catching up

An Insidious Primer to Prepare You for The Last Key

Photo: Universal Pictures

Writing-directing partners James Wan and Leigh Whannell helped mainstream torture-centric horror in the United States with the Saw movies back in mid-aughts. A few years later, they veered sharply away from their violent beginnings to lead a sort of supernatural horror boom with the Insidious franchise and then The Conjuring. Though Wan has stepped into a producing role, Whannell is still writing ghost stories: This weekend, Insidious: The Last Key will commemorate eight years of Insidious living squarely in the center of our horror consciousness.

This time around, Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainier has, at long last, become the center of the film, which feels more and more like a long apology to fans for killing her character off in the first Insidious. (They can keep apologizing. That’s fine!) Since it’s been so long since we started on this journey, let’s take a look back at the Insidious mythology, reminding you which ghosts mattered the most, and where the hell we are in the timeline of this series.

Insidious (2010)
Stylistically, the first Insidious wrote the visual playbook for the floating-eye camera style that came to define James Wan’s ghost movies. As the franchise that snapped us out of the gore-sploitation era, it’s a practically quaint little haunting story. For the first go-round, it’s all about the Lambert family: Josh (Patrick Wilson), Renai (Rose Byrne), their sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor), and a little baby. After Dalton falls into a coma that medical science has no explanation for — and their home becomes extremely haunted — Josh and Renai are forced to consider alternate solutions. Josh’s mom, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), has a hunch this is all supernatural — because she confronted a similar problem with Josh when he was a boy. It turns out that Dalton and Josh share an ability to astrally project from their bodies and interact with the spirit dimension. For Josh, that resulted in his being exposed to a spirit that followed him back to the corporeal plane and could be seen only in photographs, and for Dalton that meant getting trapped in an alternate dimension inhabited by ghosts, some of which want to keep his soul prisoner so they can possess his empty human body and walk among the living again. Rude!

This is how we meet Elise Rainier, whom Lorraine enlisted to help Josh when he was a young. She shows up with her Spectral Sightings assistants, Specs and Tucker, and together they run a semi-high-tech spirit intervention business. Elise explains the shared abilities of Josh and Dalton, and tells them about the spirit realm she calls the Further, where Dalton’s soul is being held captive by a red-faced demon with hooves. Happens to the best of us. If Dalton’s body is left for too long, a spirit will find its way in, so Josh and Elise have to enter the Further and pull him out before it’s too late. They succeed, but before celebratory drinks are over, Elise senses that Josh isn’t quite himself — and she’s right. A spontaneous photo of him captures an image of a woman shrouded in black (the same one who latched onto him as a child), who followed Josh back from the Further and possessed his body before his soul could return. The movie ends right after Josh — now inhabited by the Bride in Black — strangles Elise to death. Renai finds the body in the living room.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
Chapter 2 picks up right where one left off, with Renai being questioned by police after Elise’s death. Obviously, since Josh is possessed by the Bride in Black, the Lambert family is still totally being haunted, and the remaining good guys need to find out the origin of the entity so they can banish it for good. Without Elise, they enlist the help of another medium named Carl, who was friends with Elise and also helped Josh when he was a young boy, which is where the story opens: In 1986, Lorraine called in Elise and Carl to help free her son from the infamous Bride in Black. The two mediums repressed little Josh’s ability to enter the Further, which kept the malevolent force at bay, but it turns out the Bride stayed waiting in the Lambert family basement until it could strike again. With Josh, Renai, and the kids staying at Lorraine’s house while the cops clear the crime scene in their front room, that puts them in the line of Angry Spirit Fire.

The second movie gets deep in the weeds, revealing more about the Further and the origin of the Bride, who, in life, was a man named Parker Crane. It turns out Crane was a patient at the hospital where Lorraine Lambert worked as a doctor. He was admitted after trying to castrate himself, and eventually jumped to his death from the roof of the building. Before dying, Crane managed to murder 15 women as a serial killer known as — you guessed it! — the Black Bride, because he wore a black wedding dress when slaughtering his victims. He did so on the orders of his mother, who raised him as a girl — and whose ghost is also now also haunting the Lamberts, ordering her son’s spirit (which, as you’ll recall, is inhabiting the body of Josh) to kill the entire family.

Because Josh’s body is possessed, it means his spirit is in the Further. After being attacked by Bride Josh, Carl enters the Further to find Spirit Josh so they can try to contact Elise’s ghost and enlist her help to vanquish the Bride once and for all. On this mission, Spirit Josh realizes he’s experiencing time out of order, and we see callback events to the first film — and it’s revealed that some of the spooky occurrences in the first Insidious were actually spirit Josh traveling through Further time to try and warn his family about threatening demons! Spirit Josh even visits little 1986 Josh to find out where The Bride’s Further HQ is, so he can finally destroy her. (The Cranes had a home of their own, but for some reason, in the afterlife, they live in Lorraine’s basement.)

