Director: Adam Robitel
Stars: Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Caitlin Gerard
With arguably the series’ most ambitiously threaded story, Insidious: The Last Key spans nearly 60 years. At either end of its chronology the same motif appears; that of an oil dyke plunging away at the ground. It’s a fitting visual cue for a film that is preoccupied with dredging up the past. There are ghosts. Of course there are ghosts. But there are also memories that Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) would rather forget. This final(?) installment is her story, and it’s no less twisted than those we’ve seen her help solve before.
Insidious has a history of corkscrewing time, so of course this fourth installment is technically one of the middle ones; a sequel to the prequel if you will. Where previously we’ve been offered Chapters, this one breaks formation with the subtitle The Last Key (presumably for the sole purpose of making OCD eyes twitch). Keys do play a big part here. What’s helped keep the series remain fresh in the past is its mutability. Different installments have different demonic villains; it has become their hunters who remain the constants. Nevertheless, in each previous story, they’ve been supporting players to troubled families. The Last Key also breaks ranks by putting Elise, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell) front and centre.
The opening fifteen minutes set up Elise’s previously unknown past; a horrific upbringing in New Mexico, the family home in the shadow of a penitentiary. Her father Gerald (Josh Stewart) worked in corrections and, troubled by his daughter’s gift for seeing spirits, indulged in grotesque ‘corrections’ of his own. A close encounter in the family basement led to the unnatural death of Elise’s mother and thus we’re zapped forward to 2010. Elise, newly partnered up with oddball investigators Tucker and Specs, receives a call from her old home’s current owner, Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo). There’s trouble brewin’ again. Initially refusing to return, Elise quickly reconsiders; she has business that needs finishing. Thus the three of them pack up for New Mexico where a new set of surprises lie in wait.
Adam Robitel steps into the director’s chair following James Wan and series creator/co-star Leigh Whannell. Robitel, with one previous feature to his name, sticks rigorously to template. Visually, The Last Key is in step with its siblings, though the locale generates a more rustic ghoulishness this time around. Key players in the crew remain the same, so there’s an aesthetic continuity that feels right. Nevertheless, Robitel’s effort is workmanlike; solid, but with precious few surprises. By this time the thoroughly modern approach to multiplex horror is well ingrained in the viewer. The first hour plays to these beats a little too slavishly. We know the pause and the soundtrack drop come before the jump so we brace and there it is. It’s formulaic, and a little uninteresting to boot. It doesn’t help much that the story feels, for a while at least, rather derivative, even cliché. Elise’s inhumane father Gerald a horror caricature of mundane awfulness that we’ve seen a few too many times before.
As it develops it becomes clear that the focus this time is on women constrained or enslaved by weak-willed men. The timeliness of a mainstream horror film that speaks to the current zeitgeist of standing up against such behaviour – of saying “no”, of not backing down – helps The Last Key quite keenly. At it’s climax, it finds a band of women confronting a masculine evil. Something is definitely in the air. And while we’re embracing the film’s feminist hot streak, how cool is it that there’s a successful horror franchise with a female lead character in her seventies? Insidious commands respect for this alone. And Shaye appears to be reveling in the opportunity with good reason.
Such is the construct of the piece that the narrative feels incredibly scattershot for the first two acts; pieces of information flung here, there and everywhere; dominoes set up without full confidence that they’re going to fall. What helps considerably is that virtually all are paid off in a third act clean-up, which brings us to one of the other reasons that the Insidious series has remained, generally speaking, rather consistent. While directorial duties have passed through a few hands, Whannell has stayed on and written all four. While the focus may keep shifting, the tonal sensibilities do not. This is his universe and he’s considered it. Whannell’s own directorial effort – the unreasonably good Chapter Three – proved this by stepping away from the Lambert family of the first two films while still retaining a sense of belonging. The Last Key does manage to continue this, though the cracks are most definitely starting to show. This finds its way particularly into the script. The dialogue may elicit groans from an audience; some intentional, others less so (Tucker and Specs’ social ineptitude was better kept to the margins).
While it flirts with the trite up front, the film rewards more when the pieces start slotting together and some unpleasant discoveries are found in a dreadfully creepy tunnel. In fact, this sequence in particular stands out for feeling the most playful with the audience, and by extension the most engaging. It does cast much of what preceded it in less flattering light, however. The last minutes are inevitably spent feeding back into film one, bringing everything full circle, though this is achieved with relatively little pain.
The Last Key isn’t a failure but it does feel like something of a diminished return and in the main just a little tired. Despite the seeming tidiness of its finale it still boasts some nagging unanswered questions, and though this seems like a natural end, Whannell has also cannily written in a potential future lead for the series should takings or time away spur a revival. If further adventures into The Further are to follow, some rekindled ingenuity might be in order to save the reputation from tarnishing. That hasn’t quite happened here, but the extraordinary has come to feel a little too ordinary. Whether this really is the last or not, it feels like a natural and earned chance for a break.