For the imaginatively-titled Insidious: Chapter 3, writer/star Leigh Whannell takes the reins from series director, and new Hollywood darling, James Wan. But fans of the ludicrously popular series can breathe a sigh of relief, as Insidious 3 is still an Insidious film. Whether that fills you with dread or hope will depend on your predilection for nods to classic movies such as The Shining and Poltergeist, spooky bumps in the night, ghost hunters and, of course, jump scares.
With a view to keeping genre stalwart Lin Shaye in the picture, Insidious 3 is a prequel and, as such, a handy title pops up to advise us that the subsequent events happened prior to the Lambert haunting (it’s good to have these things spelled out to us right off the bat, as the Insidious movies tend to be quite complex!?). Our heroine this time around is Quinn (played by the likeable Stefanie Scott), a teenage girl who recently lost her mother and reaches out to legendary psychic Elise (Shaye, the real heroine of the piece) to help contact her.
Immediately, Elise knows something is wrong and warns Quinn: “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you”. But, naturally, the kid doesn’t listen to her because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a movie here. Soon, Quinn is knocking on walls, spotting shadows on street corners and whispering into the darkness, all in the hope that the creepy dude hiding behind her curtain is actually her mother, even when all signs point to the opposite.
First and foremost, Whannell should be applauded for being brave enough to take the reins from Wan, with whom he not only created the beloved franchise, but another in Saw. Insidious 3 is Whannell’s directorial debut, his first time going it alone without his buddy, and, although he’s noted in interviews that he learned a lot from watching Wan work (like trying to get as much into frame as possible, apparently), this is very much his film.Happily, for him and for us, Insidious 3 mostly works quite well. It easily outdoes the dire second installment, ramping up the tension from the outset and refusing to let go until, predictably, the Ghostbusters turn up again and everything goes a bit maudlin, as is the series wont. Whannell clearly knows his target audience, and as such he loads the picture up with jump scares until they’re cropping up every second shot.
However, this approach suits Insidious 3 because there’s a creepiness to it that was missing in the second film and, I would argue, the first. Dread bleeds into every corner of the frame so one’s eye is constantly drawn behind the characters to see what’s lurking in the shadows. This is a trick that Wan honed in The Conjuring, in particular, but Whannell takes it to another level by ensuring his demons are stomach-churningly horrifying to look at–when we finally get to see them.
This is interesting considering, more often than not, what’s glimpsed is better than what is shown. But the demons in question are played by flesh-and-blood actors, dressed up and powdered down accordingly, with just touches of CGI to enhance their ghostly presence, and as such the effect is staggering. The big bad–an elderly man in a hospital gown and breathing mask–is horrifying and the rasping sounds he makes as he lurks in the shadows are nightmare-inducing. The design, in general, is stronger here than in the previous installments, too, with even The Further looking a lot less hokey than it did when Patrick Wilson and Darth Maul were wandering around in it.
There are some terrific set-pieces (two of which are spoiled by the trailer, so avoid it if possible) that make a case for Insidious as a series in its own right, as opposed to just a derivative, uninspired Poltergeist wannabe. The jump scares are well-executed, and they aren’t as predictable as one would expect. There are several great bait-and-switch moments where even the most seasoned horror fans will find themselves pleasantly surprised, and, although its PG-13 rating (15A in the UK) means Insidious 3 doesn’t get quite as nasty as it could, it skirts the borders just enough to make its point.
The characters exist almost purely as vessels for the scares, but the performances are strong across the board. The father-daughter dynamic between Quinn and her stressed dad (Dermot Mulroney, desperately pretending he isn’t going grey) is forced, particularly in the beginning, but it’s a nice spin on the typical nuclear family.
The flick recalls last year’s Annabelle in parts, particularly in its setting (a modern, yet rickety, apartment building). Thankfully, the location is used to better effect here, with a spookily empty apartment above, cracking ceiling and goopy footprints all signalling something is wrong without the need for a creepy dolly.
However, none of these elements really matter when you consider that Insidious: Chapter 3 is, above all else, a love letter to Lin Shaye. The recently-crowned godmother of horror is the star of the show and is gifted the only real emotional arc, with a dead husband and a sad, isolated life fleshing out her back-story.
There are only two instances of score being used in this movie (apart from the usual screeching violins), and both involve Shaye’s tortured Elise. Even though Quinn and her family are the focal point, it’s Elise we’re rooting for, and it’s her life that’s really hanging in the balance.
Insidious: Chapter 3 straddles a fine line, both paying homage to what’s come before and building upon that same legacy. It manages to be better than the second installment and arguably more interesting than the first, equally a fine film in its own right and an accomplished sequel, also. It’s not perfect, nor is it ground-breaking, but it’s entertaining, creepy and tense. The performances are great, the visuals are interesting and there are a handful of notable, inventive frights that will delight fanatics and freak out the multiplex crowd. An impressive directorial debut from Whannell, Insidious: Chapter 3 is definitely going to be a hit, but for the first time, it feels like a deserved win all round.
WICKED RATING: 6.5/10
Director(s): Leigh Whannell
Writer(s): Leigh Whannell
Stars: Lin Shaye, Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Angus Sampson
Studio/ Production Co: Blumhouse
Length: 97 minutes