Most franchises seem to follow swings in what they are attempting to accomplish with the first movie being the foundation and center of said cinematic reality. The original Insidious was this small, intimate haunted house story that revolved around a simple family that most people could relate to. It was a fresh take on the genre, populated with excellent character actors, a seasoned director, a creative writer,and a willingness to take chances. The sequel decided to take things in a radically different direction, creating an overly complicated narrative, ramping up the creepiness and violence, and cramming way more backstory in than was necessary.
Insidious: Chapter 3 swung in a different direction with its goal, seemingly, to achieve incredible simplicity. The plot is razor thin, the actors pedestrian (Dermot Mulroney shame on you), the characters forgettable (for goodness sake, two thirds vanish within the first half hour), and filled to the brim with cliches. It doesn’t help that Leigh Whannell is directing (his first time in the chair). The man is a good writer, a decent actor, but not a good director. Jump scares are telegraphed early, actors seem lost in their performances, and scenes seem to either drag far too long or end far too soon. Perhaps it was trying to juggle directing with acting and writing that led to this incredibly empty installment.
Let’s begin with the characters. Despite spending an entire movie with her, I knew nor cared much for the protagonist, a girl who is obsessed with talking to her dead mother again. I know she is short-sighted placing her entire future on a single audition. I know she is vegan because, well, what teen girl isn’t these days? I know she is self-centered, focusing on trying to memorize a scene for her audition rather than helping her father with her brother, though to be fair, if she were really into this audition and it was everything she had staked her life on, wouldn’t she have known her scene well before the day of the audition? Seems we can add poor planner and procrastinator to her traits. We never really get a sense for why she misses her mom except that, well, mom’s dead. She shows no connection to her father or brother, so family seems less than important to her begging the question as to why she is so obsessed with her mom. As to her brother, the boy pops up perhaps three times in the movie first as a plot device to show her conceitedness, then to introduce us to the ghost hunters from the prior films, and finally to say he loves his sister before abandoning her before the final exorcism. Her father is not much better, serving as the frazzled, absent-minded patriarch who is simply oblivious to everything happening around him, which with Dermot Mulroney in the role absolutely depresses me. Where is his mourning for his lost wife? Where is that sense of overprotectiveness? With his wife dying a slow death by cancer, you’d think with the events that transpire involving his daughter would draw out those fears anew giving the actor something to really chew on, but no! There are the background characters of the protagonst’s friend who disappears a third of the way into the movie (great friend), the potential boyfriend (who likely hooked up with the friend since he disappeared around the same times), the wise senile black woman who appears for two scenes and then dies off screen, her husband who seems to act more the mourning widower than Dermot (why couldn’t YOU have played the father?!?!?), and finally the returning characters of Elise and the ghost hunters.
Elise is the most wronged character in the movie. She went from an interesting, strong-willed figure in the prior two films to this spineless caricature of the woman who has lost faith only to be forced to find it again. With this being a prequel, whatever tension this subplot may have offered is totally neutered. We know she is going to return to working in the supernatural. We know she is going to overcome this. Why bother with this incredibly dull, hacky subplot? Did we really need to see her mourning a husband who committed suicide? BTW, suicide seems to happen a lot in this movie with her husband, the mourning black widower, several of the ghosts, the attempt by the main character, the attempt to seduce Elise to kill herself; you’d think this was a supernatural sequel to Heathers.
The villain, while interestingly designed, has little to do other than to heave and gasp while leaving black footprints everywhere which loses its creep factor quickly after we see it the first time. The director solely brings him out for the jump scares and to ramp up the fear factor, but this spirit is never truly allowed to be fleshed out outside of those few scenes he is given. There is some vague history about him having lived in the building, leading others to kill themselves so he could steal their souls, his potentially being demonic, etc. But he never really becomes anything more than a shadow of what he could have been and an odd character in a franchise that was built on the dead wanting back into the world of the living, for good or ill. If he wanted to feed on Quinn, why don’t we see her wasting away? Why isn’t he allowed to become the cancer he symbolizes? Why can’t we be given a real reason for the dad to step up, for Elise to find the courage to challenge this monster, and for us, the audience, to just damn well care?
As for the plot, it does simply what it is supposed to do; push the story forward with little that is memorable. We’re told that Quinn misses her mother and has tried to contact her leading her to Elise. Why couldn’t we have seen these attempts rather than being told about them? See the hope she has in possibly talking to her mom again. Witness as that hope starts to darken because others think her obsession is leading her to a dark place? Well, because we have to quickly insert Elise with her story which is intertwined with Quinn’s, this need to let go of her fears and her pain. We are introduced to Quinn’s dysfunctional family who it’s made clear will not have the ability to help her with her dad being busy with work and her brother hermetically sealed in his room. A scene plays out of Quinn botching her audition because of her inability to think of nothing but her mom, which said audition loses any real value directly following the scene. Quinn gets injured, horribly, though her father doesn’t seem to blink an eye at nearly losing his daughter which could have upped the stakes. The villain makes himself known now that she is crippled and can’t get away which really kills the tension (if she can’t run, then what the hell can she do but suffer which she does). Then we go paint by numbers as the hunters show up followed by an emboldened Elise (who simply needed a peptalk). They go into the Further and they save her repeating roughly the same ending of the first movie. I won’t bother with how Leigh sprinkled a great deal of winks at the prior movies which woefully serves to show how lacking this film is.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is the Alien 3 of this franchise: an attempt to return to what worked originally only to flounder because once you go big you can only go bigger or seem hollow in comparison. Why the decision was made to go into prequel territory I will never know since the only way for this franchise to survive is to try new things, not dwell on what worked and simply keep clutching to those strands. Perhaps it is time for this movie to accept that its end has come and to pass into the Further.