The first two Insidious films — the tight, terrifying 2010 original, and its weirder though still effective 2013 sequel — were solid examples of our era’s fondness for old-school ghost and haunted-house stories. (In its own way, the first Insidious was a better remake of Poltergeist than the more recent official remake.) Their focused narratives and their use of limited geography served as both a challenge and an opportunity: The first film played with the claustrophobia to chilling results; while the second served as a terrific showcase for Patrick Wilson, who toyed expertly with our uncertainty over his character’s true nature.
The new Insidious, which is a prequel to those earlier films, doesn’t really offer much that’s new, but it starts off as a reasonably reliable series of slow-burn chills. It picks up a few years before the events of the previous two movies, with impressionable teenage aspiring actress Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) trying to communicate with her late mother. She approaches Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the psychic from the first film, who, even though she’s out of the business, agrees to help the young girl. Things soon go awry due to the fact that — as Elise tells Quinn — “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you.” And wouldn’t you know it, a presence far more ill-intentioned than her dear departed ma may have caught a whiff of Quinn’s desperation to commune with the deceased. Soon the young girl is hearing strange noises and seeing strange movements, all the while trying to convince her overworked, harried single dad (Dermot Mulroney) that something not entirely normal might be going on. Elise, meanwhile, doesn’t want to have anything to do with the situation: She already knows way too much about the Further, the dimension where the dead reside — both helpful ghosts and snarling demons — and where one sneering apparition has vowed to eventually kill her.
Since the beginning, the Insidious films have been a collaboration between the guys who gave us Saw — James Wan and Leigh Whannell — and the guy who gave us Paranormal Activity, producer Oren Peli. The first two films were directed by Wan, who has since moved on to throwing muscle cars out of cargo planes; the director this time around is his longtime collaborator and writer Whannell. While their work can vary wildly in quality, all of these filmmakers have built their careers on manipulating the helplessness on which horror feeds — helplessness on the part of both the audience and the characters. In Insidious: Chapter 3, that manifests itself through a car accident that leaves Quinn immobile for much of the film, her two enormous leg casts serving as a constant reminder that she can’t really run away from anybody, living or dead. The film’s most affecting quality is the atmosphere of inevitability it weaves around this girl stuck in bed: Quinn is a sitting duck, and the film makes sure that we know it. Whannell also makes clever use of shadowy backgrounds, much as Wan did in the first Insidious — placing figures and objects in the dark recesses of the frame that seem mundane until they suddenly aren’t.
But as Elise comes back into the story and the film slips deeper and deeper into the Further, the scares start to dissipate, giving way to halfhearted bits of action, clunky comedy, and de rigueur world-building for the earlier (a.k.a. later) films. The dead seem a little too easily dispatched once one fights back, which retroactively threatens to defuse the tension of the whole movie. (“Oh, is that all they had to do?” I found myself muttering at one point.) There’s also the small matter of Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell himself), the two comic relief ghost-hunters from the earlier films, who are introduced here with all sorts of knowing in-jokes that may fly over the heads of anyone who hasn’t watched those films too recently. The result is a film that starts off as a solid, workmanlike exercise in horror, but it can’t quite keep that energy through to the end. This is so often the problem with this genre — scary setups, followed by dopey resolutions — that you sort of want to give the movie a pass. But given its distinguished forebears, Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t quite live up to expectations.