With James Wan trading carnivalesque bumps in The Further for the ludicrous spinning wheels of the Fast & Furious franchise, it’s up to prior writer/co-star Leigh Whannell to take the reigns of the Insidious franchise for this third installment, faithfully subtitled Chapter 3 yet a prequel to the first two films. Corkscrewing timelines are nothing new to Whannell, whose work on the initial Saw films set in motion an increasingly convoluted network of time-hopping stories for that series’ relentless sequels. Saw nose-dived in quality pretty quickly. Thankfully, however, Insidious shows no signs of succumbing to the same fate. While Chapter 3 lacks some of the varnished sheen of Wan’s prior directorial efforts, it ups the creep factor by quite a margin, without sacrificing the series’ other key ingredient; fun, engaging storytelling.
We’ve hopped back just a few years here, to before the otherworldly perils that dogged the Lambert family. It was a brave but wise move to leave the Lamberts be for this installment. They’ve been through quite enough already. The connective tissue this time around rests on the shoulders of beloved medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), whom we find at something of a crisis point in her life. She has quelled her own gift for communicating with the dead, fearing quite rightly that a malevolent spirit is after her (as the prior films proved all too well). Yet some, yup, insidious happenings are set to bring her back to the edges of the physical world and beyond, as Whannell’s film takes up the dual tasks of setting up the story so far and presenting us something deliciously new to get scared by.
Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) has recently lost her mother. Her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) is struggling to keep their family together (an insignificant younger brother is also in the mix). Quinn has dreams of becoming an actress and is nervous about a big audition at a drama school, but as we meet her she is already experimenting with contacting her departed mother for guidance or that last goodbye. Her efforts, however, might just have garnered her the wrong kind of attention, as these things are liable to in the world of Insidious. When an accident lays her up in bed in their fourth floor apartment, a sinister presence known ever-so-creepily as The Man Who Can’t Breathe starts making horrific advances on her soul.
By the time Sean comes around to how much peril his daughter is in, it may already be too late…
All this takes some time to bed in, and Insidious Chapter 3 gets off to a hesitant start (although Quinn’s accident allows Whannell a fine boast for the year’s best piece of misdirection). Scott has to carry much of the early portions of the film herself, and she’s a bright and sympathetic presence. Quinn’s physical impairments significantly up the ante of the threats coming from the shadows. Out of necessity, this means that it’s a while before the series’ more familiar faces start to dominate the story, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this installment would’ve worked just as well as a separate entity from the films that have preceded it. Nevertheless things come together neatly, with Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell again) uniting with Elise to save the day, or at least try their level best.
The kooky madness that characterised the hauntings of the last two films has been significantly dialed down this time in favour of more meticulously built dread. This is easily the scariest of the three. Where Insidious Chapter 2 channeled the likes of The Shining and, err, Back To The Future Part II, Whannell clearly shows an admiration for Japanese ghost stories this time around. While not exactly subtle, there’s a more pronounced eeriness to The Man Who Can’t Breathe and his ensnarement of Quinn; a measured escalation. One set piece startlingly recalls an element of Takashi Miike’s Audition. Elsewhere (the original) Dark Water proves a key influence. This is high praise justly earned. Before you know it, Insidious Chapter 3 has you by the throat.
But the most heartwarming surprise is how wonderfully Shaye’s Elise is allowed to overtake the Brenners as the film’s lead and hero. It’s almost unheard of for a woman over fifty to be allowed to dominate a film such as this. It’s an absolute joy to watch and a gift for Shaye who makes as much of it as she can, becoming the soul of the movie, sweeping it away from both the living and the dead. If anything she puts the others to shame, not least the usually dependable Mulroney who can’t help but seem hopelessly lost here, struggling to gauge how to play his part, handicapping several scenes.
Nevertheless, newcomers are guided well into the campfire ghost story world of Insidious (though they may wonder who the hell Carl is), and Whannell marks himself as a strong first-time director, well versed in the genre and ready to play with the big boys. I’d certainly be interested to see him continue to develop from this encouraging directorial debut and I’d whole-heartedly welcome a fourth chapter in a franchise which has yet to suffer a significantly diminished return. And if Chapter 3 trades away some of the signature wackiness then it more than makes up for it with a healthy dose of the creeps.
Basically, a few corny moments aside, this is the movie you wanted the recent Poltergeist remake to be. Against the odds, Insidious continues to be damned effective. If it does continue then the box of tricks could do with another loving shake, but so long as it’s in the right hands there’s nothing to suggest that couldn’t be achieved.