Horror franchises have a stubborn habit of overstaying their welcome. And Insidious, the ever-so-slight cinematic grab-bag of cheap jump scares and mildly frightening paranormal hooey, is no exception.
Somehow, while no one was looking, writer Leigh Whannell has managed to crank out four of these things. Four! For those keeping score at home (or who couldn’t be bothered to fork over ten bucks for Insidious: Chapter 3), the previous installment waded into the backstory of Lin Shaye’s Elise — the intrepid medium with a bone-dry sense of the absurd — whose supernatural gift comes across as both a blessing and a curse. Now, Whannell and director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) double down on her origin story, giving us something more like a character study than an out-and-out demonic chiller. That might have seemed like a solid choice considering how bare the narrative cupboard already was with this saga, but even Shaye’s always-welcome presence can’t disguise how little meat there is left on this bone.
Basically a sequel to a prequel (and also a prequel to the original…got that?), Insidious: The Last Key opens in New Mexico in 1953, where little Elise (played by Ava Kolker) is growing up in the shadow of a creepy old penitentiary in a run-down house whose lights flicker every time a prisoner is zapped in the electric chair. Even at this young age, the girl has the ability to see and speak with poor souls trapped in an unenviable purgatory — something her abusive, alcoholic father (Josh Stewart) unsuccessfully tries to beat out of her.
Eventually, Shaye’s Elise flees, leaving behind her younger brother Christian (Pierce Pope). Cut to 2010, and she gets a call to return to her old house by its rattled new owner (Kirk Acevedo) to rid the place of the evil that first set her on her course. This, of course, happens just after she discovers that the dreams are coming back. How do we know this? Because she actually says, “The dreams are coming back,” out loud to her dog. So Elise hits the road with her two socially-awkward Scooby Doo underlings (Whannell on double duty, along with Angus Sampson) who unsuccessfully try to goose the film with some unwelcome and unfunny comic relief. For the record, there’s no mention of who will look after Elise’s dog while she’s away on her poltergeist field trip. She should’ve left her two dim-bulb assistants with him.
After returning to her old town and reuniting with her estranged brother (Bruce Davison, acting circles around the script), Elise ventures into “the Further” to battle with a decidedly PG-13 demon and put the audience through a drawn-out wringer of gore-free torment and gotcha, jack-in-the-box shocks that may occasionally jolt you out of your seat, but aside from one gag in particular, the scares lack any real mechanical knack. The one thing the otherwise forgettable film has going for it is Shaye, who over the course of the Insidious quadrilogy has miraculously created a real flesh-and-blood character with Elise. But at this late point in the series, that’s just not enough anymore. Let’s hope “The Last Key” isn’t just the film’s title, but also a promise. C–