When James Wan struck box office gold with “Saw“, he inadvertently created a cash cow franchise that would dominate the entire horror genre for its decade, but it’s unclear how much money he got out of it. He’s credited as an executive producer for all of the sequels, but interviews suggest ambivalence towards them and his biggest contribution other than the original was “Saw III“- which actually tried to end the saga. Maybe he was bitter that he didn’t get more of the profits, but it’s often forgotten that his career was struggling in the aftermath of his initial success. “Dead Silence” was a critical and box office disappointment, while “Death Sentence” outright flopped, while the “Saw” sequels were effortlessly raking in over $100,000,000 a piece. However, the tides would turn in Wan’s favor, as the ‘torture porn’ genre that “Saw” popularized was growing stale and audiences now seemed more interested in paranormal-themed horror flicks. Wan himself wanted to distance himself from the gruesome violence that defined his breakthrough hit, so developed the paranormal-themed “Insidious” to show that he can scare audiences without grossing them out…and giving them an alternative to ‘found footage’, which was synonymous with this current trend. The movie ended up being very successful, but I bring this up because I’ve always suspected that Wan and screen-writer Leigh Whannell wanted to manufacture their own franchise out of their comeback hit. I will continue this train of thought for my overview, but I’ve already formally reviewed “Insidious: Chapter 2” and “Insidious: Chapter 3“, so I encourage you to read those to understand my feelings towards them. I had already covered “Insidious” a long time ago, but my original website was savagely murdered by its own web domain, so I’m going to re-review it for this ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder‘ series. The only entirely new critique will be of the newest chapter, “Insidious: The Last Key“.
(Directed by James Wan)
(Written by Leigh Whannell)
(Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Lin Shaye)
When “Insidious” came out in 2010, it was perceived as a big comeback for director James Wan, who had been struggling to recapture the success of “Saw“. The movie received positive reviews and made a lot of money, even launching its own franchise in the process, but these days “Insidious” is seen as a warm-up for “The Conjuring“. Maybe this isn’t a fair comparison, as they are very stylistically different. “Insidious” uses surreal, grim colors to forge its atmosphere, in contrast to the disarmingly warm visual style of “The Conjuring“. Perhaps due to a difference in budgets, “Insidious” traps us in its environments using limited locations, close-ups and yet making sure that the camera is always actively moving, as if it’s trying to escape the set itself. I liked how every scene with the ghosts feels overcrowded, as if a relatively small location like a Kitchen is going to be overrun with paranormal terrors. The claustrophobia is ramped up with the use of fog, which obscures the vision of both the protagonists and audiences, but isn’t overused. “The Conjuring” doesn’t confine us to a location, but instead the location seems to be devouring everything around it thanks to a clever use of wide shots. While “The Conjuring” took place within the 1970’s, “Insidious” feels like a low budgeted movie that probably would’ve been made in the 1970’s thanks to its harsher tone. Yet while having a mean streak, there is also a sense of fun about the scares. The soundtrack is somewhat campy thanks to those old fashioned organs and there are some strange, cheesy moments with the ghosts. I actually found this to be charming and it worked symbiotically with the scares. Wan, his cinematographer and his editor craft lots of spooky imagery and earn their jump scares. The ghost designs are grotesque and memorable, so even when “Insidious” is relying on its ability to startle you, the ‘jump’ tactics don’t feel cheap because the ghosts themselves look so freaky.
