All horror films, whether their creators or fans wish to admit it, trade a little bit in cruelty. At some point we’ll watch, from the safety of our voyeur’s perch, someone writhe in agony as they are stabbed or bludgeoned or strangled. Yet the cruelest thing in Insidious: The Last Key doesn’t happen to anyone on screen. After a reasonably well-executed prologue, one with good acting, dramatic moments, a genuine eerie tone and a visual landscape crafted with care, the rug is pulled from us. We move from the 1950s to “now”, and with that we exit a warm bath of sincere film-making to an icy tub of cliche. You can scream, but no one will save you.
This is part four of the Insidious saga, but it’s actually the sequel to a prequel (3, 4, 1, 2, should you ever feel the need to screen these in chronological order.) But one need not have seen any of the others to follow the plot, and the few in-jokes for completists are broadly telegraphed as such. The Last Key’s prologue gives us the early backstory of Elise, Lin Shaye’s specter-sensitive psychic who appears in the other films. Her childhood home is nextdoor to a prison’s death row and her father, a corrections officer, is a brute who tries to beat her supernatural sensitivities away. Her mother ends up hanged before her eyes by forces from beyond. It wasn’t a pleasant upbringing!
In the present (well, 2010) Elise gets a call from a spooked man currently living in her old house. Despite hesitation she agrees to visit him and confront the haunting spirits. Her two dorky ghost-catching buddies Tucker (Angus Sampson, doing some light Danny McBride schtick) and Specs (the awkward Leigh Whannell, the co-creator of the Saw films and writer of this one, if you were wondering how he got the gig) get in their Scooby-Doo-esque van with the intent to do what they always do: wander around a basement with night vision glasses and have people in creepy makeup jump out of nowhere just as the music goes SCREEEEEEECH.
I can’t stress enough just how tiresome it is once the gang gets to the eerie homestead. (A street sign pointing to Old Dirt Road gets a laugh, but that’s about it.) Cold basements, blank stages representing “the other side”, some smoke, some dust. It’s all really low rent, and made worse with a flat video sheen. An otherworldly villain with keys in lieu of fingernails has the potential to be interesting, but other than that image it goes nowhere. A recurring motif of men locking up nurses in a basement for Brie Larson-in-Room purposes is all too unsettling for what could otherwise be a fun spookhouse picture.
Moreover, The Last Key squanders its opportunities to get interesting. The violence is gore-free and no one dies in an inventive manner. The two younger women (Elise’s nieces) who show up for scream queen duty don’t get to do much more than smile.
This film is all the more unfortunate in that this is probably the only franchise film we’ll see this year, next year or the year after in which the star is a 74-year-old woman. Lin Shaye’s line readings are as flat as the rest of the film, and I can’t misrepresent and call this a “good performance”. But she does have a presence, and during the film’s climax (or what passes as a climax) her reaction shots to seeing the spirit of someone once close to her is surprisingly touching. Beneath all this babble, the ghost of a tender moment.