By Preston Wilder
Quinn’s trying to sleep, though her mind is troubled. She lies on her right side, facing the camera. It’s a wide shot, so we see the dim shadows behind her – and a form emerges from among the shadows, a humanoid figure creeping closer and closer behind the oblivious girl. Quinn’s eyes are open, but she can’t see the demon who steals ever closer. Suddenly she’s had enough – and the camera follows as she starts restlessly, rolls over on her side (the side facing the demon), and sees … nothing.
Is that scary? Or just a tease? The Insidious franchise offers less-is-more horror, the kind pioneered by Paranormal Activity as an implicit reaction to the Saw franchise, which wallowed in gore – Insidious is actually a collaboration between Oren Peli (from Paranormal) and James Wan and Leigh Whannell (from Saw) – and less-is-more horror is not, strictly speaking, very scary. It deals in jump scares, made more potent by extended build-up and false alarms like that demon in the bedroom – but Insidious: Chapter 3, despite its ‘18’ rating, shows nothing more alarming than a man in an oxygen mask (“the man who can’t breathe”) and a girl with a fold of skin where her eyes should be. An impatient viewer might dismiss it as a scam, all anticipation and no actual horror.
Yet this threequel is a very strong horror movie, and indeed a strong movie – a tale of a haunted teen (Stefanie Scott as Quinn) that shades into a tapestry of bereaved or unhappy people and also operates as a prequel, showing how psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) first teamed up with “internet pranksters” Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and writer-director Whannell). I admit the prequel aspect is of limited interest, since I barely recall the specifics of Insidious’ back-story (it’s hard to keep up with this stuff, now that every horror franchise comes burdened with its own intricate back-story) – but it does give 71-year-old character actress Shaye her best role in years, allowing the film to climax with a showdown between two feisty old girls: “Come on, bitch!”.
The other old girl is a demon, a spectral presence that threatens to kill Elise (and presumably will, in some future Insidious). The film teems with spooks and demons, most of them housed in ‘The Further’ which has always been the franchise’s trump card – a lurid dream-world where haunted-house horror mutates into David Lynch. There’s a corridor, with sad-eyed women ranged along it. One woman has her back to us, then her long hair parts to reveal, bizarrely, her face. Another woman wears a fixed smile, then breaks into a melancholy dirge. The emphasis is much more on ‘weird’ than ‘scary’ – which is fine since, as already mentioned, the film isn’t particularly scary.
Not that Whannell (a first-time director) falls short: there’s at least half a dozen moments that’ll make you jump, including one of those out-of-nowhere car accidents that always elicit shock followed by appreciative laughter. We also get a Skype-related scare, an emerging sub-genre also mined in the low-budget Unfriended, an online conversation that logs off with chilling abruptness (‘Who’s that standing right next to you?’ asks Quinn’s puzzled friend – then the image freezes). But the film’s real power lies in the way it takes its time – note the opening scene, an extended conversation with no background music – and the way it burrows into sadness rather than scariness.
“Loving someone is just delayed pain,” sighs Elise, because you’re just waiting for that someone to die and leave you bereft. Quinn misses her late mum, and indeed visits Elise because she thinks her mother is trying to contact her. A neighbour misses his late wife, and provides a eulogy for the woman everyone dismissed as a ‘crazy cat lady’: “She meant something. She was somebody…” Elise herself misses her late husband, a chink in her armour which allows the demons to get to her. Shaye gives a real performance here, playing a woman in the throes of existential crisis: “Do you really think we help people?” she asks another psychic plaintively, wondering if she ought to keep going or abandon her gift.
I shouldn’t oversell Chapter 3; it’s a needless extension to a pretty thin franchise, clearly intended to be followed by ‘Insidious 4’. Yet the film has nothing to be ashamed of: it’s well-crafted, the jump scares work – and the characters also have depth, even Quinn herself with her love of reading and A Midsummer Night’s Dream poster on her bedroom wall. Maybe it’s not very scary but it has something else, an undertow of dignified sorrow that settles over the action and worms its way into your mind. It’s insidious.
DIRECTED BY Leigh Whannell
STARRING Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye
US 2015 97 mins