First published by TheHorrorShow
This may be the first instalment in the Insidious franchise that is a formal prequel, but in fact the whole Insidious series has been fixated on the past. The 2010 original and the 2013 sequel concerned the Lambert family, moving house to leave past troubles behind them and hoping to build a new future, but repeatedly having unrestful ghosts catch up with them and drag them back into history. Both films crucially flashed back to the forgotten childhood of future Lambert patriarch Josh (Patrick Wilson), while Insidious: Chapter 2 went back to the future too, ingeniously looping its own narrative back into the events of the original film. Both films also featured flashbacks. Insidious: Chapter 3 takes place some time after psychic Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye) first met Josh as an eight-year-old boy, but before the (main) events of the other two films.
With the Lamberts not yet in the picture, Elise comes into focus as the main character here, making Insidious: Chapter 3 a rare example of a mainstream theatrical release whose protagonist is a late-middle-aged woman – and a kick-ass one to boot. Yet she too is caught between her own past as a spiritualist of many years’ standing, and the future laid out in the first two films. For when we first meet Elise, she has quit working as a medium, all too aware that in the purgatorial realm known as the Further there lurks the vicious spirit of an old woman just waiting for a chance to kill her (which is exactly what happens at the end of Insidious, not that death is ever the end in this series).
So when young Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) appears on Elise’s doorstep at the beginning of Insidious: Chapter 3, hoping that the medium can help her make contact with her late mother, Elise at first declines, warning, “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you.” It is already too late for Quinn, however, who finds herself being regularly visited by a malevolent male spirit living in her apartment block who has heeded her call to the world beyond, and who wants Quinn for himself. As Quinn’s father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) becomes increasingly alarmed by the paranormal activities surrounding – and harming – his daughter, Elise decides to face her fears and come out of retirement, hooking up for the first time with a pair of bickering ghostbusters named Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell)…
Whannell is not just returning to this rôle and to writing duties on the screenplay, but also debuting at the helm, while James Wan, director of the two previous instalments and Whannell’s regular collaborator, cameos here in a theatre audition (evidently still directing with the line “Whenever you’re ready.”). All the ingredients that have made this franchise such a successful roller-coaster ride – the escalating spooky incursions, the frenetic séance scenes, the Lynchian eerieness of the Further, the slickly handled jumpshocks, the comic relief of Tucker and Specs – are present and correct, as is the magpie approach to influence: for where Insidious primarily channelled Poltergeist (1982), and Insidious: Chapter 2 inverted Psycho (1960) for its ghostly backstory, here Whannell turns mostly to The Exorcist (1973) for inspiration. For, following an ‘accident’, Quinn spends much of the film bedbound in plaster casts and a neck brace, her physical immobility serving to accentuate her vulnerability to otherworldly attack and – eventually – possession. Meanwhile, the corridors of the apartment block, desaturated of colour in the Further’s airless, timeless alternative reality, are like the haunted hotel where all haunted hotels past come to stay.
Yet while Insidious: Chapter 3 does not try to fix a formula that isn’t broken, delivering exactly what anyone who has stuck with the series will be expecting and wanting, it alludes to its narrative future in a far less inventive way than Insidious 2 wrapped itself into its past, and ties up too many threads that were never loose in the first place. It is fun to see how Elise comes to work with Tucker and Specs, because they make such a deliciously improbable trio – but do we really care about the first time that she uses the expression ‘the Further’, or need a glimpse of the red demon that comes to dominate the first film? There is the sense that the franchise’s uncanny circle is here being squared, and perhaps this third film will, for all its chronological priority, also be the last. Still, we now know that Elise has a long demon-cleaning career behind her, and an eternity of operating from the ‘other side’ ahead, so really, the prequels and sequels could keep coming for as long as their audience remains willing to pay to see them. The problem with ghosts, though, is that they diminish with each return.