Adam Robitel’s Insidious: The Last Key fits snugly into James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s ghastly horror franchise, but rarely unlocks its full potential. Scares are ensured – even a few nifty setups that trick and treat to invigorating screams – but an overall story finds itself a bit too preoccupied with existing mythologies. Scenes constantly plug themselves into previous chapters by way of callbacks (like a switchboard operator speedily switching wires), but this means less of a focus on the story at hand. My love for the first three films echoes through multiple dimensions, which makes it even harder to admit that The Last Key is the series’ first stumbling point – no key to my nightmares.
When this new chapter opens, we meet Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) as a curious child living near a prison where death row inmates are regularly killed. It turns out that her gifts were a source of abuse and torment thanks to a father (Josh Stewart) who wanted to beat the weird out of his daughter. One night, while kept in the basement as a form of punishment, Elise unlocks a door only she can see. Mother Audrey (Tessa Ferrer) comes down to find her in a catatonic state, and whatever came from the door ends up strangling the unsuspecting housewife. Suffice it to say, Elise’s powers come with some hefty baggage.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Elise now lives with her paranormal sidekicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), their ghost hunting team Spectral Sightings in its infancy. She receives a call from a Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), and is stunned to hear he now lives in her childhood “house.” He needs her help to expel some kind of spirit from his life, and Elise reluctantly agrees. She sets out for Five Keys, New Mexico with her team, with a nervous stomach and too many repressed memories. What does she find? Multiple “demons” she’s nary prepared for.
In theory, such backstory should enlighten lovers of the Insidious franchise and build a richer universe full of red-faced ghouls and purgatory penitentiary cells. It’s what Whannell has done so well over three chapters already. Insidious has never *just* been a generic “one ghost, multiple victims” rehash – “The Further” represents this vast nothingness of horrific boundlessness.
Yet, even with these advantages, Insidious: The Last Key manages to drag through a dreary haze of plot points that might have been better serviced as singular films. Between Ted Garza’s summoning of Elise, KeyFace’s backstory (or lack thereof), Elise’s traumatic upbringing and grown-up brother Christian (Bruce Davison) waltzing back into her life, too much is happening to close the film on a note of minimal storytelling accomplishments.
Those who’ve laughed along with the Spectral boys’ goofy nerdisms, you’ll have plenty to yuck at between Tucker’s hapless romantic attempts and Specs’ juvenile pajamas. Same for fans of Elise, as she confronts yet another beast who’s emerged from “The Further.” Although, compared to previous entries, something seems to be missing with the trio placed prominently in the foreground. They’ve worked so well as supplemental additions into already dreadful scenarios (the Lamberts, the Brenners), but here there seems to be too much of a stress put on audiences recalling these other cases. Performances are tortured (Shaye/Acevado/Davison) and comically light (Sampson/Whannell), but stifled by scatter-happy plotting.
Pick any subplot and underdevelopment can be felt. Maybe Elise’s confrontation with KeyFace – Javier Botet’s emaciated key-fingered apparition with flesh peeled back from above his mouth – and how it ends with little conflict. Or Elise’s father Gerald, who’s troublesome history comes with realizations but never a true explanation given possibly possessive events. Maybe niece Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), who just happens to waltz into Elise’s life with a similar power – or Christian’s silly decision to enter the very house he was so afraid of for so long (now strung with police tape). Unlike previous films, Insidious: The Last Key forces paranormal outbursts where past chapters managed a more natural, terrifically-tense sequence of events.
That said, a few stand-out moments prove Robitel can master the art of horror manipulation (which is no shock after directing The Taking of Deborah Logan). Some jump scares are projected a mile away, while others – specifically Elise’s fan duct encounter – throw numerous distracting voices before delivering a prime genre jump. It’s not quite enough for tried-and-true fans who yearn for a savage horror beatdown, but those who wince even at the creek of a floorboard will have plenty to hide from. Although, “die hard” fans *will* dig a tremendous realization that could be my favorite subversion of haunted house generics I’ve seen in quite some time – credit to Whannell’s dark imagination – so it’s not all a familiar trod. Just…more than we’d like.
Devout fans of the Insidious films, expect to be underwhelmed by Insidious: The Last Key. Period aesthetics do little for atmosphere where Annabelle: Creation and Ouija: Origin of Evil exude an era’s fears, and Robitel’s “Further” development is rather flat and one-dimensional. I love when ghost stories encompass this grand idea of infinite spirits interacting in afterlife realms, but too many questions are left open here to truly appreciate Wan’s ever-growing brainchild for a fourth go-around. It almost feels, in a way, that Insidious is collapsing in on itself, buried under story complications that’ve grown too unwieldy – maybe this tower of terror has been erected as high as it can go?
Though not a terrible film, Insidious: The Last Key fails to live up to the franchise's high standards.