Everyone is different, and no cinematic medium proves this statement more than horror. Some people are paralyzed by heights. Others are frozen at the sight of spiders. Another might cower when thinking about claustrophobic spaces. We’re all just terrified little snowflakes with our own unique fear triggers, fluttering downward towards a bloody chopping floor.
With this mentality in mind, Insidious: Chapter 3 won’t be for everyone. My post-screening chat with some critic buddies revealed some other disapproving tastes, but for my money, writer-turned-director Leigh Whannell picks up right where James Wan left off in the scare department. Thank you, Insidious, for once again providing the jolts that mainstream horror so desperately seems to be lacking.
Insidious: Chapter 3 goes the prequel route instead of a straight sequel, because we all need more Lin Shaye in our lives. Everyone’s favorite “Further” explorer returns to fight a soul-harvesting demon who is terrorizing hopeful college attendee Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott). Whannell’s newest victim lives with her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and brother Alex (Tate Berney) in a creaky old apartment, which reeks of emptiness after her mother’s death. She tries to connect with her mother’s spirit and calls upon the at-the-time retired Elise Rainier (Shaye) for assistance. But Elise sees something during a sympathetic reading session, and the signs of a spiritual presence turn out to be those of a malevolent demon. After Quinn finds herself in a losing battle with the paranormal maniac and confined to a wheelchair with two broken legs, Elise decides to come out of retirement and wage war once again with the undead – a background story that Insidious fans will recognize.
With Whannell at the helm, Insidious: Chapter 3 feels like a very different filmaesthetically . There are little intricacies in his cinematography that paint a smaller picture than Wan’s more wondrous, lavish productions, and character development feels a tad slighter this time around. Half the time Quinn finds herself being terrorized by an entity known only as The Man Who Can’t Breathe, her brother Alex is absolutely NOWHERE to be found. His existence as a human means nothing to the film, he’s shoved off camera when possessions get nasty and he only has one pivotal connection to the Insidious mythology before he’s shooed away for the film’s dangerous finale. Quinn also finds herself with little defining characteristics besides some groovy posters on the wall and a Pixies tank top, as Whannell attempts to establish personality through visual details instead of dynamic performances.
As noted above, there’s a noticeable change in the film’s visionary tendencies versus Wan’s previous work. Whannell favors static camera motions and a grittier lens focus, which rivals Wan’s more artistic, colorful and fantastically creepy sensibilities. Insidious: Chapter 3 feels more like just another ghost story than it does a precursor to The Lady In Black and Elise’s horrific gas-mask acid trip of a seance, but differentiation doesn’t automatically spell death. You can tell that Whannell picked up a few tricks from his Australian directing buddy throughout their collaborative career, even though his usage of pitch-black backgrounds does become an overused effect. The darkness never hides niceties like a pony or a friendly face, and Whannell loves giving us a violent jolt at the expense of the vile creatures who appear with a fierce burst forward.
But we show up to Insidious: Chapter 3 expecting another barrage of terrorizing scares, and Whannell’s delivery as a ringmaster of terror proves to be effective and jarring. Remember, Whannell has been scripting the Insidious scares all this time, from Tiny Tim’s brutal cameo to that red Devil’s incessant chasing, and Heir Scaremeister brings the thunder for a third round of mental punishment.
Whannell is a deceptive bastard, challenging typical genre set-ups with his own unexpected spins, yet he also brings us face-to-face with the numerous villains throughout a bevy of early scenes as well. The helplessness caused by Quinn’s plaster-wrapped legs adds a level of imprisonment that equates to sickening tension, as she can only watch The Man Who Can’t Breathe inch closer and closer. There’s no escaping, and we feel her paralyzing fear with each blood-curdling scream for help. Whannell understands that scares aren’t simply about jolts, and he finds ways to dismantle our psyche to allow for even louder screams when spirits begin to play nasty. Plus, the finale scare – DAYUM.
There’s also a bit of Insidious wanking that doesn’t seem terribly necessary, such as Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) bantering with Elise about wearing suits instead of their Masters of the Universe inspired novelty tees, but all the franchise goofing is in good fun. Between Tucker munching away on a distractingly blue-frosted cupcake, and Spec’s avoidance of any true “Further” beings, there’s a noticeable upbeat when the ghost hunters step back on camera – equally felt when Elise chases a malicious spirit into her once-locked reading room.
Whannell makes every attempt to tie all three films together, including a visit from Carl (Steve Coulter), but some questions do arise while we’re wrapping our mind around the ever-growing mythology. The prequel nature actually hinders our understanding at points, as Elise makes connections that she should probably already know given her understood fate in Insidious: Chapter 2. But it’s totally cool, because Elise turns into a demon-shoving badass who goes fist-to-fist with anyone who dares challenge her in “The Further.” I mean, we actually get to hear Shaye utter a badass taunt akin to “Bring it, Bitch” – HOW IS THAT NOT A WIN. Well, actually it’s a tad silly and somewhat out of place, but still, points for Elise opening a can of whoopass on evil, soul-snatching monsters.
Alas, Insidious: Chapter 3 does dip the franchise in a downward direction, but that’s like saying [REC] 3: Genesis is the worst [REC] film of the bunch (a positive correlation). Chapter 3 is wholly watchable, skin-crawling-scary and sets Leigh Whannell on the right track as a feature director.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a FAR from perfect horror experience, from lackluster characters in Quinn and Sean (generic single family dynamic), to asking more questions than there are answers for, but howls of sheer terror will be heard throughout the country when this latest chapter opens worldwide. Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 are nightmares birthed from artistry, Gothic influences, subtlety and deadly tension, but Insidious: Chapter 3 teeters a more generic line of Annabelle comparisons – if Annabelle were scary, engaging, and surprisingly bittersweet.
Insidious: Chapter 3 might lack the unique charm of both its predecessors, but it's still a scary-fun thrill ride that delivers some serious, blood-pressure-raising tension.