Insidious: The Last Key first published by Sight & Sound, March 2018
Review: In the spaces between all stories there are yet more stories – which goes some way to explain Insidious: the Last Key, the latest, literally middling tale of mediumship in the Insidious franchise. Originally a pastiche of Poltergeist (1982) and other domestic horror films, James Wan’s Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) followed the Lambert family’s encounters with, on the one hand, demons from the interdimensional ‘Further’ and, on the other, psychic do-gooder Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and her comedy assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (series screenwriter Leigh Whannell). Elise was already long dead (though still offering spiritual assistance from beyond the grave) by the end of the second film, so Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) was a prequel going back to Elise’s first case. Now this fourth entry is a prequel sequel, in which, even as Elise is dogged by unresolved issues from her past, the film itself is haunted by the franchise’s already prescribed future. As Elise reluctantly agrees to investigate paranormal activity unfolding in her own childhood home, we know, despite the established deadliness of the resident demon, that no permanent harm can come to any of these three ghostbusters, given that they must survive to meet and help the Lamberts later. Besides, in this series, death is never quite the end.
In fact, Insidious: The Last Key is at its most original when it is occupying that slippery twilight zone between life and death, confusing living, breathing folk with ghosts and its supernatural apparatus with buried psychological trauma. For the most part, though, the film itself appears to be heeding Elise’s advice to Tucker: “Please don’t try to fix anything that isn’t broken.” Accordingly, although there are hints here at broader subtexts (Cold War bunker mentalities, the morality of the death penalty, the confrontation of abuse, etc.), all these are ultimately sacrificed to what the Insidious series does best: trapping its characters, and us with them, either in the dark or in the crepuscular Further, with spectres that go ‘boo!’.
The film flashes back further (and Further) into Elise’s past and her troubled home life so that her older self can learn that facing her demons is better than fleeing them (and leaving them to torment others) – but then backwards is the only direction in which this series can really now go. What keeps us invested in Elise is Shaye’s charisma as an actress, and her own long history as a ‘scream queen’, rather than anything interesting in the character itself, so that this attempt to deepen Elise just feels like filler, answering questions few viewers would care to ask. Although it is partly set in Five Keys, New Mexico, and features a monster (Javier Botet) credited as ‘Key Face’ who is systematically unlocking (and relocking) people’s souls, the titular key is in no obvious way the last. Perhaps it is just the latest, in a franchise whose door remains open, dependent on box office takings, to more sequels. This one, though, is stuck in the middle, neither here nor there.
Synopsis: In 2010, paranormal investigator Elise and her assistants Tucker and Specs are called to a house by a prison in Five Keys, New Mexico, where Elise had lived as a child, her emerging psychic talents encouraged by her mother Aubrey (until she was killed by the demon ‘Key Face’ whom Elise accidentally unleashed in the basement), but violently discouraged by her abusive father (and prison executioner) Gerard. There, as she investigates the spirits haunting current resident Ted Garza, Elise is drawn to the basement, and encounters a female ghost. Elise recalls that as a teenager she had seen that ghost in the house, the same day she walked out forever, leaving her younger brother Christopher with Gerard. The ghost now guides Elise to the door of Gerard’s old fallout shelter, in which another ‘ghost’ turns out to be a living woman, abducted and imprisoned by Ted (who is killed in the ensuing struggle). When Christopher revisits the house with his daughters Melissa and Imogen, Melissa is attacked by Key Face, and put in a coma. Realising that the ‘ghost’ she had seen as a teen had also been a living person (abducted by Gerard), Elise finds suitcases filled with the remans of many of Gerard’s victims, but is attacked by a demon and left unconscious. Also blessed with psychic abilities, Imogen enters the Further, where she, Elise and Melissa defeat Key Face, helped by the ghosts of Gerard and Aubrey. Elise and her nieces return to the world of the living.
© Anton Bitel