‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ Keeps the Spectral Series Spooky

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Sequels to horror films often work on a level of diminishing returns. There’s no central mystery as to why, merely familiarity doesn’t breed terror. One way of circumventing this tendency is change the characters and setting, making the story something only tangentially related to prior installments. That’s what Leigh Whannell has done with Insidious: Chapter 3, a prequel of sorts that would be called Insidious: Prologue if it were being entirely honest. Though Whannell is making his directorial debut, taking over the director’s chair from James Wan who moved on to direct Furious 7, he still crafts an effective horror film. Even though I feel that Chapter 3 is the weakest film of the Insidious bunch, it’s still an engaging, fun spook show.

At the beginning of the film, we’re given the setting: “A few years before the Lambert haunting.” Basically, this takes place in a time when texting still involved buttons. Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), a young woman who lost her mother a year-and-a-half prior, visits the home of the renowned psychic Elise (Lin Shaye). Though Elise says she’s retired from reaching out to the dead, she agrees to assist Quinn. The reading doesn’t go well and Elise sends Quinn home with a warning – don’t reach out to the dead. Later, after auditioning for an acting school, Quinn breaks both of her legs for reasons best left unexplained. While laid up in the apartment she shares with her dad Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and brother, Alex (Tate Berney), Quinn starts to experience creepy and unexplained phenomena. As the events get more and more beyond reality, Sean has no choice but to reach out to Elise. When Elise isn’t up for the task, Sean calls in Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell), who have a popular web-series of their ghost hunting exploits. And then a bunch of freaky occurrences happen, spoiler, spoiler, spoiler – The End.

As a director, Leigh Whannell isn’t as striking as James Wan, but to his credit Whannell doesn’t attempt to mimic Wan’s sharply stylized form of horror, though Wan does have an amusing cameo. It can be said that Whannell is a much more conventional director than Wan, but his playfulness with horror conventions as a writer serve him well as a director. Plenty of horror films can startle with a quick cut and loud bang, but it takes something more to make that startle linger, and Whannell does that here. I can’t honestly proclaim that it’s genuine terror, but they’re incredibly effective startles that are all a product of his (mis)direction.

It’s also striking how the film recalls elements of Rear Window without the voyeurism. Quinn has her legs broken, and Whannell uses that as device to find terror from vulnerability. People like to fantasize about how they’d run away in a horror film. What if you couldn’t run? Insidious: Chapter 3 also subverts horror films by completely ignoring sexuality and thus carries itself as thrills without moralizing. Yet it’s still a movie about relationships – and that’s where the playful side of Whannell comes in. There’s an emotional undercurrent that isn’t present in prior films. This is the lone Insidious film that puts incredible weight on those that have left us where the previous chapters have been about preservation.

But it’s not to say that Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t run into some rough patches. The weakest elements of the film are when there are call backs to the previous films, namely by having Elise being chased by the evil spirit from the first two films. It’s unnecessary to the story at hand and only serves as a bit of fan service.

Insidious: Chapter 3 isn’t a masterpiece of horror, but for a little over 90 minutes, it kept me more than entertained. There was a more than adequate balance between the horror and laughs. If you never cared for the first two Insidious movies, this movie isn’t for you. But if you enjoyed the previous films, Insidious: Chapter 3 avoids becoming a stale rehash. Whannell understands horror conventions to the point that avoids every single trap that a third installment in a horror franchise might fall in. This isn’t a film that is reinventing a genre, just gleefully playing in the sandbox of spooks.

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