Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY
The commercial response to the spooky shenanigans within the INSIDIOUS franchise have yielded a solid return on investment. Despite our real world being more terrifying than anything a horror film can portray, audiences still hunger for seat-gripping scares. Critically, however, the franchise has been reaching since the sleep-with-the-lights-on-for-a-week original fright-fest. INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 was more cringe-inducing than nightmare-fueling as the filmmakers seemingly used up all their good ideas in the first film. And the astoundingly forgettable prequel, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, didn’t help matters much either as it wasted opportunities left and right. While director Adam Robitel’s prequel, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, is the best follow-up in the franchise, it also doesn’t do much to make itself genuinely memorable.
Psychic medium Dr. Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) is haunted by the traumatic memories of her past. She still bears the physical scars of her abusive father’s (Josh Stewart) wrath whilst also dealing with visceral nightmares. Her “gift” of seeing dead people led to her mother’s (Tessa Ferrer) death. Coming off of a particularly torturous job, she’s reticent to take another that would further deplete her energy. But duty calls… or rather Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo) does, beckoning her to return to her childhood home to face the psychological and metaphysical demons plaguing her reality. It’s there where she’s forced to shoulder guilt over the estrangement from her brother Christian (Bruce Davison) and rescue a family member from the clutches of the most powerful entity yet – Keyface (Javier Botet), who has keys for fingertips, not dangling from his face.
The formula is well established and neither Robitel, nor screenwriter/ series creator Leigh Whannell, really veer from it. There’s little to no surprise to be had – and little innovation as to the way they craft the scares. Cheap, predictable jump scares abound. You’ll be clued into their whereabouts when the sound drops out, only to be amped up by the loud screech of frequent collaborator Joseph Bishara’s score. It doesn’t strain itself hooking into the lore of the universe it’s set up, but it does repeat a few indelible moments from the original such as the “it’s standing right behind someone!” painting scare (which, here, is set in a detective’s office). Gone is the pulse-quickening tension that builds up to and within the big set pieces. In fact, the only moment that’s truly scary (cough, cough, skeevy) is when comedic relief Specs (Whannell, again is pulling triple duty as the writer, executive producer and co-star) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who’ve been incessantly hitting on and touching Elise’s two young nieces (played by Spencer Locke and Caitlin Gerard), puts one of them under hypnosis. Yeesh.
Grounding a story about the paranormal in reality is a smart idea – only the filmmakers don’t lend much in the way of deep commentary. However, they do overstate it, like when Elise explains the reasons why she must return to her childhood home through unnecessary exposition, or when we hear the audio from a speech Elise’s father was watching as she steps foot back inside, which again, is unnecessary. Though it’s nothing new to the franchise, putting females in power positions is definitely empowering. That said, there’s a palpable level of exploitation (perhaps fed by desperation) to the iconography of women in chains, some shackled like dogs to the male demon, who feeds on hate, anger and brutality towards women. The demon’s shtick is to mute the womens’ voices, which the MRA’s will tout as their hero.
Listen, the faint praise will carry this far with the fans. Nevertheless, this fourth film makes an indisputable case that the INSIDIOUS series failed to go much further (pun intended) into the clever concepts that made the original so phenomenal. That’s not just chilling. It’s devastating.
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY opens on January 5.