The three good guys end up in a confrontation with mother Crane. While she’s trying to choke Spirit Josh to death, Elise comes in with the surprise attack, beating mother Crane to death (as much as ghosts can “die” again) with a rocking horse. This proves to be the final liberating act, as the Bride in Black is sucked from Josh’s body and into Further oblivion. As Josh’s spirit finally returns to his body, we see ghost Elise fade into the black. It’s surprisingly sad to say goodbye to Elise again, but fortunately, the movie ends with Specs and Tucker doing a cold call on a house because a “friend” of theirs said a woman who lives there is in trouble. As the Spectral Sightings boys talk to the family at the door, ghost Elise enters the house to talk to a catatonic girl who’s probably on the receiving end of some asshole ghost that’s trying to claim her. A medium’s work is never done!!! Not even in death.

Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)
Chapter 3 is the first prequel in the Insidious franchise, and it takes place “a few years before the Lambert haunting.” The third movie shows us how Elise came to use her gifts again after swearing them off for a time, as well as how she built the Spectral Sightings business with Tucker and Specs. Most important to the mythology, though, is what we learn about the heroic medium’s eventual murder.

The ghost of the week in Chapter 3 is a withered man in an oxygen mask that keeps living things as pets; when we enter Chapter 3, he has claimed young Quinn Brenner, a teen girl who thinks the ghost of her dead mother has been communicating with her when it’s really been a lonely malevolent spirit beckoning her to the dark side. (Although her mom has also been trying to send her a hail.) Desperate and afraid, Quinn’s dad Sean (Dermot Mulroney) finds Elise and pleads with her to take up Quinn’s case, and in explaining to him why she retired, Elise actually maps out how she will eventually die (in the first Insidious).

After her husband committed suicide, Elise projected into the spirit world to find him, and an entity, the Bride in Black, followed her back. She tells Sean, “A woman. I could hear her in my head screaming over and over that she’s going to kill me. I think— no; I know. If I continue with this work, she’s going to kill me.” (Based on what we know from the first and second movies, the Bride has probably been pissed at Elise since 1986, and was only able to latch onto her after the death of her husband.) She relays the same story to Carl, who’s popping up again after Chapter 2 to give her council; when Elise says that she truly does believe she will die by the hand of the Bride — and that’s why she can no longer use her gift to help others — Carl says, “You’re stronger than her. You’re alive.”

Elise obviously does decide to help Quinn, regardless of the personal risk to herself, and when she goes into the Further to guide Quinn back to this world she encounters the Bride, who leaps forward and strangles her and says, “This is how you die.” Elise replies, “Not today it isn’t,” before overpowering her and forcing her into retreat. That showdown, however, was in the Further, where Elise was alive and the Bride was a ghost. In the first Insidious, the demon possesses the body of Josh Lambert, making it a human-on-human murder, meaning the Bride’s threats were actually prophecy.

But this movie ends with a (very temporary) happily-ever-after, with Elise rescuing Quinn, putting her in touch with her mother’s spirit, and striking up a business partnership with Tucker and Specs.

Insidious: The Last Key
The latest effort to rectify the death of Elise Rainier, the heart of the Insidious franchise, is The Last Key, in which fans will learn the origin story of their favorite interdimensional traveler. It’s a sequel to a prequel (taking place after Chapter 3 but before the original Insidious) and the fourth installment of a horror franchise — but the ascendance of Shaye to full-on leading lady, along with the introduction of murder-mystery elements and some new Rainier family drama (welcome aboard, Bruce Davison!), helps set Last Key apart from the first three movies, and keeps it from veering into total “Scooby and the Gang” spooky serials territory.

One of the charming things about Insidious has always been that its demons look … a little bit silly, giving them an old-fashioned haunted-house-movie feel, especially when they’re not human-based. That red-faced demon from the first movie was pretty goofy, but the new super-specter is actually really creepy-looking, and a big gray skin sack with keys for fingers that can lock your voice inside your throat forever is almost del Toro–esque. Whether or not a fifth Insidious goes into production is likely dependent on the box-office performance of Last Key, but Shaye is as good as ever in the latest chapter of this saga. And even though you know she’s destined to die, it’s always a joy to watch Elise Rainier work.

An Insidious Primer to Prepare You for The Last Key