I really dig Insidious. It felt like the perfect salve to spread on the rash of found footage movies that had plagued the genre after Paranormal Activity crushed the box office in 2007. Insidious felt classic and timeless, drawing more on atmosphere and mood than easy scares. While I respected the direct continuation that Insidious: Chapter 2 (even their sequel naming convention is classy) attempted to pull off, it also did some things that undermined the unknown factors of the original. With the knowledge that Insidious: Chapter 3 was a prequel, I was worried that the same issue was going to be exacerbated.
That’s actually not the case at all. In fact, aside from a few clunky introductions (such as how The Further was named) and one egregious callback at the end, Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t really suffer from too many symptoms of prequelitis. It’s amazingly standalone in its story, and although you’ll get more out of knowing who some of these characters are and the world they’ve inhabited for three movies, you could feasibly see this on its own. That should be the goal of any prequel and on that front, Insidious: Chapter 3 works.
What also works is Lin Shaye. I’ll get into some of the film’s protagonist issues in a bit, but for now I want to praise Lin Shaye up, down and sideways. Insidious: Chapter 3 is her show. Shaye’s psychic character Elise feels the most vibrant in this installment, even getting a couple moments of honest badassery. I’ve always had a soft spot for the actress (thanks heavily in part to her calling out my hometown in Critters), but she really does showcase why she’s become the central human figure of this franchise.
Of course, the real iconic figures of Insidious have been its monsters, and Insidious: Chapter 3‘s addition to that roster is a mixed bag. The Man Who Can’t Breathe isn’t particularly memorable when it comes to his physical design, but his lack of speech, labored wheezing, and blackened footprints add up to some effective bits. The greatest thing is that we never learn who he is/was. We’re only told that he was a tenant who lived in the apartment above teenage protagonist Quinn (Stefanie Scott) at some point, but we never know anything else about him. It’s this vagueness that typified the spectral shenanigans of the first film and helped make that entry so effective, and doing so with this film’s antagonist helps so much.
Where the film begins to tear itself in two is in its approach to a lot of its horror. Like I said, the unknown qualities of the first film’s menace were what strengthened its malicious aura. That unknown quality led to a lot of instances of simple creepy imagery. Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t have as much of that as it should, and instead is a little too full of jump scares. That’s a shame because its moments of silent, unobtrusive spookiness are pretty effective. The first few times we see The Man Who Can’t Breathe involve him being off in the distance waving at Quinn. These are genuinely chilling images, and it’s a bummer when the film sacrifices them in favor of easy startles.
It’s also very apparent that Leigh Whannell is not James Wan (who has a brief cameo). Wan brought a chilly eye to the previous two films that Whannell doesn’t attempt to replicate, making this film seem visually out of step with the other entries. It’s by no means poorly directed (there are good sequences, my favorite being Elise’s first transition into The Further), but it feels too off not to notice.
The film’s biggest issue is in its attempt to tell two different stories. This is set up at the beginning fairly well (Quinn seeks out Elise in order to contact her deceased mother), but as the movie wears on, Quinn’s part in the story is diminished and Elise is revealed to be the film’s real protagonist. In fact, Quinn is crippled near the beginning of the film and spends the majority of the movie in bed, giving her nothing to do except be terrorized. It doesn’t help that all the other direct characters in her part of the story are pretty useless. Her father (a serviceable Dermot Mulroney) is almost a non-entity, her next door neighbor that has a crush on her disappears about halfway through the movie, and her little brother exists solely to act as a conduit to get Specs and Tucker (Elise’s assistants from the previous movies) into the story. In contrast, Elise’s story is more impacting and interesting (we learn that she had a husband who died and how that led to her investigating the darker side of the spirit world), but the film’s pacing makes her feel secondary to Quinn.
There’s also a real deus ex machina in the film’s climax that is so poorly set up that it feels like it comes from nowhere. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it is necessary to mention it.
As far as sequels go, Insidious: Chapter 3 is mostly inoffensive. It doesn’t do anything that spoils what came before, but it also does very little to justify its existence (aside from Lin Shaye killing it). It does feel like a very final entry, unless the series abandons its characters and sticks solely with its concept. I don’t think anyone wants that, and if Insidious: Chapter 3 is destined to be a series’ sendoff, I’m okay with that. It could have been better, but it’s not bad.