Written by: Leigh Whannell
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, and Angus Sampson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Fear comes home.
Few franchises have flourished as uniquely as Insidious, a notion that would have been quite surprising back in 2010, when James Wan’s candy-colored Poltergeist riff entered a crowded haunted house fray. As well-crafted as the original film was, it admittedly wasn’t the most inventive or original offering. A funny thing happened as it stretched into a series, though, as that original film became a launching pad for a tale that somehow became more sprawling and intimate all at once. Chapter Two twisted both time and dimensional space in an effort to weave the more complex, personal tale lurking beneath the original’s simplistic setup before Wan handed the reins over to co-writer Leigh Whannell for an unexpectedly poignant prequel that cemented Insidious’s status as a Lin Shaye vehicle.
Somewhere along the way, Wan and Whannell made the delightful decision to put this beloved character actress at the forefront of this series, a somewhat daring move that flies in the face of most franchise impulses. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where this series just became a parade through The Further, with the netherworld simply spitting out new demons for another round of familiar thrills. But as was the case with Saw, Wan and Whannell haven’t been interested by going through the expected routine, and the latest entry, The Last Key doubles down on the approach by further illuminating the backstory behind Shaye’s Elise, all while introducing another demonic foe for her to face down.
In this case, it’s both the literal and metaphorical demons that have been haunting her for her entire life. Like its predecessor, The Last Key is a prequel, one that flashes all the way back to Elise’s 1950s childhood, where her fraught family live in the shadow of a New Mexico prison that causes the house’s power to flicker with each electric chair execution. We learn that Elise’s gift to see through to the other side has already manifested as a child, much to the dismay of her drunken lout of a father (Josh Stewart). When she claims the house is infested by demonic entities, he promptly whips her and locks her in the basement, stranding to encounter whatever lurks in the bowels of the place. A disconcertingly inviting voice eventually croons to her and insists that only Elise can unlock all of the doors and let it loose into the world. Elise complies, unwittingly unleashing a malevolent spirit into her home that kills her mother.
Decades later, Elise is still haunted by the ordeal, and she’s even more shaken when a mysterious call from New Mexico reveals that her childhood home’s current tenant is plagued by the wraith that still resides there. While she insists she must face this demon alone, her trusty sidekicks Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) hit the road alongside her in their “Winnebeghost,” providing support and levity as Elise attempts to find personal closure and fend off yet another entity from unleashing hell on earth.
Structurally, The Last Key feels like a stop gap between the wholly intimate stakes of the previous film and the first sequel’s more sprawling scope. It’s very much Elise’s story, as the thrust of the film is concerned with her journey back through a tumultuous childhood, one that saw her constantly terrorized by her increasingly abusive father. Flashbacks allow the audience a glimpse of pivotal moments, granting further insight into and deepening a character that’s grown into her own over the course of this franchise. Shaye is as captivating as ever, revealing an even more vulnerable side to Elise, whose self-doubt returns alongside the guilt she harbors for abandoning her brother (Bruce Davison!), further grounding those intimate stakes: sure, we know Elise’s ultimate fate thanks to Chapter Two, but The Last Key still provides a genuinely compelling arc that has her exorcising more personal demons.
That’s sort of become the calling card for this franchise, which has become less and less about bump-in-the-night theatrics and more about its characters’ trials and tribulations. And again, I can’t stress enough how awesome it is that Lin Shaye is at the forefront of it all. The Last Key is the rare horror movie that’s actually more interesting when it’s expressly concerned with character drama instead of orchestrating scares. Credit is due to Whannell especially, who recognizes the unique, affable character dynamics at play here between himself, Shaye, and Sampson. Tucker, Specs, and Elise are clearly the heart of this franchise and this film in particular, and it’s terrific to watch these three bounce off of each other, with Elise acting as a sort of mother hen to these two awkward scamps. “She’s psychic, and we’re sidekicks,” Tucker clumsily deadpans to bewildered customers who can’t quite figure out why Elise keeps these two hanging around, an exchange that perfectly encapsulates the sweet-natured heart of these movies.
From a film standpoint, Tucker and Specs provide obvious levity to what is otherwise another grim display of demonic possession, one that cycles through child abuse and imprisonment. Elise ultimately sifts through a truly sordid tale that reveals her childhood was even more fucked-up than she ever realized once she starts digging into the depths of her home. Director Adam Robitel deploys the usual assortment of suspenseful sequences that find Elise and crew apprehensively skulking through the dark, unseemly corners of the house, giving the audience ample time to coil up in their seat before a scare is unleashed.
If The Last Key has any weak spots, though, they actually rest in these slightly repetitive and rote scares: most of them admirably attempt to build with subtlety and resist assaulting viewers with obvious, loud jolts, but most of them would benefit from more of Joseph Bishara’s signature score and some inventive imagery. Most disappointing is the undercooked mythology surrounding the demon this time around: both the opening scene and the title hint at something more ominous and, well, final than what is ultimately revealed. For all the intonations about unlocking five doors from The Further, viewers are treated to some fleeting glimpses of a demon dubbed “Keyface,” whose aim to possess the house’s inhabitants ultimately feels staggeringly small scale given the film’s subtitle. As he did in The Taking of Deborah Logan, Robitel withholds the bulk of the on-screen hysterics until the end, but it falls a bit too flat here.
But if there’s a haunted house series that can withstand some tepid frights, it’s Insidious. While it’s disappointing that a franchise that’s traded in indelibly ghoulish imagery doesn’t quite deliver on that front this time out, it has more than enough small, sweet character moments, plus another vital arc for Elise that only provides more depth to what has become one of my favorite horror protagonists in recent memory. I love that this franchise ultimately decided to take this kooky supporting player and fully reveal the breadth and width of a potent story that’s seen her overcome personal grief and tragedy to help others. If nothing else, this entry allows us to fully grasp who Elise is and what she’s conquered when she comes to the aid of the Lambert family in the first movie.
Similarly, The Last Key brings closure to the Insidious franchise itself by predictably closing the loop. By the end, we’re brought full circle as the film edges towards the events of the very first film, giving this entry the sense of finality hinted by the title. This is not to say the series can’t continue, but it would feel quite complete if this were the end since it enriches the entire franchise in a rather atypical manner. Where most horror franchises are in a rush to further illuminate their monsters and escalate the spectacle, this one dives headlong into its human characters and asks audiences to stroll alongside them for a cathartic journey.
I’m not quite sure that Whannell and Wan get enough credit for pulling this off with two franchises: just as Saw resisted recycling the same old story by switching out details, so too has Insidious. Time—and box office receipts—will tell if it will continue on; if it does, here’s hoping those involved recognize its capacity to be more than just empty funhouse scares.
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