Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

JANUARY 4, 2018


After the confusingly titled Insidious: Chapter 3 - which was a prequel to the other two films - it would be hilarious if there's another entry after Insidious: The Last Key, as the title suggests a certain finality which has traditionally meant nothing in the genre. But unlike the previous prequel, this one leads up directly to the original's opening (in fact, they overlap a teeny bit), so any future Insidious films would have to be prequels to these two entries as well, or abandon the Elise Rainier character played by Lin Shaye, who died at the end of the first film. I guess they could let her help people as a ghost (in fact, such a thing was set up at the still unresolved ending of Chapter 2), but they'd need a living person to pick up the slack, and I'm not sure if the series could retain its appeal of Elise/Lin being a grandmotherly asskicker helping people with their ghost problems if she was one herself.

As I've said a zillion times on this site, the scares in these type of movies don't really do much for me. I can appreciate a well-crafted one (there is indeed a pretty great one here involving a shadow that is supposed to be Lin's, but careful viewers will note that it isn't hers before they make it obvious), but the occasions that I actually jump or even feel my pulse raise when they set off the scare (i.e. have the ghost jump out, usually behind someone) are so rare that I wish I was famous enough for filmmakers to see it as a challenge. "Let's try to scare Collins!" they'd say, and I'd be like "Just rip off The Eclipse!" and they'd say "The third Twilight movie?" and I'd go "No, THE Eclipse, with Ciarin Hinds!" And yes, the first Insidious was one of those exceptions (I still get a few goosebumps thinking about the angry pacing ghost who charges into their room), but even Wan himself couldn't get me again with the second film, let alone his successors (Leigh Whannell on 3, Adam Robitel here), as they all follow a similar playbook when it comes to the spooky stuff and now I can always see them coming. The crowd was jumping and shrieking in all the right spots, of course, but I'm not there to be scared (just hoping they could get me off guard), so as always I just use their reactions to know if the film is "scary" (apparently it is!).

Unfortunately one of the things I AM there for is the ongoing "mythology" of the series, but after part 2's polarizing reaction (even though it's the highest grossing entry, it's the lowest rated one at Metacritic - go figure) they've shied away from the goofier/plot-heavy stuff in favor of letting Shaye and her co-stars walk around dimly lit rooms saying things like "I can FEEL something is in here...". The ties to the other films (more of them here than in Chapter 3) could be removed without it affecting the main part of the film in any way, so if you've never seen the other films and opt to make this your first, you should be fine. Sure, you might find the sudden appearance of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (in old footage, they didn't bring them in to shoot anything new) to be a bit baffling, but that stuff is confined to this film's closing moments, after its own story has been resolved, so you should be able to use your common sense (i.e. "I am watching a sequel to a film I haven't seen, which must be what this scene is referencing.") to figure out that it's just bridging this film with one of the others. I kept hoping for a bigger twist, like that the demon/ghost/whatever going after them in this film would be the original's Lipstick-Face Demon or something, but accessibility seemed to be the order of the day.

That said, I can't fault any decision-making that leads to "we get to keep Lin Shaye as the star of our successful horror series". Shaye has been an ace scene stealer for over 30 years and rarely got lead roles even in DTV stuff, so to see them avoid the obvious route and follow the Dalton family around in sequels after her character died, they made prequels so that she could not only be kept around, but turned into the lead of this big screen, high-grossing franchise. The gamble has paid off; in fact, if you watched the movies in chronological order (which would be 3, 4, 1, 2) you might even get a bit more suspense out of them, because then you wouldn't know that Elise (as well as Specs and Tucker, her assistants played by Whannell and Angus Sampson) made it out of these two entries unscathed. There's a scene here where Tucker sticks his hand between two blades of a non-functioning fan, and thankfully Robitel doesn't play it up as a potential catastrophe because we know damn well Tucker has his arm in the "next" movie - but a non-privy viewer might cringe all the same (indeed, a couple of audience members did vocalize their concern).

