INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 Review: Past Imperfect
The prequel – the film that takes characters from a known franchise and places them on a point along their narrative timeline that predates the action of the first film – is a dicey proposition. On the upside, it allows studios to stretch a franchise in a different direction, and it gives fans a chance to learn more about the past lives of the characters they love. But the downside can be tough. Aside from the usual creative pitfalls any movie must avoid, the prequel has to avoid those pitfalls while adhering to a certain canon established by the films that came before it.
Another challenge the prequel faces is the dilution of peril. Because the viewer knows a character exists in the franchise’s “future,” any peril that character faces loses its its edge. (Even when watching a great prequel like Matthew Vaughn‘s X-Men: First Class, the viewer knows from having seen other X-Men films that several main characters simply won’t die.) Such is the challenge that Leigh Whannell‘s Insidious: Chapter 3 faces. One of its primary characters appears in future stories, ensuring she will live to the end of this prequel. Something must compensate for this.
That primary character is Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a psychic and medium who has retired from offering “readings” to the public. She lives a secluded life with her dog until teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) knocks on her door, tells her she’s heard of the medium’s reputation, and wants to know if Rainier will attempt to contact her late mother. The girl thinks the spirit of her mother has been trying to contact her. Rainier reluctantly assists Quinn and learns that it isn’t the spirit of the mother that has been attempting to communicate with the teen, but rather an evil spirit, dubbed “The Man Who Can’t Breathe” and “The Man Who Lives in the Vents,” that haunts Quinn’s apartment building and wants to possess Quinn’s body so it can leave the dark end of the spiritual plane known as “The Further.”
It’s fitting that Insidious: Chapter 3 is a third installment because there are three different ways this film can try to compensate for that lack of peril.
First is as a prequel. Here, the film takes an interesting approach. Sure, it introduces Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, respectively) and references small things that will happen in the narrative future. (Don’t worry, you do not have to have seen either of the first two films in the franchise to follow the goings-on here.) But it is not the Elise Rainier origin story I expected. The film takes place “a few years” before the action of the first film, but at this point in the timeline, Rainier is retired. In theory, the franchise could go back again – next time even further – to find out how Rainier discovered her gift and so on.
Second is as a horror movie. In that capacity, this thing is terrific as it CRANKS OUT the fright consistently. They are mostly jump-scares, and what you think of jump-scares in general will affect how you look at this. I have no problem with them as long as they are legitimate scares. Every time I watch a horror film and a cat jumps out of a closet, I feel angry and cheated. None of that happens here (with one small exception); all other scares are solidly crafted and genuinely effective.
Third is as a film in general, and as a film in general, it isn’t good at all. The troubles start with the script, as written by Whannell. The narrative is threadbare. Existing on that weak plane are two main stories that need to (and can) coexist: Rainier’s and the Brenners’. It’s okay that Whannell opts to pass on a true Rainier origin tale; he offers some glimpses of her past, and there are some touching moments as she fondly remembers her late husband. But the writer/director fails to develop the Brenners’ story with all of that extra space not being taken up by Rainier’s depth. Quinn and her father are mostly two-dimensional, and no other character (save Rainier) is developed. In fact, Quinn’s brother is mostly a prop who disappears for long stretches, something that can also be said for Quinn’s BFF and a few neighbors in the apartment building where they live. The story completely unravels in the third act.
Performances are mixed. Shaye is the force who carries the film and Scott might have Scream Queen potential with a better script. Sampson and Whannell are okay enough as the comic relief, but no other supporting characters have enough to do to make an impact. Finally there is Mulroney, who is terrible to the point of being a distraction.
From a technical perspective, cinematographer Brian Pearson brings some serious game; this is a great-looking film.
This isn’t the best horror movie of 2015 by any stretch. Honestly, based on most areas of execution, Insidious: Chapter 3 is pretty bad. But Shaye is mighty enough, and the cinematography is gorgeous enough, and the scares are quite scary enough to elevate the film to theater-worthy status.