was one of their strengths. Here, the style feels interchangeable with any standard horror movie. The general tone of the film is also a departure, with slow builds and atmosphere being switched out for more jump scenes. ‘Chapter 3’ also attempts to be funnier than its predecessors, which largely used Tucker and Specs for an injection of laughs and break from the fright. Here, Mulroney’s Sean adds a few funny-ish lines in the movie’s first half, with most of the humor centering on his lack of connection with modern technology.
The first two films faltered in their final act, and ‘Chapter 3’ experiences some of that as well, though it never achieves their heights. There are some nice scares, but a few formerly central characters are basically forgotten in favor of wrapping things up. We never learn more about the demon haunting Quinn as we did with the series’ previous villains. But for all its faults, “Insidious: Chapter 3” won’t disappoint those looking to be terrified for 90 minutes. There are moments that had me shaking in my seat, with nervous laughter popping up after the demons had faded from the screen. However, most of those scares don’t feel earned; simply showing a spirit hiding behind a curtain–and then gone from the screen–isn’t an achievement to brag about when there are more inventive, effective ways to keep your audience in fear. [C]