The script is where the flaws start to show themselves, which is a bit of a redundant statement as the script is always where the flaws start to show themselves. The Lamberts (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move into a new house, where their son is tormented by a malevolent entity- who comes from an afterlife known as ‘the Further’. I wouldn’t call Leigh Whannell’s script uninspired, but I do think it’s a little mediocre. There is an attempt to flesh out the protagonists and the acting is quite good, but their character arcs didn’t quite gel with the overarching story. The Mother seems continuously stressed out and the Father starts distancing himself from the household once the creepy stuff starts occurring, but what does any of this lead to? There’s no pay-off! Even worse, “Insidious” seems intent on following a check-list of all the cliches associated with these kinds of flicks. Of course the child will be targeted! Of course the Father will be skeptical! Of course the Mother will be the first to accept the possibility that they are being haunted! Of course they will find an ‘exposition friendly’ psychic! Of course the ghost hunters will be nerds! I’m pretty sure most of this story was already covered in “The Poltergeist“, but I do suspect there was a reason for this. I think the filmmakers kept the traditional formula intact so it could play with our expectations, as you don’t see many haunted house movies where the cast just…leaves…once it becomes apparent they are in a house haunted. When it comes to scares, suspense, style and atmosphere, I think “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” are in the same league, but the script is where the difference in quality begins to show. “The Conjuring” came across as a lot more clever because it took the same ideas and went farther with them. The characters were a lot more likable and the plot developments a lot more unique. But then again, I think “The Conjuring” is a modern day classic…so I probably shouldn’t be placing them side by side like this…and it’s not like “Insidious” is the diet version. I think “Insidious” is a stellar horror flick that was unfortunate enough to be upstaged by the directors follow-up film, but did it ever have franchise potential? ‘The Further’ certainly has a lot of room for exploration, but doing so might require a bigger budget than an “Insidious” sequel is going to get and…do we want to learn more about it? The scariest thing about ‘The Further’ is how much of the location is shrouded in mystery, so I almost have to assume that expanding on this mythos would take away its effectiveness. Still, most franchises begin with a strong start, which “Insidious” boasted, so can the sequels maintain this momentum?
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013)
(Directed by James Wan)
(Written by Leigh Whannell and James Wan)
(Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey)
If the first “Insidious” was a warm-up for “The Conjuring“, then “Insidious: Chapter 2” was running off the latters creative fumes. This sequel feels very unnecessary, but that isn’t to say it’s bad. The tone is a lot lighter, the scares are a lot campier and the pacing is a lot faster, so you can find some entertainment if you prefer these kinds of servings with your horror dish. Wan, Whennell and the crew know what they’re doing, so they crafted a worthy sequel, but it felt more out of contractual obligation than inspiration. I’m still skeptical about whether a franchise can be built around ‘the Further’…outside of the fact that this has been the highest grossing entry in the series… To read my full review, click HERE.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015)
(Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell)
(Starring Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye and Dermot Mulroney)
Leigh Whannell took over the directorial duties from James Wan and to his credit, he actually managed to make a scarier movie than Wan’s own “Insidious: Chapter 2“, if not necessarily a better one. The lighting, the framing, the score and the build-up managed to get under my skin, which is a shame that it’s all wasted on a subpar script…or maybe it redeemed the subpar script, depending on your perspective. This is a prequel, but were audiences demanding to know how Elise (Lin Shaye) met Specs (Leigh Wannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson)? Are these the types of questions that needed to be answered? The script is sloppy, the characters are weak and Lin Shaye’s performance is highly uneven. I do appreciate that it took itself more seriously than both of its predecessors, but I’d argue that it ended up having a somewhat toxic effect on the trilogy. If anything, the events of the first film have become a little more confusing thanks to some of these ‘revelations’ and even worse…’the Further’ has gotten stale. We simply grew used to its unsettling aesthetics, so it no longer holds any power over us, so what else does “Insidious” have to keep the franchise fresh? Maybe “Insidious: The Last Key” will have the…um, key? Anyway, “Insidious: Chapter 3” is uneven, but fine. I might not be itching for the next sequel, but I am curious to see what else Leigh Whannell is capable of in the directors chair. To read my full review, click HERE.