In fact she's even more front and center here than she was in the third film, which still split its time between her and the people being haunted in that film. Things kick off with a slightly overlong prologue featuring Elise as a little girl, with Collector star Josh Stewart as her abusive father. He's not too keen on her ability to see/talk to ghosts, and tries to beat the affliction out of her; a trauma that carries over to the present day (well, 2010) and makes her hesitant to help out a man who lives in that same house and is having a ghost problem. The man is played by familiar character actor Kirk Acevedo, so you might expect him to take on a bigger role once he's introduced, but we stick with Elise and her crew as they investigate his/her house, with Elise finding her old things and drudging up painful memories. He may have made the call, but it's really her personal demon(s) to suss out and banish, and so even before they make it a plot point (minor spoiler: Acevedo's character isn't someone that needs "saving") you'll probably forget about him and not really care if he gets to go back to his normal life once Elise is done her job.

It's an interesting approach, and a big part of why the film is an improvement over Chapter 3. The novelty of "The Further" has worn off, and with the prequel element reducing most of the danger level for our heroes, it was smart to give the film a more character-driven slant than its predecessors. The abuse subplot is not something I was expecting, and not only is it surprisingly harsh (for a PG-13 franchise entry, at least), but it gives the series its first true flesh and blood villain in Elise's father, whose secrets are uncovered throughout the film. Unlike Patrick Wilson's possessed dad in Insidious 2 (i.e. someone we like and who will likely be healed), it seems this guy was just an asshole to start with, and the film's best little twist occurs as a result of his actions (for those who have seen the movie - it involves the woman Elise sees in the bathroom). The new creepy ghost (played by Javier Botet) does his thing effectively, but it's the human villains that stand out and give the film its most true sense of danger. It also boosts the comedy a bit, courtesy of Specs and Tucker, who each get their funniest moments in the series yet (for Tucker it's a would-be hero moment that he abandons; for Specs it's a shockingly good ET impression). Their running gag of hitting on Elise's nieces is a bit odd (especially since she treats them as surrogate sons - doesn't she find it icky?), but the two are so likable it's easy to forgive. The chemistry between the three of them is so endearing it's almost a shame that they spend relatively little time together on their ghost "hunt" scenes - can we get a movie of them just hanging out? It also made the movie kind of melancholy in a way; we see her confront her past and find the strength to move on from it - and we know she's gonna be dead in a week or so when the film ends on her getting the call from the Dalton family.

As for the ghost, his name is Key Face, though Key Hands would make more sense. His signature trick (besides popping up and making BOO! faces alongside the expected musical sting) is to turn his fingers into keys that "lock" his victims' voices, and damned if it's not an effective trick. The sound design in the film is quite impressive, both in these scenes where our characters are muted, and in another sequence where Tucker uses some gizmo to make his and Elise's voices sound like they're on the other end of a shitty phone (so they can communicate with the ghosts on the "other side", I guess). It's also much quieter than most horror films you'll see (well, maybe not A Quiet Place); Robitel and his sound team are happy to take a minimalist approach to even some of the scare moments, and Joe Bishara's score is also less pounding than I recall it being in the other films (take with a grain of salt though, as my memory is poor and I haven't seen the other sequels since theaters). I kind of love that a part 4 of a series that has made over $400m worldwide is notable for being quiet, in a world dominated by franchises that often try to deafen the audience with STUFF! to try to hide the fact that they're not very good.

If this is the end of the series, at least it goes out on a relative high note. None of the sequels may have lived up to the original, but let's not forget that it was an unassuming low budget haunted house kind of movie from a time where Wan was still known only as "the director of Saw" (now he gets his name on the posters for movies he only produces), and it was also before Blumhouse dominated the horror landscape as it does now, seven years later. Now that we get these things every couple of months or so it's harder to get that sense of fresh air that we got with the original, and I can't fault them for shying away from the weirder stuff that was offered in the first sequel when so much of the audience was opposed to it. No one's forcing me to go back for more when I know it's going to be more of the sort of thing I've never exactly shined to, but the fact that I'm still entertained (I even stayed awake, for a 10pm screening! Very rare) and would happily see another suggests that it will be an even bigger winner for the audiences who do jump at the scares and won't give a shit about mythology (the annoying kid next to me certainly didn't seem to understand that the film was taking place before the original). The real world scares and further development for Elise's characters more than make up for the been-there, done-that supernatural business (that said, why is The Further so sparsely populated in these? I liked the Haunted Mansion approach of the original), and I'm glad they closed the timeline loop to challenge themselves if there is an Insidious 5.

Long story short - it doesn't deserve to be in the traditionally red flag "first weekend of January" slot! This ain't no Forest!

What say you?


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