That the Insidious franchise would gravely soldier on even after the fucking awful Insidious: Chapter 2 was already a bad sign. That it would do so in the form of a prequel was an even worse sign, and that this prequel would defy basic rules of numerical order to call itself Insidious: Chapter 3 was pretty much just an insult to basic intelligence (mind you, Insidious: Chapter 0 would have been pretty fucking stupid, but it would have at least made sense). So with all those apparently insurmountable checks against it, imagine my aghast shock at finding that Insidious 3 is... sort of in an area adjacent to "good", maybe? I don't want to come right out and call it "good". But it is definitely not bad, and that's what matters most.

The plot, and really everything else, is most easily summed up as "The first Insidious, only not as good, until the last act, when it becomes better". Set with all due ambivalence "a few years before the Lambert haunting" - enough for at least three or four more prequels, if they want to go that way! - the movie takes as its victim the high school senior Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott, a most fascinating discovery - her unusually wide face is terrifically expressive and photogenic, evocative of a teenybopper version of Claudette Colbert), who has been reeling ever since her mother Lillith died a year prior. Her father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney) plainly reached the end of his tether some while back, and has just enough energy to feel bad about not keeping up with his younger child, Alex (Tate Berney); being a decent father to Quinn is quite out of the question at this point. This leaves her quietly hoping every night that in whatever afterlife exists, her mother might be pulling for her. This leads her, in the film's opening, to the home of retired psychic medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who takes pity on the girl and breaks her one rule - don't talk to the dead any more - to hunt for Lillith. What she finds gives her a low-grade freakout, and she urges Quinn to do absolutely anything except quietly whisper for her mother in the night.

Quinn does not take this advice, and thus leaves herself open to being played by the spirit of a dead person who is not her mother, not at all: embodied as an old man with a breathing apparatus (Michael Reid McKay), the entity is able to partially take over Quinn's body after it causes her to be hit by a car, and now Elise really must make a choice: help the Brenners at risk of her own safety, for putting herself psychically "out there" means she becomes a beacon to the malevolent spirit that's been following her for some time, a man dressed as a woman in a black bride's dress (Tom Fitzpatrick). From here, the movie follows the Insidious formula to a T: Elise has increasingly specific visions and insights that lead her to realise how to save the possession victim, the bumbling geek ghost hunters Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (series writer Leigh Whannell, making his directorial debut) show up to not really help in any meaningful way, and it ends with a character having to trek through The Further, the series' vision of the not-exactly-Hell afterlife, where everything is pitch black or dark blue, and buildings and other physical places have an unnerving tendency to dissolve into empty voids. And all the points in the world go to Chapter 3 for at least this reason: for the first time in three movies, the final act trip to The Further doesn't immediately send the film plunging into absolute shit. Perhaps because after three movies, Whannell finally knows how he wants this mythology's afterlife to function, and so he can simply use it rather than have to laboriously construct it in the middle of his plot.

The basic truth about all of this is that Chapter 3 would be a better movie if it wasn't an Insidious prequel. Literally everything that is worst about the story is directly related to the need to set up the next two movies with appalling detail, clogging up the movie and jamming the breaks on the momentum. If nothing else, the set-up of how Elise recruits Tucker and Specs as her official ghostbusting buddies in the final moments is forcibly wedged-in and jokey in a most disgusting way, with Shaye's generally strong, impassioned acting making such a precipitous dip in quality that I'd be willing to believe that she was trying to sabotage the scene right out of the movie. Even discounting that particularly gross example, the need to fit into the franchise provides a lot of deadwood and loose ends, if it's fair to call something a "loose end" when it has already been resolved in another movie. But there's a strong stand-alone narrative here, and introducing random threads solely for the purpose of having them solved in a movie that came out two years ago hurts the integrity of the Insidious: Chapter 3 that could have been, if only it weren't obliged to be Insidious: Chapter 3.

The film's strengths are in its fine, uninspired deployment of generic elements: the extremely predictable jump scares that manage to land, the smart withholding of jump scares to leave an unresolved tension, the spooky J-horror-ish design of the various ghosts both malevolent and otherwise. It's not terribly complex or imaginative, but as a director, Whannell proves that he's been paying attention all these years: his staging is never less than perfectly functional, and occasionally a good deal more than that. There are some crafty and thoroughly enjoyable individual shot choices, like a one pan back and forth to a window that prominently showed up in the trailers, or a few different moments where we see two angles on the same action simultaneously thanks to a video monitor showing the feed from Tucker's surveillance camera. It is not high art, but it adds a sense of style to a film that's already perfectly suitable as a spooky tale told with conviction and the refreshing absence of cleverness and irony.

And then there's the other strength, which is that Chapter 3 is a surprisingly durable character piece: it fashions itself somewhat around the idea that Elise and Quinn are kindred spirits, both susceptible to the depredations of angry ghosts because they're not moving forward in the grieving process (Elise's problems all stem for her misjudged attempt to find her dead husband in The Further after he committed suicide). Both Shaye and Scott give sufficient performances to pay more than lip service to that conceit, too, though not so much that it ever comes within the slightest distance of dominating the movie's collection of things going bump in more or less exactly the way you'd expect them to, if you've seen the first two movies (and what would cause somebody to bumble into Insidious: Chapter 3 without having seen them is impossible for me to guess). It's horror comfort food, through and through, challenging no expectations and only just living up to those expectations one would be sane to bring into the theater, but it's atmospheric enough, with solid enough characters, and enough of a manipulative sound mix prodding us in the ribs at intervals, that it's enjoyable enough if this is the kind of thing you tend to enjoy.

Reviews in this series
Insidious (Wan, 2010)
Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan, 2013)
Insidious: Chapter 3 (Whannell, 2015)
Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel, 2018)