[Review] Insidious: The Last Key is Good-Natured and Not Very Good

The Insidious films are not what they used to be. The editor knew as much: The title card pops up unceremoniously in bold cartoon lettering, a mere impression of the bombastic opening frames of the earliest entries in the series, and an unflattering one at that.

The studio knew as well: Originally slated for an October 2017 release, Blumhouse pushed The Last Key back to January, the annual dumping ground for movies whose distributors don’t believe in them, and replaced it with Happy Death Day.

Continuing the trend of going backwards in time, we open with a fifteen-minute detour into Elise’s childhood, and already the film wears its flaws on its sleeve.

I have complained in previous articles about the unfortunate results of this particular franchise’s runaway success. The first two films are among the best American-made horror flicks of the 2000s, and they are not my cup of tea: I do not like jump-scares; I can hardly tolerate doc style cinematography; If you’re going to make a haunted house movie in 2018, it had better be damned good.

And Insidious is exactly that. Its jump-scares are masterfully executed and brilliantly calculated. The Director of Photography does smooth enough work that its doc-style hardly detracts from the quality of the film.

Although it is, in essence, most of what I don’t like about contemporary horror films joined together in one picture I could most easily avoid, I did not avoid the original Insidious, and I was wise not to. It’s a brilliant piece of contemporary pop art.

And its immediate sequel is better. I am aware this is not the majority opinion. And yet: Insidious: Chapter 2 gathers all the best elements of its predecessor into an unlikely narrative turn that is probably better than the first film deserved.

Unfortunately, the first film made approximately 96 times its original production budget, and the sequel fared slightly better, as I recall. As such, not only was a franchise born, but a host of other films with no relation whatsoever to Insidious were recut in the editing room to more closely resemble the latter.

One such casualty was Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, which had run the festival circuit to much acclaim only to be taken back to the editing room to increase the number of spooky scary jump-scares (and just generally make the film more rackety). It hardly spoiled the film, of course. Sinister is wonderful, and Scott Derrickson is wonderful, like Insidious is wonderful, and James Wan is wonderful.

This had happened previously, also with a franchise pioneered by James Wan and Leigh Whannell. When Saw was a smash-hit, more sequels were commissioned than any one person can count and a number of unrelated films were forcibly made more ‘extreme’ at the behest of producers who sought to recast the horror films at their helm into the image of something demonstrably successful.

One can hardly blame them. A filmmaker’s job is to make films, a studio’s job is to sell films, and a producer’s job is to guide the filmmaker into making films the studio can sell. Some have suggested that we demonetize art as a means of preventing money-hungry cash-grabbers from bastardizing the work of the artistic visionaries they contract out. That’s certainly one approach, but it probably would not lead to less bastardization. Though it would certainly lead to less art.

In any case, the first 15 minutes of The Last Key rehash all of what theoretically worked in the first two films, minus the craft that gave them such profound resonance. Piled on are rather grim overtones of domestic abuse, again shot in a murky doc-style that makes the flick look less like the old Hammer classics that it’s emulating than like one of the latter, and lesser, episodes of Law & Order that your mom used to watch.

The cavalier handling of this subject matter is emblematic of much of what’s wrong with the movie. It manages to turn what may be the franchise’s best quality on its head: The Insidious films have always been refreshingly earnest. Regardless of the subject matter, they are profoundly uncynical. Elise is (now almost unheard of in films made for adults) quite straightforwardly a good person trying to do the right thing. Toggling through the list of films released this year – or any year during my lifetime – such films are few and far between.

And it isn’t just her. The Lambert family from the first two entries, and Elise’s dopey sidekicks. The Last Key tries its best to carry on in this tradition, but it’s clumsy. And unbelievably so.

As such, its tender moments feel strained, and strange, and smack of kitsch and kitchen decorations far more than is good for them. This is Lifetime Network Presents: Insidious.

But a clumsy effort in good faith is still an effort in good faith, and I think we’re starved for something of the sort, however meager and threadbare. The Last Key suggest that human cruelty has roots tangled up in the underworld, that sadism is cosmic, in some sense. That when we wrong each other we do not do so alone, but join a chorus of supraterranean vermin, praeternatural scum, whom we can join or not join, feed or not feed. And this is strangely humanizing, in its way, however brittle its execution. I think that our friends at B&S About Movies nailed it in their review – it’s tired and derivative, much like last year’s Jigsaw, but I can’t help but recommend it for its rickety charms.

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