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY (2018)
(Directed by Adam Robitel)
(Written by Leigh Whannell)
(Starring Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell)
Even though I sometimes seem stern with the “Insidious” film series, I want to make it clear that I am fond of all of these movies on some level. Not only are they crafted by talented and competent filmmakers, they boast a resource that transcends their limited production values- effort. I might say they lack inspiration, but I do genuinely believe the filmmakers involved are all trying to make the best out of the few ideas they have. It is tragically common for horror flicks to lazily go through the motions, because they only require one good visual for the trailer to lure audiences in, yet the “Insidious” movies have treated their fanbase with respect…and “Insidious: The Last Key“…still shows the same amount of hard work that can be traced back all the way to the original. The story is set in 2010 and follows Elise (Lin Shaye), who has to return to her childhood home in order to face an evil she inadvertently brought into the world. Do you know what is a good setting for a haunting? How about living on the ground floor of a Prison, where death row inmates are electrocuted to death one story above? That’s pretty freaky and even though the majority of the running-time takes place years after the complex has closed down, the location still reeks of menace. There are so many ominous rooms, passageways and decor, as if whoever lives there is begging to be harassed by the paranormal. Director Adam Robitel and his cinematographer keep things just dark enough to be spooky, but never the point of incomprehensibility. There are some genuinely tense moments, with a lot of the jump scares succeeding in startling me, even when I knew when and where they were coming from. The new malevolent spectre is creepy thanks to the awesome makeup effects and towering design, although his motivations were a little underwhelming considering his set-up. The ‘key’ motif was pretty unique, but also under-utilized. “Insidious: The Last Key” is the least ‘scary’ of the “Insidious” films, but the visual style and fright tactics are in line with its predecessors and it’s not devoid of terror itself. I haven’t talked about Lin Shaye that much throughout this ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder’ critique, even though she’s arguably just as much of an anchor to this saga as ‘the Further’ is, but…I’ve never been impressed with her performances in the context of this franchise. I liked her enough in the first two films, but it seemed like her acting got really uneven for the third chapter. I personally feel she’s a good supporting actress, but not good enough to carry a film herself. Yet even though she struggles with some of the dialogue, I thought she did really good here. The script gives her a lot to work with and I like how Elise is a protagonist with a personality. You see the trauma she has experienced etched on her face, yet she can also be charming and fun, not to mention grave and commanding when expositing about the ghost world. Lin Shaye was definitely the best part of this movie and I can now fully understand why these last few sequels went the prequel route, as a franchise can be built around her character. I assume Leigh Whannell spanks himself on a daily basis for writing the franchise into such a corner that every entry practically HAS to be a prequel, because of the events in the first “Insidious“. “Insidious: The Last Key” might not be as effective as its predecessors, but I can certainly see all of that effort…
And I can see that effort eating away at the quality like a cancer…
I…kind of hate “Insidious: The Last Key”, even though there is a fair amount to like about it. I am actually a little speechless as to how badly they f@cked this up. The prologue was definitely the best part of the movie in terms of sheer suspense, but it also foreshadows the problem with the tone. All of these movies have been campy to an extent, as they rely on jump scares that are designed to make the audience squeal and then laugh about it afterwards. I don’t mind this, but it feels really awkward when these ‘fun kinds of jolts’ are mixed in with something depressing like child abuse…which is somehow worse because the filmmakers do a really good job at putting you in the kids shoes…Eventually, the movie even starts to use rape imagery, which is the ultimate fun killer…and that’s not actually true, because what’s even more depressing than rape and child abuse? Specks (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). Okay, maybe that was tasteless, but these guys did the most damage to “Insidious: The Last Key“. I actually liked these goofballs in the previous films, but now their roles have been expanded and I HATED THEM SO F@CKING MUCH. Every time they tried to be funny I not only cringed, but I seriously debated taking a bathroom break just to get away from their alleged “jokes”. Somehow their lamest gag even gets a reprisal. They outright murder whatever mood the movie is trying to set, as you will have a nerve wracking scene that will suddenly be deflated by a silly line. Or when Elise meets her nieces (Spencer Locke and Caitlin Gerard) for the first time and it’s kind of heartwarming thanks to Shaye’s acting, but then they have to barge in on the scene and come across as even creepier than the f@cking rapist ghost with their clumsy attempts at flirtation. Didn’t anyone behind-the-scenes notice how young these girls look compared to these middle aged men??? I have never seen so much misfired comedy within a single movie in my lifetime and I’ve set through the entirety of “Grown Ups 2“, which I considered to be the worst movie of its f@cking year! Eventually I turned on “The Last Key“, as their awfulness was upstaging whatever merit the film had. The ending sucked too, as the resolution to this storyline made absolutely no sense and the ‘final scare’ was weak. Do you know what I hate the most about this film f@cking up so bad? Even with the bullshit comedic routine, I can’t say they didn’t try. Sampson and Whannell might be floundering, but they’re giving everything they’ve got to liven up the scenes they’re in, which might be why they’re so obnoxious. Interestingly, there is one really good twist that I actually feel was misplaced in the movie. It was such a powerful reveal that it tricked my brain into thinking we were nearing the climax, when we were actually around the half-way point, so the pacing ended up dragging…and dragging…leaving me alone with f@cking Specks and f@cking Tucker…UGH! I don’t know if “Insidious: The Last Key” is a bad movie, but I do know that it made me very angry and frustrated.
