The first promotional poster for Insidious: Chapter 3 consisted solely of red text against a gray background:
“The man who can't breathe, the man who lives in the vents, I heard him saying your name last night. I heard him in your room, while you were gone. He's in there right now. Standing in your room.”
The disembodied warning—rhythmic, unassuming, banal—somehow manages to instantly conjure up dread with no audiovisual effects, just a kind of poetic simplicity. Unfortunately, the rest of the film has no interest in the effectiveness of such subtlety.
One way to try and avoid the curse of the un-surprising horror movie sequel is to do what Insidious: Chapter 3 does: introduce a new family, a new setting, a new spooky antagonist. But this illusion of freshness is diminished by the continuity demands of a franchise. And to that end, the film tries to keep hold of only the surface aesthetics—the exaggerated, surreal-looking dead people, the spine-tingling score—but dispenses entirely with the genuine tension that defined its predecessors (the first film in particular). Also gone is a compelling family that earns the audience’s sympathy and any semblance of cinematic creativity. The result? A lopsided, shamelessly derivative effort built almost entirely on the premise that a good horror movie is all about making an audience jump.
Insidious Chapter 3 is more accurately a prequel. The film begins three years before the haunting of the Lambert family of the first two films and follows high-school senior Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), who just lost her mother to breast cancer. She visits the medium Elise (Lin Shaye, who starred in the first film) in hopes of being able to commune with her mom’s spirit. Elise kindly turns her away until an accident opens Quinn up to the attentions of a particularly angry demon, terrifying her still-grieving father (Dermot Mulroney) and to a lesser extent, her younger brother.
Without the genuinely ominous, gimmick-free spirit of the first film, or the psychological terror of the second, Insidious: Chapter 3 gets 70 percent of its scares from Quinn sitting or lying in bed and waiting for a demon to appear in her vicinity. Time-tested cues such as an uncomfortably long silence or loud knocking tell viewers that a Big Scare Is Coming. While one of the spookiest and most memorable sequences of Insidious involved a single tracking shot that followed a young mother (Rose Byrne) through her seemingly empty house, Chapter 3 mostly resorts to all the usual scare set-ups. Looking under the bed, turning off the lights right after hearing a spooky sound, hearing footsteps, entering a dark hallway alone—it’s all there.
To its credit, the film never over-strains itself to plug the gaping holes in its story, which its to say it’s comfortable being transparently lazy. Secondary characters that seem somewhat important vanish entirely in the latter half without explanation. (If you tuned in for only the last third of the film, you’d understandably guess Quinn was an only child.) The halfhearted, sometimes maudlin characterization of the main characters makes it difficult to care about their fates. When Quinn’s frazzled father snaps at her for looking like her dead mother? It’s so unoriginal and unnecessarily cruel that it barely registers as authentic. Neither is the demon fleshed out, literally or otherwise: The most back story he gets is the hospital mask glued to his face.
For all the lethargic plotting and character development, there are at least a couple of really creepy moments, both involving digital technology. And some of the physicality of the horror—though still characteristically low on the gore like the rest of the franchise—is delightfully outrageous, even humorous. While Quinn and her father fail to hold much of the audience’s attention, Elise proves a better center of gravity for the film. Without giving too much away, she has a few scenes of gung-ho action that would feel more silly if it weren’t for the rare and welcome joy of seeing a 71-year-old actress briefly become the unexpected superhero in a genre typically reserved for the young.
As far as 2015 horror films go, Insidious: Chapter 3 is at least nowhere near as unenjoyable as the train wreck that was The Lazarus Effect (another Blumhouse Productions creation). But it’s also leagues away from the brilliant inventiveness of It Follows. As middling, somewhat serviceable horror fare, it delivers its own share of jump scares, but whatever visceral effect it might have had wears off the instant the credits begin to roll.
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