For someone who lives, breathes, sleeps and devours anything horror, specifically the world of movies and video games, it would be surprising to know that I was once very opposed to the idea of seeing a horror movie in theatres. Before the true revelation in late 2016 that ended up being the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, I always felt like the theatres around me weren’t the places that truly embraced the horror genre, respecting the silence that these movies deserve to maximize the effect that they want to instill on the audience. Every time I tried to go see a horror movie during those troubling times – roughly during the decade of 2000 to 2010 – it would always end in a few misanthropes making too much noise or generally ruining any mood that the film was trying to convey. I had given up trying to enjoy horror in the theatres and just waited until I was able to watch it from the comfort of my home. Then, the creative team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, as if they were daring me, tried to lure me back. Wan and Whannell, who had successfully spawned a yearly horror torture franchise in Saw but ran afoul of the studio system with a pair of 2007 follow-ups, Dead Silence (actually quite good and creepy at times) and Death Sentence (an OK vigilante justice movie ala Death Wish starring Kevin Bacon), decided to return to the independent horror scene with their next foray, the creepy ghost story Insidious. The early reviews were beyond glowing, and I had to check it out myself. I ventured to the theatre, hoping for everything to fall right, and I wasn’t disappointed. The experience had come through for me and I started to see more and more horror films in the theatrical window, wanting to support them as much as possible. Insidious was a tense, beautiful horror thrill ride of which was practically flawless in its execution. On top of the immense success of this movie, the Insidious franchise began to sprout and has ended up spawning three sequels to date, all of which are filled with great scares and set pieces that make them stand above the crowded horror field. After going through a re-watch of all four films over two days recently, I thought it would be cool to share with you a few thoughts I had on the franchise that brought me back to the theatres to watch horror and do it for good this time.
2010’s Insidious, written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, is truly a modern classic of the horror genre, with multiple instances of perfectly orchestrated jump scares, moody set pieces and solid performances from all involved. The story of the Lambert family, parents Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and children Foster (Andrew Astor), baby Kali and gifted Dalton (Ty Simpkins). Dalton has a rare ability to astroproject out of his body and explore the world around him. Unfortunately, this brings him into contact with ghosts and spirits of the afterlife, and while some of them are just lost and harmless, others are malicious and evil. These spirits crave life, and want to get back to Dalton’s uninhabitated body while his spirit is away. The simple, sinister poster was very effective, combined with the tagline for this movie, “It’s not the house that is haunted”, was simply gangbusters for me back in the day and had me intrigued out of the gate. Wan and Whannel craft a world of immediate dread and constant fear across the entire running time, putting the Lambert family through hell as spirits constantly make their presence felt in the living word, all while their son Dalton lies in a unexplained coma as his spirit is now lost deep in the world of spirits, labeled The Further by our resident psychic medium Elise Rainier, played with wonderful heart by Lin Shaye. I could go on about the multiple terrifying scenes – the nursery scare, the chilling use of the music of Tiny Tim, the séance scene, etc. – but it really would be a detriment to anyone who hasn’t seen this marvelously scary thrill ride. Insidious is a modern masterpiece of how to effectively scare the shit out of an audience. I still got chills from this movie on my most recent viewing.
Writer Leigh Whannell and Director James Wan return to the helm for 2013’s Insidious Chapter 2, and it literally picks up from the ending of the original. After surviving the harrowing trip into the Further to save his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) is no longer the husband and father that Renai (Rose Byrne) remembers. Instead of Josh’s spirit returning to his body, it was instead taken over by a vengeful spirit, a woman in a black gown. The sole purpose of this entity is to continue living Josh’s life and having a family of her own, but as Renai and the children become more suspicious of Josh’s demeanor, the realiztion comes to this vengeful spirit that perhaps she must return to her former life of murder and mayhem. Josh’s mother Lorraine, played with an assured hand by veteran actress Barbara Hershey, returns from the original with a more fleshed out and meaty role, as does writer Whannell and Angus Sampson as medium Elise’s (Lin Shaye) associates Specs and Tucker. As you can see, I am trying desparately to dance around spoilers as much as possible to preserve the purity of a franchise viewing if it will be your first. Insidious Chapter 2 is the prime example of what a sequel should end up being. It’s bigger in scope, expanding upon the mythos of the original while giving you more detail on who exactly this “woman in black” who has taken over Josh was in the living world. It clearly got an increase in budget, with more locations and epic set pieces than before, and it does a great job of giving you all the bells and whistles of a sequel while maintaining the purity of the scares that were present in the original. Insidious Chapter 2 also has some Back to the Future Part II vibes going on throughout the second half of the movie, but the less I say about what that means, the better, just suffice to say that it’s pretty ingenious.
