Any studio looking to kickstart a surefire horror franchise knows to hire Australian genre wunderkind James Wan and let him do pretty much whatever he wants. After popularizing torture porn with the Saw franchise during the early 2000s, Wan is now responsible for getting underway not one, but two PG-13 jump-scare ghost horror franchises: The Conjuring cinematic universe and the Insidious series. As far as the general premises and overall technical moods of these films are concerned, they’re really not that different from one another. In fact, I’d be fairly surprised if a crossover flick doesn’t happen sometime soon. They are both about a team of paranormal experts who help families get rid of evil spirits that have nothing better to do than lure unsuspecting, none-too-bright kids into dark rooms and basements, wait a ridiculously long time hiding in order to raise suspense as if they’re trolling their victims, before popping up to scare the bejeezus out of them before the screen cuts to black.
These demons rinse and repeat this plan in mind-numbingly episodic fashion, until they realize that the movie they’re in is reaching its second act break, which propels them to pull the cutest and most likable kid into the spirit world, forcing the experts to go into an afterlife that curiously look like a generic Halloween haunted house tour in order to save the poor rascal. At this point, after a significant number of entries in both franchises, it’s clear that we can’t expect the set pieces themselves to offer anything new and exciting. Hey, the formula obviously works—why mess with it, right? Since that’s the case, I don’t see much of a choice but to analyze the narrative and characters that surround those set pieces as the main approach to gauge the difference in quality between these films.
The most important element to keep in mind while doing so is the paranormal expert characters themselves, our conduits into the spooky world that these movies inhabit. The Conjuring universe has Ed and Lorraine Warren, whom I find to be entirely too self-serious, a bit smug and fairly interchangeable. (The fact that the real people they’re based on are proven con artists doesn’t help matters.) Despite being played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the characters are rarely written with much depth for the actors to sink their teeth into. The Insidious films, on the other hand, have Elise Rainier, played with subtle humanity and compassion by veteran character actress Lin Shaye. Elise is as adept at utilizing her paranormal gifts to connect to the spirit world as the Warrens, yet she has a relatable frailty about her, as if she’s using her services to help other people with their pesky ghost problems to deal with her own demons, literally and figuratively.
Rainier also comes with her own set of comedy sidekicks, a bit of levity that’s sorely missing from The Conjuring films, in the form of two obnoxious but well-meaning techie ghost hunters named Specs (longtime James Wan partner-in-crime and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson, who was terrific in Season 2 of Fargo). Their goofy humor tends to be a bit much, especially when it comes to some unintentionally uncomfortable moments spurred on by a running joke where they awkwardly hit on a girl half their age, but some levity is welcome than none at all.
The first Insidious utilized Elise and her crew as supporting characters, and the series gradually brought them to the foreground, which is a smart move, since they’re what makes this otherwise generic PG-13 ghost franchise feel unique and interesting. Insidious: The Last Key, the fourth film in the series, is a prequel to the first film, as it shows Elise having to go back to the house in which she grew up in order to face both the literal demon that she unwittingly released into the world when she was a child, and the figurative demon that was her abusive father. That old chestnut of a tagline for sequels, “This time it’s personal,” fits fairly well in reference to The Last Key.
To be sure, Whannell’s script isn’t beyond copy-pasting strikingly similar set pieces from previous films, only to come up with new places for ghosts to pop up, as if he has a mad-libs style template in his screenwriting software—“What if the demon jumps out of a suitcase this time ?” Yet he also possesses a deft touch in finding thematic parallels between the demon that’s haunting Elise’s home, a demon that feeds off of sustained anger and resentment, and the way victims of physical and emotional abuse continually suffer at the hands of traumatizing memories they can’t seem to escape. The way the demon uses its key-shaped fingers to silence its victims provides a powerful image that reminds us of the abusers’ first weapon in their arsenal if to shut down their targets’ voice and credibility.
The finale yet again propels us into the “other side”, a spirit world that’s half overworking fog machines, half ’90s Marilyn Manson album cover concept art, with the expected ghostly shenanigans that come with it, but at least this time around it’s wrapped around clear symbolism that’s thematically satisfying, supported heavily by Shaye’s passionate performance. Who knew that actually attempting to create three-dimensional characters the audience cares about in these films could result in a more engaging narrative experiences than just episodically stringing together a bunch of predictable set pieces? (The makers of Annabelle: Creation should take notes.)
Insidious: The Last Key certainly doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre, but it’s a solid entry in a franchise I thought would have run out of steam by now, and you can certainly do a lot worse when it comes to an early January release. Director Adam Robitel, a relative newcomer, efficiently mixes the baseline expectations that fans have of these films with the emotional themes that Whannell’s script supports. I hope that the series will continue with Lin Shaye as Elise at its center, like a paranormal investigator version of Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The fact that a 74-year-old actress can headline a popular franchise is a cause for celebration in and of itself.
Director: Adam Robitel
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Bruce Davison
Release Date: January 5, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.