An “Insidious” Retrospective: Thoughts Before Seeing INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018)

The fourth installment of the Insidious series opened in US theaters today. For Loud Green Bird, it’s an opportunity to take a look back at the first three movies before seeing the fourth one.

Title screen from INSIDIOUS (2010)

Director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, 2014) helms the new film. As he has statedInsidious: The Last Key (or Chapter 4) follows the tradition of the Insidious series in two ways. First, it indulges the series’ penchant for presenting iconic supernatural monsters, such as the red “Lipstick-Face Demon” (Joseph Bishara) and the “Bride in Black” (AKA the “Old Woman,” played by Philip Friedman and Tom Fitzpatrick). Second, it maintains the focus on its older female lead, Lin Shaye. 

Chapter 4 also continues the origin story that Chapter 3 started. Both provide backstory to James Wan’s Insidious (2010). The key (pardon the pun) to success for Robitel is to connect the story of Chapter 3 with the first film in the series in a believable way. That first movie, directed by Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, set the standard for the sequels in many ways. First, it took in about $97 million in worldwide box-office revenue on a budget of $1.5 million (Box Office Mojo). Second, it did much with this low budget to earn its almost hundred-fold return on investment.

Screenshot from INSIDIOUS (2010)
Dalton (Ty Simpkins) in INSIDIOUS (2010)

For those who haven’t seen it, the story of Insidious involves the Lambert family’s older son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins). He falls into a coma after a mysterious incident in the attic of the family home. The lack of a medical explanation for his condition and a threatening crescendo of paranormal phenomena drive his mother Renai (Rose Byrne) to accept the help of parapsychologist Elise Reiner (Shaye) and her two assistants, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). 

Dalton’s father, Josh (Patrick Wilson), first rejects this approach as irrational, even though Elise has a longstanding friendship with his mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Yet Josh changes his mind when circumstances force him to remember his own traumatic childhood experiences with the paranormal. In the end, a demonic figure from his past reemerges to destroy the plot’s happy ending and also to set up a sequel, despite killing off Shaye’s character. 

This story seems straightforward, and its living characters are rather flat. So it falls to Wan and his production team to create a compelling audiovisual experience for the audience. They do so by concentrating on the supernatural and its denizens. Besides the two demons mentioned above, they also introduce the “long-haired fiend” (J. LaRose) and the two “doll girls” (Kelly Devoto and Corbett Tuck).

Still from INSIDIOUS (2010)
The Red Lipstick-Face Demon in INSIDIOUS (2010)

The “money shot” here is the sudden appearance of the red lipstick-face demon behind Josh. There are other bravura touches, such as the uncanny choice of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as this demon’s de facto theme song. It is later incorporated into a surrealistic set-piece involving the demon’s lair in the Further. The shots of the demon sharpening its nails in this sequence recall the work of director Tim Burton in both its dark humor and its macabre tone. Other sequences involving “the Further” are similarly surrealistic.

The Wan team’s signature is also found in other choices. As in the sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), the first film uses an opening-credits sequence to foreshadow the finale. In Insidious, this sequence involves the “Bride in Black” stalking a sleeping young boy who does not appear to be Dalton. In the first sequel, it’s similar, although not identical. Each of these sequences includes a round lamp that becomes a trademark of sorts for Wan’s work. The first appearance of the lamp includes the superimposed title “a James Wan film.” 

While not entirely original, the soundtrack’s dissonant string music (including piano strings) also becomes part of Wan’s iconography through its consistent use throughout the film. The string music is particularly effective as the sonic backdrop to the trademark red “Insidious” screen that follows the opening credits and also ends each film. Another nice touch is Wan’s use of the “dolly zoom effect” that references Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Insidious: Chapter 2 continues this intertextuality with its reference to Carnival of Souls (1962 — see my recent review), which plays on a television set in one scene.

Detail from theatrical poster for INSIDIOUS: Chapter 2

A true sequel, Chapter 2 takes up where Insidious leaves off. This time, the roles of father and son are reversed. The former is threatened by a malevolent demon, while the latter must try to save him. As in the first film, the second uses Renai’s paranormal experiences to introduce the invading supernatural forces. The role of living parapsychologist in the present falls to Carl (Steve Coulter), Elise’s former colleague. Even so, Elise’s presence doubles. She’s shown as a young woman early in her career (played by Lindsay Seim, whose imitation of Lin Shaye’s speech is dead-on) and as a critical player (Shaye herself) in the present action, despite being dead.

This story demystifies the unexplained occurrences in the first movie, integrating them into a time-bending plot. Still, the sequel’s increasing story complexity becomes confusing, sometimes due to tight editing that leaves out transitions between locations. For example, the change from Our Lady of Angels Hospital to the Crane family home is so abrupt that it can disorient viewers.

Also, there are story details that are unbelievable. For example, it is inconceivable that a doctor would not be notified immediately if her hospitalized patient committed suicide. Yet Lorraine (who is revealed to have been a practicing physician) finds out the next day — and only when she asks a nurse why her patient Parker (Tom Fitzpatrick), whom she has seen in the elevator, is walking around the hospital — that he jumped to his death the night before.

In comparison with the first Insidious movie, Chapter 2 appears marred by problems like these. One reason for such difficulties might be the intentional shift in genre features. Wan has said that he and Whannell decided to shift from the “haunted house” horror of the first movie to the genre of “domestic thriller with supernatural elements” in the second.

UK Lobby Card for Insidious: Chapter 3

Things don’t improve much in Chapter 3, which Whannell directed while again playing the role of Specs. Whannell also blends in features of other genres, adding a touch of teen romance and a single father-daughter relationship subplot to the supernatural horror-thriller mix. As I noted in my review of the film shortly after its theatrical release, it does a reasonably good job of being a prequel. It incorporates and explains the origins and motivations of the major characters and the back-story of the crucial situations in the previous two films in the franchise. It is at its best in this task in the case of Elise. However, I also wrote that it doesn’t really break any new ground compared to its two predecessors. There is no attempt to extend, modify, or transcend the film’s original concept.

There’s a clear downward trajectory in quality over the course of the first three Insidious films. This isn’t entirely a surprise, as sequels tend on average to be worse than the films they follow. Still, this trend is worrisome, as it doesn’t bode well for Chapter 4. After checking it out in the near future, I’ll let you know what Robitel and colleagues have done with the franchise. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:

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