Before the Insidious franchise, Lin Shaye was best known for playing bit parts in Farrelly brothers comedies. (Remember the lascivious landlady from Kingpin? Yep, that’s her.) And horror, a genre that likes its actresses either young, virginal, and resourceful or young, promiscuous, and dead, might seem an unlikely place for a seventysomething to shine. But that’s what Shaye does in Insidious: Chapter 3, a prequel that completes the arc of her character, reluctant psychic Elise Rainier, from a supporting player to the emotional core of the series. Unfortunately, Insidious: Chapter 3 tends to hit its emotional beats just a little too hard—Shaye’s big Ripley moment, where she challenges a demon with a defiant, “C’mon, bitch,” comes off more goofy than empowered, and the film’s sentimental resolution borders on treacly. But as a wise, compassionate, fearless, motherly protector, Shaye is awesome.
The self-assured older woman is contrasted with Stefanie Scott as Quinn Brenner, a high school student who is rendered literally helpless for most of the movie with two broken legs and a neck brace. That makes her easy prey for demons, which begin to insinuate themselves into Quinn’s life after she attempts to contact her recently deceased mother. Frightened and confused, Quinn reaches out to Elise, who is mourning a loved one of her own and initially refuses to get involved. But as the attacks against the physically and emotionally vulnerable Quinn escalate, Elise begins having visions of the imperiled young woman, and eventually comes to her rescue. (It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Danny Torrance and Dick Hallorann in The Shining, a comparison that bears itself out in the orange and brown patterned carpet in the hallway of Quinn’s apartment building.)
The motif of grief runs throughout Insidious: Chapter 3, which is surprisingly thematically rich for the third installment of a horror franchise. This emotional undercurrent informs the fright scenes, which otherwise lean rather heavily on jump scares. But some of those grabby bits are admittedly effective, and director Leigh Whannell enhances them with grotesque character designs and well-executed sound, always an asset in a horror movie. Production designer Jennifer Spence, who also worked on The Lords Of Salem and the Paranormal Activity movies, deserves recognition for her work as well, which stands out when it needs to and recedes into the background when it doesn’t.
Whannell, a longtime collaborator of Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 director James Wan, wrote or co-wrote all three films in the series, which explains his obvious affinity for the returning characters. (He also plays one of those characters, nerdy ghost hunter Specs, who—along with his crony Tucker, played by Angus Sampson—provides comic relief.) Where Whannell stumbles is in the necessary grunt work of setting up those familiar faces, which really only come into play in the second half of the film. Early expository scenes feel lackluster, and the Brenner family is about as thinly drawn as Whannell could get away with. There’s really not much to say about Dermot Mulroney, whose sole character traits as Quinn’s dad are that he’s frazzled and kind of clueless, and even less to say about her little brother, played by Tate Berney.
So if Whannell and company want to make an Insidious: Chapter 4, which the last five minutes of the movie make it obvious that they do, fine. But next time, don’t devote half the film to some generic family that is only going to appear in one installment anyway. Just make it the Lin Shaye show—it appears to be what Whannell wants to do, and it’s what this reviewer wants to watch.