A rickety haunted house devoid of legitimate scares

Insidious: The Last Key is the fourth film in the popular paranormal-hunting franchise to star Lin Shaye, whose talents deserve better.

click to enlarge Lin Shaye (left) has more to worry about in Insidious: The Last Key than the evil KeyFace behind her. - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Lin Shaye (left) has more to worry about in Insidious: The Last Key than the evil KeyFace behind her.

Confession time — the Insidious franchise is probably my least favorite horror series, which is surprising, given how much I enjoyed the first film, released in 2010, by director James Wan and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell.

Wan and Whannell are the guys who originally launched Saw way back in 2004. They’re no stranger to scary, or to the sequel potential of a popular film.

And Insidious, which focused on Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne trying to save their son from a ghost dimension called The Further, was both original and scary, not to mention ripe for a follow-up.

Insidious: Chapter 2, which arrived in 2013, lacked the same white-knuckle unpredictability, but still garnered $83 million in the U.S., a considerable gain on the original’s $54 million domestic gross. Insidious: Chapter 3, a prequel to the events of the first two films, collected a decent, but unremarkable, $52 million domestic gross.

Confession No. 2: I have yet to make it through Chapter 2 or Chapter 3 without falling asleep, despite multiple attempts.

The Insidious films are all connected by Whannell, who has penned each movie and directed one installment, and genre icon Lin Shaye, who at 74 years of age is one of the few actors, male or female, of her generation to anchor a profitable franchise.

Shaye’s character, Elise Rainier, can interact with spirits, and battle malicious specters. That’s her gift, and her curse. Working with Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), her trusted ghost-hunting technicians, she assists families and individuals that are being haunted.

Elise’s backstory — how her childhood was impacted by her gift of spirit sight — forms the core of Insidious: The Last Key, and Shaye responds with another solid performance. We learn that Elise grew up in a house on the grounds of a state prison in New Mexico, contending with the ghosts of the men executed, as well as other, friendlier spirits unable to move on. Her father, Gerald (Josh Stewart), works at the prison, and he brings the same savage sense of discipline home every night. He beats Elise for scaring her brother, Christian, whenever she speaks to the entities that only she can see. One night, Gerald locks Elise in the basement, where she finally meets KeyFace, an evil spirit similar to Lipstick-Face Demon, the Big Bad from the first film, who wants to be freed from The Further so he can claim more souls.

After a solid opening sequence, The Last Key jumps forward in time, past the events of the first three films, to find an older Elise faced with returning to her childhood home to help a new owner (Kirk Acevedo).

And that’s where this rickety haunted house tale starts to wobble, and slowly fall apart.

For one, Whannell forces humor where it’s not appropriate. Some jokes land, such as when Specs calls their paranormal-hunting RV a "Winneba-ghost" instead of a "Winnebago," or when Tucker tells people that Elise is the psychic and he and Specs are her "psykicks."

But the bulk of their interaction in The Last Key is centered on Specs and Tucker’s aggressive attempts at flirting with Elise’s two nieces, whose ages are never clearly stated. It’s an icky, borderline pedophilic, subplot that could have been cut from the script altogether.

For another, the central mystery surrounding the hauntings in The Last Key gets wrapped up neatly long before the credits roll.  

But the biggest issue with The Last Key is that it’s just not scary — at all.

Either as a result of, or in response to, the film’s PG-13 rating, Whannell inserts too many jump scares into his script, instead of using atmosphere, anticipation and creepy set design to legitimately build tension and terror. If you’ve seen the trailer for The Last Key, then you’ve already seen the best, and only, Holy Crap! moment from the entire film. Hint: It’s just a suitcase, or is it?

So, who’s to blame? The company that keeps releasing these movies, Blumhouse Productions, is filling a box-office void. Since 2007, in addition to the four Insidious films, the company also has built franchises around Paranormal Activity (six films), The Purge (three films, and counting) and Sinister (two films).

Maybe this is the price we have to pay for the truly great genre fare distributed by Blumhouse, which includes The Visit, Split, Get Out, The Belko Experiment and Happy Death Day.

If so, with nearly $200 million in combined ticket sales so far for the Insidious films, you’d be a fool to think The Last Key is indeed the last we’ll see of Elise, Specs and Tucker, even if it fails to match the box office of its predecessors.

How’s that for scary?

click to enlarge Insidious: The Last Key offers some cool visual effects, but fails to match the original film's genuine scares. - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Insidious: The Last Key offers some cool visual effects, but fails to match the original film's genuine scares.

About The Author

John W. Allman

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films...
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