Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)

Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)

Rated PG-13 for violence, frightening images, some language and thematic elements

Insidious: Chapter 3 is, much like the second film, nowhere near as good as the first, though once again, that's not to say it's a bad film. It's certainly the most conventional film in the trilogy, retreading much of the same territory as the last two films and other recent supernatural horror flicks while lacking the first's polish and the second's sheer balls-out craziness. However, it's elevated above many of the other subpar horror films I've seen in theaters in the last couple of years by a standout lead character and by virtue of the fact that Leigh Whannell, who's taken over directing duties from James Wan in addition to writing the film, seems to have learned a lot from him even with his rookie inexperience. It's a pretty basic spook show that doesn't step very far out of the box, but it's not one you can really go wrong with.

The A-plot concerns a teenage girl named Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) whose attempts to "contact" her deceased mother result in her getting haunted by a malicious spirit. This leads her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) to seek help from Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a psychic who Quinn had visited recently, as well as Specs and Tucker (Leigh Whannell and Angus Simpson), a duo of phony paranormal investigators with a web show who find themselves in way over their heads. Like I said, nothing you haven't seen in a hundred haunting movies. The real meat of the film concerns the B-plot, which is essentially an origin story of sorts for Elise (this film is a prequel set three years prior to the first two). An important supporting character in the first two films, here Elise graduates into being the heroine in her own right. She used to use her psychic gifts professionally, but retired and vowed to never use them again once she herself started being haunted. Every time she enters "the Further", she finds herself grappling with a malicious spirit -- the "Bride in Black" from the first two films -- that she had vanquished once before, and which now wants revenge. If Elise is to save Quinn, she must first deal with the Bride in Black.

Elise is the heart of this film, and the main factor elevating it above mediocrity. She is almost like a female version of Father Karras in The Exorcist, and much like his story did for that film, her story lends the plot here some added depth and texture on top of the thrills and chills. The film is as much about exploring her character as it is about scaring the viewers' pants off, revealing someone whose own experience with love, loss, and struggle adds some subtext to the goings-on with Quinn. The two sides of the story -- Elise's journey and the battle to save Quinn -- are integrated much better than the two stories in the second film were, with the latter hinging on the former, the former shading the latter, and the two meshing together remarkably well. It certainly helps that Lin Shaye once again gives a standout performance as a tough old lady who's made of much stronger stuff than she looks, yet isn't afraid to show her softer side, especially in a pivotal scene involving her late husband. Shaye is easily one of this generation's best -- and most unlikely -- scream queens, with Elise Rainier as her Ellen Ripley or Laurie Strode.

The rest of the cast is unremarkable, but good, with Stefanie Scott probably the standout, a pleasant surprise given her background on the Disney Channel. The same goes for Leigh Whannell's work behind the camera. It's obvious that this is his first time directing, as his film feels notably less assured than that of his frequent collaborator James Wan. He's mostly content to imitate Wan's style from the first two films, and while that decision definitely gives this film a sense of continuity with those films, it also means that there's really little that stands out. His main weakness is in maintaining nail-biting tension over long stretches of the film (something the first film excelled at), instead giving us a bit too much room to breathe, with the scares separated by moments that feel calm and safe -- not what I want to be feeling when watching a horror movie, especially one like this where the scares begin early. There's too clear a delineation between the "scary" and "not scary" parts here. It's in the "scary" parts, however, where Whannell does his best work at recapturing the dark magic of the first film. His monster, known only as the Demon Who Can't Breathe, is a decrepit old man wearing an oxygen mask who constantly sounds desperately short of breath, and while he doesn't have much of a story, and it's easy to guess what he's about (the moment we see the empty apartment above the Brenners, I knew immediately that he was somehow connected to it), he's still a creepy-ass presence during this film's scary moments thanks to both his appearance and that voice of his. He was responsible for most of the utterances of "oh, shit" that came out of my mouth while watching this. Combine that with Whannell's use of old-school suspense during the moments when he's around, hiding the spirit in the shadows or off-camera, and you get scares that, while hardly original, are still really good at what they do. Bringing back the Bride in Black, however, didn't go quite as well, as not only is that character very much over-explained at this point (especially after the second film), but its presence, especially in the third act, felt tacked on and thrown in just for fanservice and continuity's sake. A better way to connect the story of that character with the rest of the film's story might have been to have the Bride in Black and the Demon Who Can't Breathe working together, the latter trying to claim Quinn's soul and the former helping him by trying to stop Elise. As it is, however, they exist mostly separate from each other.

Score: 3 out of 5

This movie is very much Elise's show, and without her, there'd be little separating this from the other cookie-cutter haunting/possession movies that have cluttered multiplexes these last few years. With her, though, we get a film that's a bit better than average. It's not a must-see except for the most diehard fans of the franchise, but it's still a worthy film in its own way.

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