Insidious: The Last Key
is a fairly effective shock-dispensing device. Yes, it relies mostly on jump scares, and ghostly figures darting by just out of frame for most of its scares. But, just like the previous movies, it's better made than the norm, and features a winning performance by Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier, the psychic woman who has been the heart of the franchise since the beginning. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell has been smart to focus more on her as the films have continued, and this entry may be the most tightly focused yet on the character.
In an extended opening flashback, we see Elise as a young girl (Ava Kolker) living in a house in New Mexico that overlooks a prison where executions are regularly carried out. This is probably not the best place for a girl with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts to grow up in, but even so, her home life is not a happy one. She and her younger brother Christian (Pierce Pope) live in fear of their physically and emotionally abusive father (Josh Stewart), while their sweet mother (Tessa Ferrer) does her best to keep calm and order. After years of abuse and a family tragedy, Elise fled home, leaving her family behind. Fans of the franchise know where Elise went from there. As she grew older, she decided to use her psychic gift to help those who are being tormented by angry spirits and demons. With the aid of her comic relief ghost hunting duo, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), Elise has frequently dealt with the more evil and violent elements of the afterlife.
The plot proper truly begins with Elise's past catching up with her, as she's asked to perform a job at her childhood home. Its current occupant (Kirk Acevedo) claims to be bothered by disembodied voices, and a lot of strange sounds he cannot explain. As Elise begins her investigation, she learns some terrifying things, and not all of them paranormal. Given what she learns, we kind of wonder why the man living there invited her in the first place, since it was almost certain she would stumble upon what she eventually finds out. Regardless, there is a demon afoot, one with keys for fingers who wants to be set free into the land of the living. This will force Elise to confront her past, be reunited with her brother Christian (played as an adult by Bruce Davison), and discover a few things that will lead into events that happened in the very first Insidious
movie. (Just like 2015's Insidious: Chapter 3
, this is a prequel that sets up events that happened in the first film.)
Insidious: The Last Key
does not always make sense, and it's a bit more workmanlike than previous entries. But, considering the fact that it's being dumped into theaters the first weekend of January (a notorious release date for films the studios aren't exactly confident in), it's much better than you might expect walking in. Credit goes to director Adam Robitel, who does get off a few suspenseful scenes, as well as some superior sound editing, which really makes every floor creek and even the sound of a toy whistle (an important plot element I won't go into for the sake of spoilers) unnerving. For its screenplay, Whannell is not exactly doing anything new here, but he does manage to touch on some personal and human themes here, such as family abuse and abandonment, and survivor's guilt. And even if some of the payoffs for the scares could be better here, there's still some good stuff to look out for.
But as always, it is Lin Shaye who carries the film. She brings more emotion and human interest than there probably was in the script, and she is just great to watch. She's sympathetic, strong, and you really do feel every emotion she goes through as the story puts her through the wringer as she is tormented by demons (both physical and personal) on a seemingly non-stop basis. She is able to sell not just her character, but also the somewhat loopy writing. Even when everybody around her are making dumb decisions or acting like they're in a standard horror movie, she lifts things up with her performance, and makes it much more enjoyable with just her presence. I don't know how much longer Whannell can drag this story out, but as long as Shaye is there to lead the way, I have a feeling I'll have a lot more fun watching it than I would without her.
Insidious: The Last Key
offers plenty of quick jolts to make audiences jump and laugh about afterward, and that's about all it aims for. If that's all you're looking for in a thriller, go and enjoy. Even if it does collapse quite a bit during the final moments, the movie creates enough tense atmosphere that I can say I had fun watching it. Just don't try to think too hard about it when it's over. These movies are not for thinkers.