Insidious: The Red Door (2023)

JULY 9, 2023


I’m gonna pretend I don’t feel old AT ALL that Insidious: The Red Door* is essentially a “legacyquel” to the Insidious series, reuniting the Lambert family who we haven’t seen for ten years/two sequels (they were MIA from the simply titled Chapter 3 and 2018’s The Last Key). The baby is now a pre-teen! The kid who was haunted is now off to college! Rose Byrne… well, apart from a blonder ‘do looks pretty much exactly the same, bless her. And taking center stage is Patrick Wilson, who also directed this entry (his debut behind the camera) and even sang the end credits song, a shockingly good cover of Shakespears Sister’s “Stay”, accompanied by Ghost (if you know the original, you can probably guess exactly what part Tobias sings instead of Patrick). Alas, in the great pantheon of “Spooky movie sequels where Patrick Wilson performs a cover song”, this one doesn’t quite hit the highs of The Conjuring 2.

It’s not a bad movie, I should stress – but it’s a bit of a messy one, as the narrative essentially divides itself between Dalton (a returning Ty Simpkins) at college somewhere in the southeast and Josh (Wilson) back home in Los Angeles. Both are being haunted by traditional Insidious-y ghosts, but there’s zero interaction between the pair until the film’s finale, so it feels like you’re flipping channels between two spooky movies. Both of them engaging on their own, but every time it switches from one to the other, it deflates a lot of the tension, not to mention counts as a distraction – I wasn’t shocked at all that nearly every time it cut from A to B, I saw a cell phone light up nearby, as if it was a commercial break. And it seemed rather needless to send Dalton so far away; the ostensible reason was to give him and Josh a bonding experience as they took the three day drive together, but we see exactly one scene of their journey. No fraught motel room blowouts, silent diner meals…. the college might as well have been two hours away for all it mattered to their road trip, and then maybe they could have interacted more.

You might be wondering why the two would need a bonding experience. Well, since the events of Insidious 2, Josh and Renai have gotten divorced, with Josh only getting the kids every other weekend. Curiously, the movie doesn’t even come right out and say this much until quite later in the runtime; the film opens with the funeral of Josh’s mom/the kids’ grandmother (Barbara Hershey’s character) and Renai is there, but it’s not until everyone is ready to leave that you get the hint that they’re not together anymore. Which is fine, but it takes well over an hour for Byrne and Wilson to interact again, where they hash things out and explain why the divorce even happened in the first place. And it’s a shame, because it’s a story thread I would have liked to have seen explored: it’s basically because she remembers Josh being possessed and terrorizing the family, but Josh and Dalton don’t, and the other son has chalked it up to nightmares thanks to her assurances (the daughter, being a baby at the time, doesn’t have an opinion on the matter, and is written out of the movie after the opening anyway). I find this a pretty interesting concept, not to mention mildly amusing if you recall how much Insidious 1 and 2 mirrored the first two Poltergeist movies – we never got to see how Stephen Freeling’s tequila worm freakout affected his family down the road, so Insidious is finally having one up on them!

Spending more time on this idea would have also given Byrne more to do, as she’s really only in like three scenes of the movie and is treated rather thanklessly outside of this big clash with Josh, which again occurs too far into the story. It would have been nice to know earlier why they were divorced, because at the end of I2 Josh and Dalton are hypnotized into forgetting, and without Renai actually involved in the story for 75 minutes or whatever, it’s hard to get a real idea of where any of these characters ARE in their lives, as if we missed another entry in between. It just seems like Dalton is a typical teen who would rather sulk in his room and listen to music than hang out with his dad. Even when the family drama is finally being made clear, it’s still a bit murky: Renai tells Josh that Dalton doesn’t talk to her either, and again I wondered why we were only learning this information now instead of at some point in the first act, i.e. when such things are usually established in a sequel.

But of course, people don’t show up to these things for family blowouts, they want ghosts! And in that department, they’re pretty good, if nothing new for the series. My favorite was pretty close to tbe beginning of the movie, a scene where Josh is in his car texting Dalton, with a ghost slowly approaching his car (which we see through the back windshield, unseen by him). There’s another good one later involving Christmas lights, as a character is checking various strands and thus every time she plugs one in it lights up a face that is becoming spookier. Those more subtle ones are always more fun to me than the more overt ones, which is probably a good thing for me because… well, there aren’t a lot of overly overt ones. Perhaps the constant setting shifts reduced the opportunities? Because every time they cut back to Dalton from Josh, we kind of have to get up to speed again, delaying the potential for another spookablast moment. I mean I didn’t have a pencil or stopwatch to keep track, but I’d be willing to bet if someone were to count the number of scare moments in each film (not how successful they were, just their basic existence) that this one could come up last in sheer volume. They’re on point, but they’re not as frequent, which might be a sticking point for audience members who are primed to jump from their seats every five minutes.

