The future of the Insidious franchise is currently in question now that franchise writer Leigh Whannell is in doubt as to whether he wants to continue writing for it as the remaining co-creator (the other co-creator and his former collaborator, James Wan, has moved on since Chapter 2 to better things like skydiving cars, superheroes who talk to fish, and entertaining apologism for Christian con artists). Still the fourth and latest installment, Insidious: The Last Key, has already nudged itself in a direction that doesn’t seem very promising to me: it’s implied – nay, the very last scene of the film essentially propels it towards – a continuation without Lin Shaye’s presence*.
Now, I’ve eschewed the opportunity to write on the full series (maybe I’ll cover those gaps later this year), but let me tell you: it’s not a very consistent line-up, quality-wise. A large part of that happens to be the very disappointing insistence by Whannell’s writing to lean heavily on the overburdened mythology involving the blue-tinged spirit realm known as “The Further” and trying to use a lot of words just to say “demons live here and sometimes possess or influence living people” and the only way those words don’t really crash the whole thing down is because Shaye delivers most of that mythology with a sense of urgency that the material never earned one bit. Even that’s not the only merit about Shaye’s performance as medium demonologist Elise Rainier, but the fact that she’s a reliable source of warmth and personality, approaching her investigations in a superficially relaxed and assured manner as though she’s doing a solid for a friend despite how transparently draining this practice is for her. Even in spite of Shaye’s age, she has higher spirits as a 74-year-old woman tragically burdened by her abilities and responsibilities than I do as a 26-year-old who can’t talk to ghosts (… yet).
The decision halfway through the run to turn this reliably compelling character from a late-film exposition delivery system to a protagonist has been a smart move for the longevity of the franchise and the character that The Last Key suggests will take over for Elise, her niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), unfortunately feels like a non-presence, especially given how a whole quarter of the runtime has her taking charge without being able to take charge. Perhaps if she could have, it would have distracted me further from the other horrifyingly reliable source of banality in the Insidious franchise, Elise’s bumbling ghost-hunter-parody assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell) and oh gawwwwwwd, if this franchise continues they’re also implied to continue tagging along while this time around hitting on Imogen and her sister Melissa (Spencer Locke).
So yes, I’m going to miss Elise a lot and fear what is to come for a franchise that I already wasn’t too fond of anyway. But I will say that Whannell and director Adam Robitel have put together a pretty fond farewell for the most part: The Last Key establishes the sort of toxic childhood Elise (played by Ava Kolker as a child and Hana Hayes as a teenager) went through in the 1950s in her family’s remote New Mexico home, exacerbated by her executioner father (Josh Stewart)’s abusive antagonism towards Elise’s powers and the sudden release of a noseless key-fingered demon (Javier Botet) who wastes no time murdering her protective mother (Tessa Ferrer), all of which leaving a rift between Elise and her brother/Imogen and Melissa’s father Christian (Bruce Davison).
Sometime after Insidious: Chapter 3 but shortly before the first Insidious, the now adult Elise and her partners get a call from her home’s new inhabitant Ted (Kirk Acevedo) reporting paranormal activity happening, forcing the reluctant Elise to face her past and particularly her feelings of guilt towards the key demon’s freedom and thereby her mother’s death (not to mention Christian holding Elise accountable for abandoning him when she ran away from home). And walking back into the domain of her childhood pain means unlocking secrets regarding its line of inhabitants that fundamentally shift the way she looks back on her hard memories.
Now, of course, saying that the movie wants to deepen the Elise’s character one last time before she leaves the franchise does not necessarily mean it accomplishes that well: this is still a Whannell screenplay and he’s rarely shown a grip on how humans talk or behave on a superficial level, so the idea of going deeper into a full-on character study is much too daunting a task for the writer to do well on his own. Still, Robitel’s entry into the Insidious director’s holds up as well as his two predecessor’s (Wan and later Whannell taking his directorial debut with Chapter 3), able to jump into the formula they set for spooky haunted houses between the murky and earthy living world and the dingy dark blue shadows of the Further, even despite the relative goofy look of this movie’s demon (he lacks a palate and…) or the fact that Elise is missing in action for a hot minute and leaving us with characters that either are annoying or don’t feel present to drive the film.
Hell, it’s kind of by Robitel’s strength that the opening sequence is so distressing, utilizing Whannell’s need to have Elise abused, unleash Keyface, and kill off her mom in apparently one scene and one night and turning that unbalanced density into something that makes the momentum of the opening disorienting and uncomfortable. It’s affecting enough for us to align with Elise when Shaye gets to take over and even when Robitel doesn’t get that much narrative material to work with in one scare scene, he can still up the tension in the air so that it feels like maybe something of that power will occur (and he does get at least one more moment to do it: a game of hide-and-seek that occurs halfway through the film just after we’ve been given unsettling information about a character and climaxing without an out-of-character yet desperately violent act that leaves one of our protagonists shook).
Now, I’m going to admit there does come an early point where Robitel’s repetitions get more obvious to us and Insidious: The Last Key stops being scary (it also happens to unfortunately align with the absence of Elise, compounding the movie’s issues). Nevertheless, it goes far enough along the way so that we don’t have to wait long for an extremely satisfying resolution telegraphed by the constant presence of an item dear to Elise and Christian, aided enormously by Joseph Bishara’s score incorporating and foreshadowing an element of safety from Elise’s past and keeping that item present in his musical cues, and most of all smoothly facilitated by having its light source roll towards a heroic figure in such a silently climactic way. A wobbly descent can still be relieved from sticking the landing, something I’m not sure I can entirely acclaim The Last Key for doing when it ends on the sort unsubtle and clunky “here comes the first Insidious” note that it does. But even if I’m not sure I can call The Last Key a good movie, that final sequence involving the confrontation of old demons and the warmth with which it congratulates Elise is the sort of love for its character that stayed in my mind six months after watching it, even if it’s only the one character.
*Though this is not really set in stone, given that Chapter 2 is the chronologically latest entry and it ends on a note saying that Elise and her partners are still working, despite certain developments.