Published Jun 05, 2015The first two films in the Insidious franchise were elegant genre exercises, elevated by James Wan's inventive and weighted style that evoked equal parts Poltergeist-era Hooper and Friedkin circa The Exorcist in terms of commanding space. Wan wanted to deliver true scares while also establishing a sense of throwback-y fun that went beyond Sam Raimi's "spook-a-blast" method by mastering atmosphere, structuring his narrative around everyday objects like a baby monitor and a camera in order to craft a thematically rich story about the dangers of looking where we're not supposed to.
Instead of relying on CGI and visual incoherence, Insidious (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel) worked thanks to Wan's floating camera and lengthy takes, which established tension and a true sense of theatricality in which we were left to question around which corner the next ghost would be hiding. Of course, it didn't hurt to have great actors like Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne doing much of the heavy lifting, but Leigh Whannell's scripts on both films helped make the Insidious films special by nimbly juggling whiplash tone shifts and unexpected dramatic turns that kept the momentum going.
Whannell takes over the directing job for Wan this time around, and while Insidious Chapter 3 can't match the heights of the first two films, the film coasts by on the strengths of what has come before it. Think of this entry as the series going on Easy Mode after a complex second chapter that expanded the ongoing franchise mythology. Whannell takes the series back a few years before the first film, first setting up what feels like a standalone story in the Insidious universe before folding in on itself and becoming a hastily put together real prequel about how the films' ghost-hunting trio came together. It doesn't really work on a narrative level, but it's fun to see Whannell, Angus Sampson and Lin Shaye bouncing off each other as they did in the first two films, and Whannell handles that material with an ease the first half of the film doesn't have.
It all starts when Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) tries to contact the spirit of her dead mother, bringing over a whole gaggle of ghouls to torment her family, including her father (Dermot Mulroney). Eventually the hauntings turn dangerous, and that's where our ghost-hunters come in to tackle their first real case.
The material is fine, and there are some interesting thematic notes Whannell tries to touch on about loss and grief, but he goes at it with too broad an approach, losing any sense of nuance or effective character work. Similarly, the film seems to be stuck on "endless jump scare mode," building to the same volume beat for beat during its run without any real sense of escalation, culminating in a shrug of an ending (but not before Whannell throws one last joke of a "BOO!" at the audience). The first two films certainly had their share of jump scares, but Wan went beyond that to craft real moments of tension and unsettling eeriness.
Insidious: Chapter 3 falls prey to the law of diminishing returns, an inevitable effect of a horror franchise hitting its third instalment. Wan hit gold with his casting in the first film, and while Whannell's just as fun alongside Sampson and Shaye, Stefanie Scott and Dermot Mulroney don't bring anything to the table, playing the standard tropes without any effective characterization thanks to a weak script. The mythos around "The Further," the parallel dimension where ghosts live, doesn't really expand in the film, and while the Insidious films don't need a complicated continuity, this one can't help but feel like a shallow cash-grab.