2015’s Insidious Chapter 3 sees the departure of James Wan as director, but the continuity of the franchise is not disturbed as Leigh Whannell, writer and actor of the first two entries, returns to write this third installment and went on to decide to direct this as well, pulling triple duties for this threequel. This entry is a prequel to the entire Lambert saga, as we are now following medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and how she first meets her partners in crime, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). Their first encounter is on the case of Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), who instead of contacting her mother in the afterlife, ended up making a connection with a vengeful spirit causing her pain and misery, with eventual death just around ther corner. This entry is the one of the franchise that improved on this most recent viewing, with my original thoughts on this being more subdued and merely OK. While I still consider it inferior to the first two entries of the franchise, I appreciated the many scares and set pieces that Whannel delivered here. The sequence involving the evil spectre, who appears to be an old demonic man with a breathing mask over his mouth, throwing Quinn around her bedroom and the skin crawling set piece of when Quinn is incapcitated in the apartment above her own, complete with a limbless and faceless girl crawling along the floor, now stand out as exemplary pieces of horror cinema. This was also the entry in which the decision to shift the focus onto the then 72 year old Lin Shaye, going against the norm of having a fresh face actor headlining a major horror franchise, was made. You can see the love that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have for this veteran actress throughout the franchise and now getting the studios to get behind her as the lead of this series. Honestly, though, it shouldn’t shock anyone that she is the lead because Lin Shaye puts on a fucking master class in acting and brings such a warm heart and central soul to the series.
In the final entry of the franchise (at least for the moment), 2018’s Insidious: The Last Key keeps the series’ spotlight squarely on Lin Shaye’s glorious and troubled medium Elise Rainier. Still situated as a prequel to the Lambert saga, the movie opens on Elise as a child, saddled with the gift (or curse) of speaking and communicating with the spirits of the afterlife, showing the trauma she went through in her childhood home before running away as a teenager, never looking back. Unfortunately, Elise and her comrades Specs and Tucker are lured back to her home, within the town of Five Keys, New Mexico, to investigate a spirit that is currently causing headaches and pain for the current resident. This movie has a great midway twist that shifts the story into another direction, dealing with Elise’s childhood trouble and her fractured relationship with her brother Christian Rainier (Bruce Davison), who still lives in Five Keys with his two daughters, Imogen and Melissa (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke, respectively). This has probably taken over the mantle as the weakest entry of the franchise, but that does not mean that this movie is bad or lackluster in anyway. Leigh Whannell returns once more to write the script, but passes on the directing duties to Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan), and he brings some new blood to Insidious: The Last Key and delivers a few great scares and set pieces. One in particular, involving a stack of suitcases, it a great example of a craftsman holding back on delivering the scare when you might think it be coming, a true example of restraint and making the audience sweat it out until HE is ready to unleash the terror. This entry also has probably the most effective creature design of the franchise, the pale skinny beast with no upper lip and keys for fingers on one of its hands. Insidious: The Last Key shows that even the fourth entry of a horror franchise can scare the living hell out of you, as long as the creative team behind the endeavour are committed to their work and have delivered constant and reliable work in the past.
The Insidious franchise is one of the most consistent and solid horror series that has ever existed. While I love my Friday the 13th movies more than mostly anything in the world, I can freely admit that a few of those entries can be subpar and lose focus on what works for that particular franchise. The Insidious movies are the opposite, with not one of them being lackluster or less in quality than the rest of the entries. Yes, if you read my star reviews on Letterboxd, I clearly have a definitive ranking of the series, which also happens to be in the exact numerical order of the series. However, I hold all of these movies in high regard, and it all ties back to my original sentiment at the beginning of this article. Insidious got me back to the movie theatre to watch horror movies, not waiting until they hit the video market scene and possibly having everything ruined for me before I even watch it. What James Wan and Leigh Whannell brought to the table was a simple story with some great use of the magic of filmmaking to scare me intensely at every chance they could get. It wasn’t flashy, loud or aggressive. It was subtle, minimal and unsettling. The Insidious franchise scared me with every entry that released, and still continued to give me shivers on the recent series rewatch. I will always be down to take a leap out of my body and drift deep into The Further.