The best decision the first Insidious movie made, back in 2010, was casting Lin Shaye as maverick demon-hunter Elise Rainier. The worst decision? Killing her off at the end of the film. Because as the franchise has gone on, it’s only become clearer than Shaye – already a horror icon thanks to appearances in countless scary movies, from 1984’s A Nightmare On Elm Street onwards – is its strongest asset.
In The Last Key, a prequel to Insidious and a sequel to Insidious: Chapter 3, Elise is both demon hunter and demon hunted. When she receives a call from a man living in a haunted house in Five Keys, New Mexico, she’s forced to return to the place she grew up, to confront the (literal) demons of her own past. It’s a brilliant showcase for Shaye, who gets to be steely and determined, vulnerable and terrified, and a whole spectrum of other emotions in between. She anchors the film, forcing the viewer to go with her on her journey.
And it’s a harrowing ride. Poor Elise had an awful childhood, living with her prison guard father and the ghosts of an old penitentiary, and as she faces up to those horrors as an adult, she uncovers an even more disturbing cycle of cruelty. As a film about women being abused and disbelieved, now feels like exactly the moment for this story.
The problem, though, is that it’s not very well told. The ideas are all there, but it almost feels like a first draft. And while the first two Insidious movies established a very distinct visual identity, with nods to German expressionism and ghost train ghouls, here director Adam Robitel’s main trick is just to make everything dark. Where James Wan in the original movie held a shot of a demon for an almost unbearable length of time, Robitel leaves his monsters so deep in the shadows they might as well not be there at all. He manages one great jump scare, but that’s your lot.
In the end, this is a frustrating film, because Shaye is just so much better than everything going on around her. Let’s hope her performance here convinces someone to give her the leading role she deserves.