The Devolution of Insidious

The latest (and supposedly last) addition to the Insidious franchise hit cinemas recently, receiving predictably successful box-office ratings but a largely poor response from critics; a noticeable difference from the international critical acclaim of the first movie. On behalf of VultureHound, I delved into James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s paranormal series to discover what changes occurred over the course of the 8-year horror quartet’s journey to incite such responses.

Spoilers ahead…

Insidious (2010) – Rating: ✩✩✩✩

Following the overwhelming success of their first collaborative feature Saw, horror director and scriptwriter duo Wan and Whannell returned in 2010 for the first instalment of Insidious. Departing from graphic torture narratives, their newest concept offers a different perspective on ‘scary’ by immersing itself in the supernatural territory of astral projection. When Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai’s (Rose Byrne) eldest son Dalton becomes comatose following a fall, they grow increasingly worried as months pass without physical or mental improvement. Noticing paranormal activity occurring in the house, the couple seeks help from family-friend-come-demonologist Elsie Reiner (Lin Shaye) and her two assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (played by Whannell himself). Upon investigation, Elsie informs the family Dalton’s dream-like state has caused him to cross over into ‘The Further’, a hostile landscape filled with creepy-as-hell demons. Yet, a hidden family connection to this dark and mysterious world means saving Dalton will prove more difficult than anticipated.

Equipped with an impressive cast- Byrne, Wilson, Rainer and Barbara Hershey in a supporting role as Josh’s mother are all fantastic, with their combined acting ability making Insidious believable, satisfying AND scary. Wilson and Byrne’s acting, alongside Shaye’s show-stopping role as the parapsychologist determined to help the family, are convincing; each scare delivered perfectly by their subtle, increasingly horrified reactions. Wilson’s characterisation as the detached father provides the ideal counterpoint to Byrne’s desperate mother, the stress of the situation taking a toll on their seemingly perfect marriage.

Boasting brilliant set pieces, Wan explores the astral plane as an immersive underworld of empty landscapes haunted by your worst nightmares, caging the audience inside twisted corridors and labyrinths of terror. A particularly unnerving sequence is Josh’s discovery of his house in an alternate reality, filled with terrifying ghostly versions of the nuclear family unit (pictured above). Perhaps too kitsch and theatrical for some horror fans, undeniably it is unique in its design. Wan is toying with our darkest fears, centering on the concept of the threat from within, and providing new ways of exploring such themes. 

Collectively, it’s an accomplished, creative first film which utilises a simplistic but effective narrative and explores horror in personal, effective ways. The excellent addition of humour, with Elsie’s two sidekicks, Specs and Tucker, incorporating a 1980s comedic ghostbusters-esque quality into the narrative, allows Insidious to work on several different levels; it isn’t wholly serious and Wan’s self-awareness is central to the film succeeding. It also perfectly sets itself up for a sequel, with Josh murdering Elsie in a demonic rage and his poor wife slowly realising her husband has been possessed. The revelation is a tantalising cliffhanger which welcomes Insidious 2 and a return to The Further. 

 

Insidious: Chapter 2 – ✩✩✩

Both director-writer duo Wan and Whannell, alongside the original cast, return for the second instalment of Insidious, with the narrative continuing to focus on the haunting of the Lambert family. Wary of treading repetitive narrative patterns, the plot obviously attempts to venture into ‘new territory’ by exploring Josh’s relationship with demonic entities (rather than his son Dalton). During childhood, the spirit of a terrifying serial killer who murdered women under his evil mother’s instructions, named ‘The Bride in Black’, has followed Josh, but was successfully banished by Elsie in the 1980s. Now, returning once again to wreck havoc, Elsie is forced to help Josh exorcise for the final time; except this time, she’s helping as a spirit from The Further, after her death in the first film.

Frustratingly, a large number of plot points rely heavily on the audience’s ability to suspend belief. The concept of time in The Further is not relative and moves out of sequence in comparison to our reality. Thus, despite Elsie’s death in Insidious, she is able to return to the sequel and help the family through the astral plane; her efforts working out of sequence but conveniently matching up to suit saving Josh. Wan and Whannell clearly created this concept to allow Lin Shaye’s inclusion in the sequel and although her presence is appreciated, it results in a level of unbelievability which was not present in the first film. 

Although it isn’t a bad film by any means (heightened by the return of a trustworthy ensemble cast, interesting set design and a consistently spooky soundtrack, which builds tension throughout), it is clear the Insidious franchise is unable to move the narrative forward regarding The Further without becoming slightly stale and uninspired. Where the film succeeds best is in the small and understated moments of terror; Renai slowly following the ghost of ‘The Bride in White’ through the living room as the camera cleverly reveals the freakish women before she spookily disappears. These are the moments that leave you with goosebumps across your skin; not the moments where Wan and Whannell are incorporating ridiculous ideas to add depth and length to the film, which unfortunately begins to feel overrated by the conclusion.