It's also not as goofy/funny as the first two movies, which is more in line with the last two but felt off since the Lamberts were back. But the real reason for this is that Specs and Tucker – who usually bring the majority of that energy – are reduced to about 15 seconds of screen time via a Youtube video. With 3 and 4 being prequels to the first two films, it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of what happened to them going forward; the end of 2 set up the idea that they’d continue doing the investigations with Elise’s ghost to guide them, but for all we know they’re merely cheesy Youtube goons now. Speaking of Elise, Lin Shaye has two scenes; one as another Youtube video and another in ghost form, with the latter feeling tacked on and – vague spoiler here – kind of deflated the power of the film’s final scene with Josh and Dalton, which really worked like gangbusters and would have been a great moment to end this entry (marketed as the final chapter, but a spinoff movie has been announced), but the Elise epilogue just kind of dragged it out for me. Still, always nice to see Ms. Shaye doing her thing, and I had to chuckle that James Wan made two franchises (the other being Saw) that killed off an older character actor much to the chagrin of a far younger fanbase, who’d presumably care less about them than the younger leads, forcing them to utilize flashbacks and prequel storytelling to keep them around.

That said, there is SOME humor courtesy of Sinclair Daniel as Chris, who (due to her gender neutral first name) is assigned as Dalton’s roommate and stays with him for a few days while the housing folks sort it out. She brings an irreverent touch to the proceedings as she first tries to get the introverted Dalton to have more of a college experience and then gets drawn into his Further shenanigans, and it was very much welcome since every other character was so moody. And it’s a platonic friendship, which is always nice to see as I’m someone with plenty of female pals and roll my eyes at the cliché that such things are a unicorn instead of the norm. Some of the other attempts at humor fall way flat though; there’s a douchey fraternity character who we’re supposed to laugh at, but he’s mostly just annoying and doesn’t get any real comeuppance or even point to his scenes. Whenever they focused on him for a minute or two, I found myself wishing we were back with Josh or even checking in on poor Carl (Steve Coulter), who shows up in one quick scene and also disappears after. So if you’re keeping count, the movie brings back ten characters, but outside of Josh and Dalton, their total combined screentime is about ten minutes, and if you take Byrne out of the equation that number drops to well short of five.

(The tenth would be the Lipstick Face demon from the original, who shows up so briefly it should have been a surprise cameo instead of something in the marketing.)

So overall, it’s a mixed bag. I liked seeing the family again and the father/son stuff between Josh and Dalton is pretty well done, and while I don’t want to spoil the particulars, the backstory of this movie’s new baddie is, unlike the others who have haunted the Lambert family, actually tied into their own history, which was appreciated. And it’s got a few solid setpieces (the MRI bit you’ve seen in the trailer, an attack on Josh in broad daylight) that bring on the chills that show Wilson is up to the task for such things. But the script (or the edit) never quite manages to gel the two storylines in a satisfying way, making it feel like they had two ideas for a sequel (“What’s Josh up to now?” and “What happens when Dalton goes to college?”) and decided to do both without ever unifying them, making the film come up short overall. And I can’t in good conscience ever give a ringing endorsement to anything that sidelines Rose Byrne. The spinoff is set to star Kumail Nanjiani, so I can only assume that it will bring things back to the more humorous tone of the first two, which I think was a big part of why it was successful and also why it still stands out in a sea of modern ghost movies (some also starring Patrick Wilson!). But I can also appreciate that this series has been dormant for a while and yet still opened quite well despite the recent success of Boogeyman, which mined similar territory, so I’m glad it opened well to help prove, for the millionth time, that horror is the safest bet for studios. A horror part 5 knocked Indiana Jones off the top spot after only a week, at about a tenth of the cost. The studios want to make more money? Then they should stop with the megabudget tentpoles no one is really asking for, and greenlight every cheap horror script they have.

What say you?

*In some territories it's known as Insidious: L Street.


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