by Patrick Bromley
I am a fan of the Insidious series. The more horror movies I see, the more the the first two stand out in my head for being completely their own thing. They are movies willing to take chances and go 100% fully batshit nuts, and the fact that they are written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan means they are expertly made on a technical level while still threatening to go completely off the rails in the best way. While Wan's The Conjuring is a very classical and well-made haunted house movie and probably going to become an all-timer, it's the Insidious movies I keep coming back to again and again. As studio horror goes, they're the best game in town.
Now here's Insidious Chapter 3, a prequel to the first two movies and the first in the series to be written and directed by Whannell -- his first time behind the camera. While he is fortunate to be inheriting a franchise that's already well established (and which he had a major role in establishing), he faces the challenge of having to distinguish himself his first time out as filmmaker inside the framework of the second sequel in a franchise. The only other movie I can think of made under similar circumstances -- the writer of the first two movies is called up to write and direct the third -- is David S. Goyer directing Blade Trinity. That didn't end well for anyone.
Well, Insidious Chapter 3 is a better movie than Blade Trinity. Much better. Feel free to put that on the posters.
A psychic is called in to help: Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who SPOILER died in the first film but has since managed to return for two sequels. Though she swore off communicating with the spirit world, Elise decides to stop in and help Quinn discover the true identity of the spirit she has been seeing before it either kills her or takes over her body for good.
For as much as this is an Insidious movie -- it has several of the regular characters, the supernatural goofiness and jump scares that we've come to expect -- it's clear that first-time director Whannell is interested in making something that feels like its own thing while still being part of the universe he created. Chapter 3 feels smaller and more grounded than the first two movies, which spent more time in the Further and even doubled back on themselves chronologically, experimenting with narrative storytelling in a way similar to Back to the Future II. There's nothing so audacious about Insidious Chapter 3, which is more about exploring a character previously established but now with more depth. Unlike the first two movies, this isn't the story of the family being haunted. Chapter 3 is Elise's story.
This is also the film that for a time turns Lin Shaye into an action star, an achievement that should not go unnoticed.
The other performances are a bit more uneven. It's fun to see Whannell and Angus Sampson show up as Specs and Tucker again, appearing here as a kind of origin story for how they came to be involved with Elise. Scott does what is asked of her, which is to be a teenager and then to be in peril. Dermot Mulroney, as her father, has a more difficult time landing the emotional beats. We don't know much about him other than that he feels overwhelmed and then concerned, but he's oddly stiff under both circumstances (and has one outburst late in the movie that's borderline embarrassing). Because Whannell has chosen to emphasize emotion over technique with this installment, the actors really need to connect for the approach to work. Most of the time it does, but that only makes the times it doesn't stand out even more.
Whannell and cinematographer Brian Pearson (his first time with the franchise, taking over for John R. Leonetti) have made a beautiful looking film. While less stylized than previous outings in the regular dialogue scenes, there's a ton of atmosphere and clever uses of shadow and light in the horror set pieces. Just look at the photo of Lin Shaye above; one can see the clear influence of Italian filmmakers like Bava, Argento and Fulci. A line can be drawn between this movie and its franchise predecessors, but Whannell has made a movie that looks just different enough so as to be its own thing.
Between the Saw series and now the Insidious series, Leigh Whannell is responsible for the two biggest horror franchises of the 2000s. They're totally different in their tones and the way they approach their respective horrors, but share in common a desire to create a specific world that has its own set of rules. That's not easy to do once, much less twice -- and so successfully on top of it. With Insidious Chapter 3, Whannell proves that he's more than capable as a director, and I suspect he's got a real career as a filmmaker in front of him. I'm excited to see what he does outside of a sequel.