Sometimes I take for granted that readers will understand what I mean when I say ‘manufactured franchise’, when every single film franchise in the history of the industry exists primarily for financial reasons. Yet I think some franchises grow naturally when the debuting film offers content (worlds, characters, mythologies, etc.) ripe for further exploration, such as with James Bond, Godzilla, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and for the horror genre, “Saw“, “The Conjuring“. Even lesser franchises such as “Resident Evil” or “Underworld” have unlimited possibilities in terms of what can be done with them, even if the filmmakers were too lazy to actually do anything with them. A ‘manufactured franchise’ is when a movie is created with the explicit intent of creating a franchise, even if there isn’t a lot that can be done with the concept. At first glance, “Insidious” seems like an easy draw for sequels, as you have a mysterious ghost world, an assortment of horrifying spectres AND a psychic who seeks them out. Unfortunately, ‘the Further’ is shrouded in so much fog, darkness and the unknown that you realize that unveiling it would be expensive and would strip away everything that made it so appealingly mysterious. Yet continuing to rely on the fog, darkness and unknown gets old after awhile and we start to lose interest in the location. Leigh Whannell also seems to have written himself into a corner with the character of Elise (Lin Shaye), as he is now required to keep the story in the past, as prequels are the only way to include her in the role of the protagonist. Yes, “Insidious” boasts some of the coolest ghost designs out there, but are they in the movie THAT much to be used as a backbone for the franchise? They’re sprinkles on the icing, not the entire cake. In contrast, look at “Paranormal Activity“, a controversial film series that had a lot of franchise potential. “Paranormal Activity” eventually crashed and burned because it became apparent that the filmmakers had no f@cking clue what to do with the story, but they teased a mystery that each sequel would slowly unravel…even if it ultimately went nowhere. Yet there was always a feeling that each entry was only giving us pieces of a much larger puzzle, so interest in the next sequel would be high. “Insidious” played all of its cards in the first movie, so where else could the story go? What could be done with ‘The Further’ that we hadn’t already seen before?
But do you know what? Who the f@ck cares!
James Wan and Leigh Whannell deserved this because even though I talk about how limited its potential was, all of the “Insidious” movies have been inexplicably successful. If what I say matters, why do audiences flock in droves to see all of them? I think the answer is simple…these movies are reasonably reliable. When it comes to horror, the masses seem to prefer cheap thrills and jump scares, which can be a highly entertaining experience with the right crowd. The “Insidious” franchise thrives off of this exhilaration and even if each entry has been a step down from the last, they still manage to meet the basic requirements and are superior to a lot of their contemporaries. I might’ve despised “Insidious: The Last Key“, but even I’m reluctant to call it a terrible film, as I just feel like Specks and Tucker gave me herpes with their misfired jokes. If you read most of the reviews or listen to audience reactions, everyone might agree it’s the weakest of the saga, but their opinions are more middling than hostile. So even if “Insidious” is a manufactured franchise and didn’t really need any sequels at all, it is proof that sometimes quality is enough. While I would prefer Leigh Whannell move aside and let someone else do the storytelling, I don’t mind him continuing to keep the “Insidious” name alive if the product continues to show the same amount of effort that was put into all of the other ones…
But I do mind the rectal poisoning known as ‘Specks and Tucker’. That shit needs to stop two sequels ago….