It would have sufficed to leave Chapters One and Two as a duo, but alas…

 

Insidious: Chapter 3 – ✩✩

On board as producer but out of the director’s seat, Wan is replaced by Whannell in the third addition to the horror series and a different family are the central focus, providing a prequel to the events of the Lambert hauntings. Quinn Brenner’s (Stefanie Scott) mother Lilith died a year ago, and the teenager desperately contacts paranormal investigator Elsie in an attempt to communicate with her; despite her father (Dermot Mulroney) and brother Alexs’ (Tate Berney) concerns. Reluctantly, Elsie agrees but is horrified to discover possible vengeful forces connected to Lilith’s spirit, encouraging Quinn to refrain from further paranormal meetings. However, after a car accident leaves her paralysed at home, Quinn’s visions of the ‘The Man Who Can’t Breathe’ intensify and Elsie is forced to help the teenager.

Despite the focus on a different narrative, much of the storyline follows an incredibly similar theme and pattern to Chapters 1 and 2. For example, the bed-bound Quinn is comparable to a comatose Dalton, with visions of demons appearing beside the bed just like the first film. Furthermore, on the series’ third trip into The Further, such scenes start to become repetitive. The set design and spookiness of the astral realm was initially quirky; a landscape which was not feverishly explored so remained hidden and scary. However, by the third film, the mise-en-scene and scare tactics employed in the environment have worn off and it becomes predictable.

The absence of Byrne and Wilson, alongside Wan, is undeniably noticeable and unfortunately, the third instalment becomes the least memorable of the series. Specs and Tucker return, but the once comedic duo are now lacking humorous dialogue, instead becoming caricatures. There simply isn’t any risk-taking or intellectual approaches to the concept of paranormal horror in this film. Although the ‘Lipstick Demon’ of the first film was slightly comical in concept, the revelation sequence was undeniably terrifying; the entity existing in a hellish room, resembling the Devil. The third antagonist however just blends into the many demonic figures existing in horror films since the 1970s, and doesn’t add any unique aspect to the haunting.  

 

Insidious: The Last Key – ✩

Adam Robitel (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) replaces Whannell as director for the final addition of the Insidious franchise, and this one is by far the most ludicrous of the series. Lacking sensible narrative or clear direction, Robitel’s film gradually descends into an unintentionally humorous affair, with the final demon-defeating sequence approaching levels of complete absurdity. As a prequel to the events of Chapters 1 and 2, and following on from Chapter 3, the film appears to lose itself within the franchise in its attempt to provide depth and meaning to the Insidious series. What worked so brilliantly as a study of familial horror in the first film has been completely eradicated in 2018.

Elsie is the central focus (and the only reason The Last Key is remotely watchable), returning to her childhood house of horrors in New Mexico to help banish demons from haunting a new resident. Here, she must confront the malevolent ‘Last Key’ demon from The Further which killed her mother, destroyed her family and now threatens her future. Beginning with a flashback, we witness Elsie’s abusive alcoholic father punish her for having paranormal abilities; attempting to beat the powers out of her. Banished to the basement, she is tempted by the eponymous demon through a secret door, who wants to possess Elsie for her paranormal ability to gain the last key necessary in commanding power over The Further. Whilst her mother attempts to investigate after hearing screams in the basement, she is tragically strangled by the entity before Elsie can regain consciousness. Now an older woman, Elsie must return to the home to confront the demon for the final time.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re not following all of this, because I wasn’t whilst watching the film either. Filled with consistently confusing additions to the narrative, Robitel attempts to combine a host of different story-lines into the film without need or explanation. Supposedly, the ‘Key Demon’ rules over The Further, which has morphed from a hostile environment based on your darkest fears (a genuinely terrifying concept) into a prison-like landscape with hundreds of spirits locked away in a corridor of cells. Supposedly, the demon possesses anyone who lives in the house, forcing them to commit depraved acts towards women by locking them up in a secret room in the basement… Without narrative depth and intellectual dialogue, the revelation of this plot point arrives completely unfounded. Apparently, Elsie’s father and the new resident have both locked women in the basement, chained to the walls. But, for what reason? Now, incorporate Elsie randomly discovering her long-lost brother in a local bar, his two daughters who then help her defeat the demon, the sidekicks Spec and Tucker having a seemingly paedophilic attraction to said young daughters and a strange story-line of female torture and you’ve got yourself an unnecessary, highly problematic and time-wasting final episode.

Frustratingly, what started as Wan and Whannell exploring interesting concepts of horror has morphed into an obvious money-motivated series, something it seems all franchises start to do (Texas Chainsaw, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Saw). If the series had finalised itself after Chapter 2, it would have retained respect in horror circles as an original and creative pair of spine-chilling films. Unfortunately, by continuing to unnecessarily add pointless prequels and sequels, it has garnered attention as another failed paranormal narrative, losing all former credibility.

Now let’s watch the same thing happen to The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, with the arrival of the dispensable follow-up The Nun.

Insidious: The Last Key is in cinemas now.