Prequels present a real problem for the film fan. It’s also a complex creative gamble for the filmmakers. The reason for any revisit — the original hit movie — somehow stood on its own during its initial commercial windfall, and yet now you’re stepping in to reset the mythology, adding shadings and backstory that may undermine how you feel about the franchise overall. It happens all the time. Last year, Annabelle tried to take the doll from the brilliant The Conjuring and give it its own origin. It barely delivered a boo. Now another James Wan/Leigh Whannell frightmare, Insidious, is getting a similar treatment. Thankfully, a pair of previous performers show up to save what could have otherwise been a perfunctory, passable scarefest.
While Wan is off battling blockbusters, he’s left Whannell, his friend and frequent collaborator, in charge of things, and as a first time director, he’s clearly picked up a few tips from his partner in Saw. He’s not a mimic, but with his initial foray into fear, he’s got some of Wan’s moves. The other returning player is story anchor Lin Shaye. This is really her character’s story, a look at how soon-to-be demon hunter medium Elise Rainer found her way into the mysterious, maniacal world of “The Further” while shifting from helpless to heroine in the process. If the first two installments were all about the poor, beleaguered Lambert family, Insidious: Chapter 3 is about Rainer’s rise.
All we need is a central story to tie it all together, and Whannell delivers a decent one. Quinn Brenner (Stefani Scott) is still mourning the death of her mother and needs some closure in her complicated life. Seeking help from Rainer, she accidentally opens a doorway into something much, much darker. Soon, our teenager is being stalked by something sinister, and when an accident leaves her temporarily bedridden, the haunting only gets worse. While her Dad (Dermot Mulroney) is the requisite Doubting Thomas, Rainer believes, and is determined to help.
Thus we have the setting for things going bump in the night, and in that regard, Insidious Chapter 3 delivers. No, it is not as scary as the first two installments, but Whannell knows how to work an audience. There are dozens of easy jump scares (including a few that even The Who could see coming for miles and miles and miles) and a few false jolts. But where Whannell and Wan have always succeeded is in the suspense department. They understand than a movie like this can work as both a rollercoaster and a dark ride. We need the anticipation to make the shock that much more meaningful. Insidious: Chapter 3 easily evokes dread.
Where it doesn’t always work is in the story department. Whannell, working solo on the script, often confuses helplessness with horror. With two broken legs and a less than understanding parent, Quinn is on her own for the movie’s first few acts. She becomes the constant target of one spook show splash after the other. It’s borderline exhausting. Also, the amount of comic relief Whannell tosses in (giving him a chance to reprise his role as Specs) can overwhelm the tone. We want to be laughing and screaming. Here, there’s a bit too much of the former.
Still, despite its status as a prequel, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a solid stand-alone experience. It doesn’t really add to our understanding of what will eventually befall the Lamberts, but it relies on some of the same shock imagery to get its paranormal points across. As always, Shaye is electrifying, bringing a sense of gravitas and terror to even the most tepid dialogue, and Scott makes an excellent victim, using both her voice and her various physical circumstance to embody the definition of a “scream queen.”
While we wait for Wan to return to from bigger, billion dollar pastures to prep The Conjuring 2, Insidious: Chapter 3 is an excellent reminder that, sometimes, slow burn horror is better than gore or gratuitous jump scares.