More than any other genre, horror is known for churning out sequel after sequel. That’s one of the benefits of working on the cheap: All you need is one strong opening weekend and you can make a profit, and after a few installments, you can pull that off based on name recognition alone. The latest horror franchise to expand the brand is Insidious, which drops the tepid, totally generic Insidious: Chapter 3 in theaters this weekend.
Leigh Whannell, writer of the previous installments (and Saw), takes over the director’s chair from his partner-in-crime, James Wan, who has moved on to helming movies like the billion-dollar-earning Furious 7 and the upcoming Aquaman. Without so much as a short to his name, Insidious 3 marks Whannell’s directorial debut, and what he delivers is a paint-by-numbers horror offering that brings nothing fresh or even moderately appealing to the table. There is nothing particularly egregious going on, but neither is there anything of interest to be found.
A prequel set before the events of the Lambert family haunting from the first film, Insidious 3 follows Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott of the upcoming Jem and the Holograms adaptation). A gifted dreamer with hopes of attending a prestigious New York drama school, she turns to Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a reluctant psychic who can communicate with the dead, in the hopes of getting advice from her dead mother. As it turns out, Quinn has been targeted by a sinister demon that answers the call from the other side, and he torments her throughout the rest of the movie.
What follows is only scary if you’ve never seen a horror movie before in your life. Shadowy figures show up, lurking in the corner of dark rooms. Characters do things like look under the bed, seeing nothing, but when they stand up, surprise, there’s some nasty-looking demon man standing behind them. Every cliché, trope, and platitude the genre has ever produced gets trotted out. The result is that the 97-minute run time drags at a snail’s pace.
Whannell fails to create any of the atmospheric tension that comes so effortlessly to Wan, who has a cameo, and is the strongest element of the previous films. Just because you make a room dark doesn’t make it scary, and putting slimy footprints up a wall doesn’t help. After an accident leaves Quinn with two broken legs, the film employs the old invalid-who-can’t-escape setup as the secret history of her building is, vaguely, revealed. Hell, there’s even a “Magical Negro” character who lives next door and is full of crazy talk, but maybe, just maybe, she sees things no one else can and speaks the horrifying truth.
Needless to say, there’s little emotional investment in the characters. Quinn is supposed to be distraught over the death of her mother, but aside from the occasional statement that she misses her mom, who was, “like, um, cool,” you never feel that loss. At home, her setup is stock horror movie dysfunctional family. Her father (Dermot Mulroney) is distant and busy, relying on Quinn to essentially raise her younger brother, a character who exists in the script for no other reason than to deliver one plot point later in the movie.
At best, Insidious 3 is a facsimile of low-budget ’70s supernatural horror, but it never amounts to anything more than that. It’s a beat-for-beat rehash, with nothing left after being Xeroxed so many times. Every last jump scare is placed precisely where you expect it—if you suspect a hand will reach out from the darkness, it does; if you predict a half-rotten corpse standing behind a character when she turns around, good for you.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is middle-of-the-road in every conceivable way. The performances aren’t bad, but no one brings much besides workmanlike space-filling to their roles, the story is bland, and the connections to the earlier films are strained and unnecessary. Had the filmmakers changed the names and a couple of actors, this would be just another supernatural horror film. For a genre all-too-often relegated to the direct-to-video market, a fan can’t help but hope that the big theatrical release treatment will yield a better and more original entry than Insidious: Chapter 3.
Director: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye, Dermot Mulroney
Release Date: June 5, 2015