After campy early-career offerings such as Saw, director James Wan reestablished himself with 2011’s Insidious as a modern horror master. Since then, he’s also become a horror-producer extraordinaire, nurturing the careers of up-and-comers who’ve helmed various spinoffs and parallel franchises, each riffing on a seemingly inexhaustible formula. But that factory-line system is finally starting to flag, as the fourth film in the Insidious franchise, directed by Adam Robitel, is lazy and sometimes even loathsome.
Robitel occasionally adheres to Wan’s tested blueprint for setting up scares, characterized by what you might call “The Long Withhold,” in which the inevitable fright is excruciatingly built up, often in near-silence, intensifying the jolt through a deferment so extended you start to wonder if it’s a psych-out. One great scene in Insidious: The Last Key sustains and releases tension via a high-pitched whistle. But too often Robitel indulges in cheaper tactics, including jump scares and cliché creature design, in this case a Guillermo del Toro-esque ghoulie dubbed Key Face (Javier Botet) who has keys for fingertips, a sight that for some reason is meant to be scary.
Like Insidious: Chapter 3, The Last Key is also a prequel, going back as far as 1953, in New Mexico, when the series’s resident psychic, Elise (Lin Shaye), is a little girl living in a big house with an enormous basement, all the better for the filmmakers to stash secrets upon secrets. The house is on the grounds of a prison, allowing Elise to commune with men on the electric chair and assorted other local spirits. Back in the present—2010, just before the case in the first film—Elise is called to investigate paranormal activity at that childhood home, where an evil spirit murdered her mother (Tessa Ferrer) and from which she eventually ran away. Her inner demons are manifest as literal, external demons, whom she confronts while also confronting her memories, particularly the physical abuse from her cartoonishly sinister, prison-guard father (Josh Stewart), who tried to beat her gift out of her.
Shaye approaches her role with her usual gravity and dignity, though she lacks a star’s screen-dominating power, coming off as a supporting character who just happens to be in almost every scene. Elise tries to right old wrongs and help people or spirits she once let down. Among them are her little brother, Christian (played by Bruce Davison as an adult), whom she left behind when she ran away, now old and gray and resentful. Elise is also accompanied by her usual Guy Fridays, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote this film’s screenplay), who provide copious, oft-needed comic relief, though by the end of the film it’s not that funny anymore: Christian has two daughters (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke) who become potential romantic partners for the two sidekicks, but the excessive attention the awkward adult men pay to these young women—who seem to be teenagers—feels pervy and gross where it’s intended to be charming and cute.
But The Last Key often doesn’t go where you’d think. Midway through it becomes in part a kidnapping thriller, like Room told from the point of view of the people who found the victims. Eventually, it becomes clear that there’s a point to these plot developments, that they circle back to the film’s deeper themes and mythology, and that it’s also not as laughable as you assumed that Elise’s childhood home has barely changed in 50 years—same furniture, appliances, wallpaper, children’s toys—as though it had been abandoned following a Chernobyl-like event. At first, characters such as the kidnapper and the mean dad seem to be reminders that there’s plenty of real-world evil to negate the need for supernatural films like this one. But in the end, Robitel and Whannell explain away these evils as just a couple of cases of demonic possession, invalidating human agency and individual responsibility for otherwise unfathomable cruelty. And that’s a moral cop-out.