For 11 years, actor and writer Leigh Whannell has been scaring moviegoing audiences with his intense screenplays, creating two major powerhouse horror franchises with the Saw and Insidious films. Now, he steps behind the camera to direct for the first time with Insidious: Chapter 3, a prequel that takes place “A few years before the Lambert haunting,” as the written prologue tells us immediately post-titles. And with that, the parade of bumps in the night, jump scares, and frights begins.
In taking over the helm from previous director James Wan, Whannell tries to match the tone and feeling of the preceding installments, to varying degrees of success. He for sure gets the frights he wants, which definitely wrest the screams from the audience, but the surrounding material is too thin and weak to really engage us in the story. It’s chock-full of trumped-up hair-raising moments, those moments where the crowd wishes aloud for the character not to walk down that empty hallway or go near that cracked window, leaving the film feeling kind of cheap.
Adding to the cheapness are middling performances from Dermot Mulroney and Stefanie Scott, playing father Sean Brenner and daughter Quinn, currently grieving for recently-deceased mother Lillith (Ele Keats). Their paper-thin characters barely carry the movie, with Scott being barely-there as she recovers from being technically killed by a car, crossing over to the film’s otherworldly milieu called The Further, the place where lost souls spend their eternities. Revived in the hospital, she soon finds out that she didn’t come back from The Further alone, being terrorized by a being called The Man Who Can’t Breathe (Michael Reid MacKay) as he steals her soul bit by bit. Scott way underplays her circumstances, never once being as believable as she needs to be to pull off this kind of role.
However, this isn’t really her movie, nor is it Mulroney’s; Insidious: Chapter 3 belongs solely to veteran actress Lin Shaye, given the “and” credit at the end of the cast list. Shaye plays the lovable, grandmotherly Elise Rainier in these films, and it’s her story that Whannell’s script fleshes out the most. We’re watching a bit of her origin story, as she slowly delves back into the life she quit as a psychic medium; after losing her husband and trying to contact him in The Further, she claims to see the person who will kill her in the future, which makes her stop being a seer altogether. The theme of personal loss ties Elise and Quinn together and gives the courage to Elise to come back to the spiritual world to help the Brennan family.
Insidious: Chapter 3, for better and worse, takes a lot of its cues from the second half of Insidious: Chapter 2, where Elise starts quarterbacking the film. As much as you want to like Elise – and you will, no matter what – she’s given a lot of corny lines (although one line of hers had the audience rightfully cheering loudly and clapping) and you often wonder why she doesn’t just make the decisions she needs to make. Well, the film’s gotta pad out its running time and keep us in suspense as to whether or not she’ll rise up and be the strong medium and spiritual ass-kicker, doesn’t it?
It’s great to see Lin Shaye finally given a movie she can call her own, after years of giving memorable side banana performances (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, the first two Critters films). She does what she can to make Elise that ray of hope and love that these movies so sorely need, being by turns stalwart and sassy, and it’s mostly fun to watch. However, the rapidly-changing inconsistency of her character that the screenplay dictates in this film (turning from scared to strong to scared again to unleashing the mother of all “come at me, bro” one-liners in the way only Shaye can) makes Elise wishy-washy, eventually turning into a bit of a hippie-ish joke by film’s end.
Gone are the stylish color shifts and the permanent dread of the last two films; Whannell’s color palette gives little feeling to the proceedings, unless they’re in The Further or when The Man Who Can’t Breathe attacks. One-liners and the comedic duo of Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), whose origin story we’re also experiencing, give this film too much levity in a setting where there should be little; there’s even a shot that seems to be a deliberate homage to Jack Sholder’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Half of the time, we’re grinning from watching people making stupid decisions to go through the creaky open door; the other half, the horror funhouse-type scares that Whannell sets up for us make us jump out of our seats and scream with delight, giving us a cathartic payoff for making us wait through so-so drama and conflict.