The “Insidious” horror movie franchise lacks the satanic intensity of the R-rated “Paranormal Activity” movies. Nevertheless, this creepy, skillfully-paced, PG-13 rated trilogy of chillers delivers a sufficient number of surprises to make you cringe with fear. Basically, unlike the witchcraft-laden “Paranormal Activity” movies, the supernatural “Insidious” sagas stress split-second shocks, and astral projection propels these sinister narratives. Characters wind up projecting themselves out of their own physical bodies during periods of sleep, and they cross over into another dimension designated as ‘the Further.’ The parasitical dead spirits that populate ‘the Further’ do their damnedest to appropriate the bodies of the living and endeavor to turn them into their slaves. The first two “Insidious” epics concerned the ordeal that the Lambert family endured after their young son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), plunged mysteriously into an apparent coma. After doctors with sophisticated medical technology proved unable to revive poor Dalton, Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his distraught wife Renai (Rose Byrne) resorted to the services of a psychic. A gifted psychic, Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye of “Ouija”), helped them rescue Dalton from captivity in ‘the Further.’ Josh had experienced a similar predicament as a youth himself, and a younger Elise had liberated him from ‘the Further.’ Unbeknownst to him, Josh had passed along to young Dalton his extraordinary ability to use astral projection. The first “Insidious” ended with Elise’s demise. The second entry picked up where the first concluded with a cliffhanger ending as Josh—or a spirit impersonating Josh—strangled Elise to death.
“Insidious Chapter Three” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) amounts to a prequel since Lin Shaye returns as Elise. “Saw” scenarist Leigh Whannell covers events that took place before the first two predecessors. Indeed, “Insidious 3” is for all practical purposes Elise’s story. Not only has Whannell taken over as director of “Insidious Chapter Three,” but he also reprises his own role as Specs. Previously, “The Conjuring” director James Wan had helmed the first two chapters of “Insidious.” During one scene, when the heroine auditions for a slot at a prestigious theater school, James Wan appears in a cameo as one of its representatives. While it doesn’t qualify as the tour-de-force masterpiece that “Insidious Chapter Two” constituted, the third “Insidious” epic emerges as a polished exercise in textbook horror that will catch you off-guard when you least suspect it. Indeed, the film boasts more than enough scary jump scenes to keep you poised on the edge of your seat. Sometimes, you can anticipate them, but Whannell and his crew do a splendid job of orchestrating these harrowing moments. In “Insidious 3,” Elise has given up performing psychic readings and efforts to contact the dead on behalf of their bereaved loved ones. As it turns out, somebody in ‘the Further’ wants to kill Elise, and every time Elise projects herself into ‘the Further,’ this enigmatic but ghoulish figure attacks her with malice aforethought. If you’ve seen “Insidious Chapter Two,” you know about this malignant, gender-confused phantom. Although it boasts several scenes that will induce goose bumps, “Insidious 3” also features some amusing moments. This time around, we are treated to Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson of “Mad Max: Fury Road”) before they joined forces with Elise. At this point, Specs and Tucker have created a minor sensation on the Internet with their dubious ability to oust spirits from haunted houses. As comic relief, Specs and Tucker provide “Insidious 3” with some of its funniest moments. For example, Specs wears a Casper the Friendly Ghost jacket.
As “Insidious 3” unfolds, a high school senior, Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott of “No Strings Attached”), visits Elise. She wants to contact her dead mother. Sadly, Quinn’s mother Lillith Brenner (Ele Keats of “Newsies”) died from breast cancer. Although Lillith had a mastectomy, the cancer spread to her lungs, and she died. Quinn has been struggling without luck to contact her, and one of her friends recommended Elise. For the record, Quinn lives in an old apartment building in the city with her father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney of “My Best Friend’s Wedding”), an electrician, and her rambunctious little brother, Alexis (Tate Berney of “Just Before I Go”), whose favorite Internet series is “Spectral Sighting” featuring Specs and Tucker. Sean has found it extremely difficult to adapt to life after Lillith’s demise, and he relies heavily on Quinn to help him with Alexis. As prom approaches, the only thing Quinn is concerned about—other than contacting her mom—is getting into an acting academy. Elise warns her about talking to the dead. “If you call out to one of the dead,” she explains, “all of them can hear you.” Clearly, poor Quinn has no idea about the predicament that she has gotten herself into when a sequence of inexplicable events ensue. First, she spots an elderly man clad in a hospital gown waving at her from the street late one night. As she approaches him, a car slams into her from behind. This scene will scare the shampoo out of you. Quinn leaves the hospital three weeks later with both legs encased in plaster. Sean pushes around his helpless daughter in a wheelchair. Second, this hideously evil, but decrepit-looking oldster wearing a breathing mask attacks Quinn in her room. This apparition traipses around in its bare feet and leaves a trail of oily footprints. Eventually, the worst skeptic of all, Quinn’s father Sean, reluctantly, hires Specs and Tucker to save his daughter after Elise bails out after the first encounter. Everything these two cretins do fails miserably, and Quinn tries to slash her throat with a box-cutter. Elise musters her nerve for a comeback and scrimmages with the phantom once again in ‘the Further.’
The cast of “Insidious 3” is generate a considerable amount of empathy. Dermot Mulroney makes a strong impression as Quinn’s father simply because he doesn’t specialize in horror and his face is fresh not only to franchise but also the horror in general. This is Stefanie Scott’s first horror movie, too, and she neither plays an idiot nor is she a scream queen. Indeed, she does scream occasionally, but she never annoys us and her performance is marvelously spontaneous. Naturally, Lin Shaye steals the show without even trying. This actress is so seasoned and sympathetic, too, that you can believe that she can do what she sets out to in this franchise. If nothing else, Shaye’s performance is one of female empowerment in the face of acute adversity. Most people probably remember her for her hilarious performance in “There’s Something About Mary.” Leigh Whannell clearly doesn’t mind poking fun at himself as Specs, and it is fun to watch a director belittle himself in a role without belittling the picture. Angus Sampson turns out to be a scene stealer, too, with his Mohican haircut. He wears a T-shirt with Dolph Lundgren pictured on it from the 1987 classic “Masters of the Universe.” Of course, not enough superlative adjectives can be offered to adequately praise Michael Reid MacKay as ‘The Man Who Cannot Breathe.” MacKay looks genuinely disgusting in every respect and undoubtedly received help from the make-up artist to transform him into such an ugly monster. Meantime, Brian Pearson’s atmospheric cinematography, Timothy Alverson’s tense editing, Jennifer Spence’s dense production designs, and Jason Garner’s colorful art direction all contribute significantly to the overall unsettling feeling that the film exudes. Throughout “Insidious 3,” director Leigh Whannell stages some pretty scary scenes and relies on the use loud musical cues to punctuate these eerie moments. The old apartment building setting with a red door here evokes memories of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” If you love the “Insidious” franchise, you’ll crave “Insidious 3.”