The crowd with whom I saw Insidious: The Last Key included at least three disconnected groups of apparently high-school aged viewers (5 or 6 per group) who spent too much of the movie talking in stage whispers. This is going somewhere, I promise. It matters that they were all stage whispering because I could hear every damn bit of their conversations, though thankfully this petered out by around the 30-minute mark, and didn't come back until the closing credits. It matters that they were all 18-ish because that means they were mere wee tiny children of 11 when the first Insidious came out, and I am a decrepit old man who will die any day now. More to the point, it means they seemingly didn't ever see the first Insidious, because when The Last Key played its card to connect up with that film - a spoiler, technically, though absolutely not one that comes as even the littlest surprise - most (not all) of those teenagers were having none of it. They were confused, hostile, and disappointed.

As we all know, nothing is more reliable than arguing based off of an anecdote, so here's my takeaway from that: the Insidious franchise has overinvested in its mythology, when that mythology ends up confusing and pissing off the target audience more than delighting them. Truth be told, I probably didn't need an anecdote to determine that. While the sister franchise of The Conjuring and its sequels and spinoffs and prequels and whatever has done a good job of going four-for-four thus far in movies that are pretty defiantly self-contained, with only the meagrest nods to an overall world, the Insidiouses have been tangled up in an ever-more-complex web of parapsychology, cheapjack spirituality, and most unexpectedly, the personal history of psychic investigator Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye).

It's with the last of these prongs that The Last Key primarily concerns itself, which is a good deal for those of us who consider Shaye to be the best thing about this franchise, or at least the best thing about this movie and Insidious: Chapter 3 (chronologically, the first in the series, though the opening scenes of The Last Key are earlier). It's bad for those of us who take this to be a big ol' wind-up box for making things jump out and say "boo!" at us, and I consider myself to belong to both of these groups. The Insidiouses have a pretty good batting average, among horror franchises, for being actually scary, or at least actually creepy, which is maybe even the better thing. But basically ever since the one-hour mark of the first Insidious, the films have been hellbent on muddying that strength with elaborate, tedious mythology and a severely inflated sense of how much people want to have to consult a flow chart to enjoy movies about gaudily-designed demons.

Thus: The Last Key, which falls chronologically between Chapter 3 and Insidious, making several references to the former, and overlapping with the latter in its final scene. Having embraced her psychic talents last time (as my angry teenagers demonstrate, Leigh Whannell's screenplay doesn't do much to tell you what happened in the first three movies, so tough nuts if you don't remember, or never saw them), Elise is now working as a full time ghost hunter, along with her repellent assistants Spec (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson): their comic relief this time is unusually awful, and they have a more central position in the story; this should in theory make them feel more useful, but it just made me hate them more). One day, she gets the worst possible call: a certain Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo, living in a prison guardhouse turned private home in Five Keys, New Mexico, has a ghost problem. No big deal, except that Garza's house is the one that Elise grew up in, suffering the abuse of a father (Josh Stewart) who routinely tried to beat the psychic affinity right out of her. It's also the house where she accidentally unleashed a demon (Javier Botet) with pallid white skin and keys for fingers - given the hilariously deflating name "Keyface" in the credits - and where that demon killed her beloved mother (Tessa Ferrer).

The stage is set for a personal cleansing to go along with the demonic exorcism, and sure enough, that's just what The Last Key has in store, along with a potential series-extension plan in the form of Elise's long-lost nieces Imogen (Caitlin Gerard) and Melissa (Spencer Locke), who are terrifically well-cast to look like they're related to the young actors playing child and teen Elise, (Ava Kolker, Hana Hayes) though they look nothing like Bruce Davison, playing Elise's brother Christian. There's nothing particularly objectionable about this being the approach taken by Whannell and director Adam Robitel (new to the series), though I think that making a haunted house movie into a character drama takes a defter touch and more nuanced understanding of humans than anything in the entirety of Leigh Whannell's career.

What is objectionable, in the end, isn't even the trite character arc, but the awkward, messy story structure they're jammed into. For reasons that I have mostly failed to work out, Whannell's script ends almost exactly halfway through, and then immediately resumes. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that it twists so hard that it snaps. Regardless, the first half pretty much works, in a brute-force way: Robitel (and composer Joseph Bishara, who introduces a cool new gesture to his ever-reliable score in the form of a barely-audible whistle; this has a plot connection) tells us exactly when a jump scare is coming, and then winds, and winds, and winds, and winds, and the winding is much nastier and more draining than the scare ever could be. It's not clever or elegant, but at the level of biomechanics, it worked on me each and every single time, particularly in the 1953-set opening (the best part of any Insidious film at the level of raw horror since the first one). And Shaye is there to give us a calming anchor, and to march through the dark spaces with a perfect mix of determination and nerves on her face. It's not great, but it's good meat-and-potatoes stuff, pleasantly nerve-jangling and all.

And then it turns off like somebody shot a lightbulb with a BB gun. As has happened before, part of it is because the film's showcase shtick of "The Further" - an underlit afterlife that replicates our world as an ice-blue void - is just not very interesting, and it tends to critically over-domesticate the terror; Keyface just ain't the same when he's meandering around like a movie character (or, for that matter, when we call him "Keyface"). Also, Shaye gets sidelined for a good chunk of the movie (which is what led to my suspicion that Gerard and Locke are being positioned as leads for whatever comes next in this temporally-fucked franchise), and not one person onscreen in this film has anything close to her screen presence and ability to make Whannell's gobbledygook seem reasonable.

It's no shock - these are deeply formula-bound films. Still, it's vexing, because the formula seems like it ought to work. It kind of has in the past, after all. But ultimately, after its promisingly tense opening, The Last Key turns into narratively cluttered ghost story boilerplate. It's pretty good by the standards of January horror, but those aren't high standards, and it strikes me that little else than laziness prevents these filmmakers and this setting from aiming higher.

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