Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Premise: A prequel to the original Insidious. A psychic (Lin Shaye) agrees to help a crippled teenager (Stefanie Scott) who is being tormented by a supernatural force.
What Works: Horror sequels don’t have a very good reputation and follow ups in this genre are frequently disappointing. However, Insidious: Chapter 3 bucks the trend and is arguably the best film in this series. This is a PG-13 horror film but the moviemakers have created a very powerful atmosphere of dread that carries the film even through its weaker moments. Like a lot of recent haunting pictures, Insidious: Chapter 3 is based on long silences punctuated by sudden crashes of sound. But the filmmakers of this entry are not obnoxious with that strategy. They don’t use jump scares as red herrings and most scenes build very carefully and deliberately to their climax. Like action movies, horror films tend to be purely cinematic; their success or failure depends on a very careful and controlled use of both sound and image. Insidious: Chapter 3 has an appropriately dark color scheme but the portions taking place in the world of the living aren’t overly stylized. One of the successes of the Insidious films has been the overlap of the physical and spiritual world and that is done very well in the third installment. Some of the visuals are reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond and the better sequels in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Insidious: Chapter 3 transitions smoothly from one world to the next, creating some frightening disorientation. The filmmakers also use sound effectively. The Insidious series uses a distinct yet non-melodic musical signature that sounds like the howling of a ghost or the sound of fingernails scraping a chalkboard. This film uses that music as well as stingers that coincide with jump scares and the music mixes with other effectively placed sound effects. As such, Insidious: Chapter 3 plays like a cinematic haunted house and it creates an atmosphere that sustains the viewer’s fear while executing shocks at a regular pace.
What Doesn’t: One of the recent innovations of Hollywood franchising has been the advent of prequels. Whether this phenomenon is good or bad is debatable. Done well, a prequel can tell its own satisfying story while informing and enhancing the audience’s understanding of the pre-existing films. But prequels are also inherently problematic because their existence means that the original story was somehow incomplete; stories begin where the relevant action starts but a prequel supposes that the original story is incomplete and that the relevant action began earlier. Of course, most prequels aren’t created with these theoretical storytelling principles in mind and many prequels are artistically bankrupt cash grabs. In and of itself, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a satisfying movie but as a prequel it falls short. The film does not really tell us anything about the original Insidious movies or about the one returning character, the psychic played by Lin Shaye. The tenuousness of the links between this film and other Insidious movies is most obvious in the ending which shoehorns in references to the earlier films. Insidious: Chapter 3 succeeds primarily due to its atmosphere. The film is intended to give the audience a scare and it does that. But the characters of Insidious: Chapter 3 aren’t very interesting nor do they exist beyond a superficial level. The storytelling is also thin. The supernatural element lacks the internal logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Poltergeist; characters go in and out of the underworld at will. The film also lacks subtext to the terror. The best ghost stories tend to have something more at stake than the obvious—getting into the unconscious is what makes horror films terrifying—but everything about this story is on the surface.
Bottom Line: Insidious: Chapter 3 is a satisfying horror film. The movie hasn’t got much to it beyond the obvious but it does provide the spookiness and the shocks that its PG-13 audience will be looking for.
Episode: #547 (June 21, 2015)