(On Cable TV, January 2019) There’s something almost endearing in the way that the Insidious horror franchise has doubled upon itself to focus on a character played by an elderly woman. Once again in Insidious: The Last Key, Lin Shaye truly stars in as a psychic medium in this prequel instalment showing us a previous big case, one with very personal implications in the grand tradition of horror series making sure that every single detail of its mythology has been cross-referenced against their character’s biography. By the end, it all leads straight back to the first film of the series like clockwork, because these are movies rather than TV show episodes, right? If you sense dripping sarcasm, it’s largely because this Insidious feels like the series has grown content to simply going over the same familiar landmarks once more. We’re filling smaller and smaller holes in a backstory that didn’t need any backfilling, and it’s become more claustrophobic than entertaining. Under director Adam Robitel, the scares are strictly routine, and the story’s few highlights aren’t enough to push back the impression of encroaching deja vu. Shaye remains a highlight, and there are some good moments in the interactions that she has with her two sidekicks … but the point of the movie is having another hit of what worked so well in the first film of the series no matter if it becomes steadily less impressive. Let the series go, producers. It’s run its course.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The first Insidious was a welcome throwback to straightforward horror; the second one kept some of the thrills but presented a much duller result. With this Insidious: Chapter 3, however, we’re well into the logic of diminishing returns. The first warning sign is that it’s a prequel, forced to go back in time in order to keep Lin Shaye’s character alive and kicking. What we laboriously discover is that this third Insidious is meant to show how the demon-hunting team came together: No one apparently stopped to consider whether we cared. It’s not as if the nuts-and-bolts specifics of this third film’s plot actually matter a lot: Insidious 3 is routine even by horror standards, and has almost entirely dismantled what made the first-and-a-half Insidious so special. I forgot good chunks of the plot mere days after seeing the film even as I can still quote chunks of the previous instalments. Lin Shaye is good as the lead demon hunter, even if the rest of the film is unremarkable. But whoever expected a third instalment in a horror series to be actually any good?
(On Cable TV, October 2014) The horror genre has a long history of great films leading to so-so sequels, and Insidious 2 is now part of that tradition. Insidious made a mark partly by being one of the first good American horror movie in a while that wasn’t trying to rely on found-footage tropes, and it heralded a number of similar or better movies in its wake, from Sinister to The Conjuring. Still, it wasn’t without its flaws, and this sequel seems to dwell at length on those less successful aspects while throwing in a number of old clichés. Oh, so a cross-dressing serial killer is the big bad guy of the series? Let me get my fainting salts. In overall impact, Insidious 2 cranks down the dial from Good to Average with far more conventional thrills and a familiar formula. (Keep in mind, though, that the titular “Chapter 2” is there for a reason: this is absolutely not a stand-alone sequel, and it is best seen immediately after the first film.) There are still plenty of things to like –including going back in time to explain goose-bumps from the first film, acknowledging its own absurdity with a well-placed “So that’s what it was all about”, an effective jump-shot explaining what the phantom piano-playing meant, and finding a more-than-adequate younger counterpart for Lin Shaye in Lindsay Seim. Shaye once again steals the spotlight during her short appearance, while Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do what is expected of them (though Wilson has a harder dual role to manage). Meanwhile, director James Wan continues to perfect his technique: this follow-up is a bit less blunt in its scares than its predecessor. By the time the shock-ending title card rolls around, we’ve seen enough to be entertained, but not quite enough to be impressed: Insidious 2 gets credits for being an acceptable follow-up, but it’s far more ordinary that it should have been.
(On DVD, October 2014) Having missed Insidious in theaters, then on DVD, then on Cable TV even as its reputation grew as a good example of recent American horror, I found myself playing catch-up late at night, finally finding out for myself was the fuss was about. As it turns out, Insidious isn’t too bad, but director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring is a bit better and thus retroactively colors Insidious‘ impact. Both movies have similar starting points, with families in new houses being imperilled by demonic forces and semi-professional helpers coming to help them. But it’s the execution that counts, and while The Conjuring did well with a soft-spoken acceleration of horrors, Insidious is quite a bit blunter in how it marks scares with big musical stings. Much of the first hour feels conventional, as innocent people (and audiences) are progressively spooked by strange happenings. But there are hints that something weirder is at play, and by the time the last half-hour moves from haunted house to possessed bodies to astral travel, Insidious becomes interesting in ways that most horror movies third acts usually don’t. Still, that final half-hour is also in many ways the silliest, as the film’s ambitions run against its budget, and the literalization of some metaphors (coupled with a more frenetic rhythm) doesn’t quite work as intended. Once the monster is to be shown, part of the mystique disappears. Still, it’s quite a bit better than your average horror movie, and it benefits from a couple of good performances: Patrick Wilson is fine as the everyday-man protagonist with a secret, while Rose Byrne delivers exactly the expected as the suffering wife, but it’s really Lin Shaye who steals the spotlight as a paranormal expert who knows far too much. Effective scares and jumps and creepy hints all cleverly pepper the film, and the result is enjoyable. Still, in retrospect Insidious may be most noteworthy as a bridge to other better films, from Sinister to The Conjuring.