Horror prequel Insidious: Chapter 3 looks the part, but it’s definitely the weakest of the trilogy, says MacDara Conroy
Critical consensus be damned, I’ll go to bat for the first two ‘chapters’ of the Insidious series, those supernatural shockers shepherded by them what started the Saw franchise, Leigh Whannell and James Wan. And that’s because I really do believe they’ve been treated unfairly – tainted by the propensity for gore-hounds to dismiss anything that doesn’t sate their bloodlust, not to mention the association with low-budget genre kingpins Blumhouse Productions (notorious for the diminishing returns of franchises like Paranormal Activity; usually ignored for its creative successes such as last year’s Oculus, not to mention its hand in Oscar-worthy dramas like Whiplash). But the Insidious films are actually quite a treat, revelling in their clichés while adding enough of a fresh take or twist to make them distinct from the glut of modern horrors in the multiplexes and on streaming services.
In short, they’re better than what everyone says they are. Which is why this third instalment is such a letdown. Where the first – in which the Lambert family (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) strive to save their son from a demonic parasite with the face of Darth Maul – developed its own identity as a nifty blend of the slasher and haunting genres, and the second doffed its hat to more psychological horrors à la Hitchcock, Insidious: Chapter 3 comes off more like a clearing house for all the references Whannell and Wan couldn’t fit into its predecessors. This time the Kubrick-isms are on full display (plus a few other random visuals, like a callback to Freddy’s Revenge) but aren’t really reflected in the stripped-back story: focused to some, but not to me. It’s definitely the weakest of the trilogy.
Moreover, the premise doesn’t hold much promise: it’s a prequel taking place some months before the first film (cue fears of over-explaining the ‘mystery’ like the dreadfully boring Ringu Zero) and feels laser-guided towards the teenage market, with a youthful protagonist (Stefanie Scott) haunted by scary things from the Further that see her laid up in bed with both legs in casts, even more prone to the evil lurking in the dark, while her frantic father (Dermot Mulroney) grows increasingly desperate for help. But as events unfurl, and the younger cast fades into the background, it’s clear there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch going on, and the film’s real hero is a supporting character from the first two films, psychic Elise (Lin Shaye), getting back into the game after battling her own literal demons to take on the black spirit claiming the soul of this story’s ‘Nancy’.
That reversal of emphasis builds good will that somewhat salvages a film plagued by what’s presumably a studio-mandated ramp-up in jump scares (you know, for kids). It almost goes without saying these are telegraphed to such a ridiculous degree that only a couple produce the desired results (and I say that as someone who otherwise always flinches at jump scares, even when I see them coming). It’s also quite poorly edited, with awkward transitions and many scenes cut off the moment someone stops talking. And there’s an untidy student-film looseness to some of the dialogue at times, perhaps the result of first-time director Whannell losing the run of himself (he’s also in front of the camera, reprising his half of the hapless ghostbusting duo who bring a welcome dose of comic relief, though maybe this time his attentions were divided too far).
Yet to Whannell’s credit, Chapter 3 really looks the part, with some theatrical lighting design and creative scene blocking, and might be the most visually distinctive of the three. Indeed, the more I think about it after the fact, the more there is to like, even if the horrors are lacking. But lacking they are, as is a cohesive concept, which makes me question: as fond as I am of the Insidious series, do we really need to see any more?
Insidious: Chapter 3 opened nationwide on Friday 5th June