You know when a horror film has the words last, final and (or) end in the title, they absolutely mean it.
Cast of Characters:
Elise Rainier – Lin Shaye
Tucker – Angus Sampson
Specs – Leigh Whannell
Gerald Rainier – Josh Stewart
Imogen Rainier – Caitlin Gerard
Ted Garza – Kirk Acevedo
Det. Whitfield – Marcus Henderson
Melissa Rainier – Spencer Locke
Christian Rainier – Bruce Davison
KeyFace – Javier Botet
Director – Adam Robitel
Screenplay – Leigh Whannell
Producer – Jason Blum, Oren Peli, James Wan & Leigh Whannell
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language
New Mexico, 1950s, a young Elise Rainier (Ava Kolker) has discovered she has a gift for talking to the dead via the spirits of executed prisoners from the penitentiary her cruel father Gerald (Josh Stewart) works at as a guard. Despite the love and encouragement of her mother Audrey (Tessa Ferrer), Elise’s father, unsurprisingly, demands her to suppress these abilities.
Decades later, after tragedy forced her to abandon her brother and abusive father, Elise (Lin Shaye), along with her ghost-hunting colleagues Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell), finds herself back where it all began for her. Forced to confront the evil that still exists in that home, as well as her embittered, estranged brother Christian (Bruce Davison), Elise embarks once again on a dangerous journey into “The Further” (for those unfamiliar with the Insidious universe, the Further refers to a purgatory-like supernatural realm) in hopes of finally putting to rest the demons of her past.
So here we are with a whole new year of movies, and you know what that means? Kicking the year off right with the cinematic sewage pit of January. Yes, for those that don’t know, with studios spending more time making their final “For Your Consideration” pushes to the Oscar voters, January is typically the time of year we get the spoiled leftovers they didn’t put much time or care into marketing. Instead, they just plop them down in the first month of the year and be done with them. More often than not, they’re horror films… bad horror films… bad, bad, very, very bad horror films.
Surprisingly, the first week of 2018 is giving us the next entry in one of the more successful franchises in recent years – Insidious. Between the first three films, $370 million was made on combined production budgets totaling $16.5 million. Add producing names like Jason Blum, James Wan, Oren Peli and Leigh Whannell, the former two easily being the hottest filmmaking names in the horror genre right now, and it’s a bit of a shock that we’re getting this film instead of some half-assed, junky slasher or amateurish ghost flick.
Perhaps I should’ve said relief instead of shock? Last thing I need is another Bye Bye Man.
Looking back at the three prior Insidious entries, I’d be lying if I said they were great films. Blum, Wan, Peli and Whannell have all worked on better projects; however, the Insidious franchise has been one that I’d say has been consistently okay. Okay may not be great, but given the horror genre’s track record when it comes to franchises that extend up to four, five or six films, even just okay is still pretty impressive.
So, four films in, how does Insidious: The Last Key fare compared to the prior three, and is it possible that it could break the “Curse of January”?
The Good: Two words sum up the best thing in The Last Key, and these two words have been the franchise’s most consistent strength: Lin Shaye. For years, Shaye has been a steady character actress viewers mostly remembered from Farrelly brother comedies such as Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, but the Insidious franchise has given her the opportunity to play a bigger, more substantial role. This is the sort of role that you might see an A-lister take for the paycheck and then sleepwalk through the entire production, and we’ve seen some phone-in a part like this before; however, Shaye embraces the character Elise Rainier and has been giving it her all since the first picture.
Though it didn’t start that way, and one wonders if this was writer/co-star Leigh Whannell’s intention from the beginning, the Insidious films have gradually turned into Elise’s story. Despite – SPOILER ALERT – dying at the end of the first film, Whannell has found a way to time hop through each film in order to keep bringing Elise back (for those wondering, the actual chronological order of the series would be 3, 4,1, 2), and there couldn’t have been a better move for the franchise as Shaye brings such depth of humanity and emotion to this role. Instead of myth-building, Whannell wisely opts for exploring Elise’s backstory and how her gifts have, for better or for worse, shaped her life. This lays the groundwork for some emotional moments for Shaye to shine in, and she certainly doesn’t disappoint (a strong scene shared between Elise and her reunited brother played by underrated character actor Bruce Davison adds a little bit of heartbreak to her story).
This fourth time around, Adam Robitel steps into the director’s chair following James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who helmed the first two and then the third, respectively (if you haven’t yet seen Robitel’s small, debut gem The Taking of Deborah Logan, please do so). Robitel doesn’t quite have Wan’s touch, but he does show a fine craft for generating suspense, especially during a great opening prologue that’ll be sure to have you grabbing your armrest. He also takes the overused horror convention of jump scares – the “fart joke” of horror films – and smartly toys with our anticipation at certain moments. In one particular scare, like some sort of twisted masochist, Robitel has us waiting and waiting… and waiting some more for the jump to occur and right at the moment we finally let our guard down – BAM!
The Bad: Like all Insidious films before it, The Last Key begins to lose steam shortly before the third-act trip into the Further, where once again someone needs to be rescued from another demon. It’s a writing oneself into a corner out Whannell has relied on for three sequels, and the result here is once again underwhelming. There’s nothing particularly memorable about this film’s demon, KeyFace (yes, a dopey name, for sure), though his first few appearances onscreen provide a few hair-raising moments thanks to the wonderfully twisted, though still underused, physical talents of Javier Botet (who, undoubtedly, will have a very long and prosperous career playing creepy, contorted monsters). Given that this film ties directly into the first Insidious, it’s a wonder why Whannell didn’t bring back the Bride in Black (one of the first film’s more popular ghosts) back at all, especially since it’s alleged that she has been following Elise around for years.
The missed opportunity here is that Whannell gives this story a theme of childhood abuse that not only would’ve been a nice change of pace for the series, but would’ve packed this film with an emotional punch if handled right. For most of the film, Whannell presents us with Elise and her brother Christian’s real-life abuse being just as horrific as the supernatural demons that haunt her (as Davison’s Christian tells her, the real monster wasn’t the demons she saw, but their own father), and that would’ve provided a devastating parallel to the supernatural world the franchise has already built. However, without giving anything away, the third-act explanation behind the abuse is a disappointing cop-out.
Also, while Whannell and Angus Sampson’s comic relief as Elise’s ghost-hunting techies is far from unwelcome and their intentionally awkward bits are mostly effective, I feel compelled to bring up a kissing scene toward the end between them and Davison’s two daughters (played by Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke) that is just a touch off-putting. I get that Specs and Tucker are hardly meant to be the poster boys for cool and are a bit socially clumsy, but that is one gag that fell flat on its face.
The Ugly: Whatever sort of beastly rod Papa Rainier uses as his whipping stick.
Consensus: Hardly flawless yet also far from terrible, Insidious: The Last Key compensates its missteps with enough effective jolts, tense atmosphere and, above all else, another committed, emotionally earnest performance from Lin Shaye to add an another solid entry to the Insidious franchise. Color me shocked, January!
Silver Screen Fanatic’s Verdict: I give Insidious: The Last Key a B- (★★½).
REVIEWS COMING LATER NEXT WEEK…
1/8/18 What the Hell Were They Thinking?!
1/9/18 Benjamin’s Stash
1/10/18 Top 10 Worst Films of 2017
1/12/18 The Commuter
1/12/18 Paddington 2
1/13/18 The Polka King
1/13/18 Proud Mary