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Third Time's Half a Charm

Focus Features
 97 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye 
Insidious Chapter 3

In one of the great behind-the-scenes stories of movie making, Steven Spielberg credits the success of his initial hit Jaws to a gigantic glitch. His crew at first couldn’t get the mechanical shark to work properly, so he had to shoot most of the movie without actually revealing the shark. The result was one of the best suspense movies of all time and proof of the adage: what you can’t see is much more frightening than what you can.


Director Leigh Whannell proves this adage in Insidious: Chapter 3, a haunted house film that’s so different in tone, style, and effectiveness in its two halves that it almost seems like two different movies. The first half has some of the scariest moments in recent memory, while the second half resembles a high school haunted house with most of the lights left on.


Insidious: Chapter 3 is a prequel to the first two Insidious movies and purports to tell the story of Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye), a psychic who figures prominently in the later films. In this film, she has retired due to some bad experiences we learn about later when Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), a high school student, asks Elise for help. Quinn has felt out of sorts since her mother died and needs some comfort and reassurance. Even though Elise warns her that trying to contact the dead can have bad consequences, Quinn follow through, and they hold a séance.


The séance fails, in more ways than one. As Quinn goes back home, she has visions of a shadowy figure who eventually distracts her so much she gets hit by a car in a city street, breaking both her legs. Now that Quinn is wheelchair bound (a la Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window), she’s a much easier target for the spirit. Her harried father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) doesn’t believe her at first, but when Quinn nearly goes out an upper-story window, he comes around and visits Elise himself.


Elise explains to Sean that a powerful ghost has latched onto Quinn and wants her soul so that he can do all sorts of bad things. The only way to stop him is to hold another séance so that Elise can cross over to the spiritual realm (called the “Further”) and do battle with the ghost. She enlists the help of a couple of Internet-based ghost hunters (director Whannell and Angus Sampson, in a bizarre parallel to Jared Harris’ character in last week’s similarly themed Poltergeist). However, what Elise finds is not just the spirit after Quinn but some others that have evil designs on her as well.


Shaye, Whannell, and Sampson appeared in the earlier Insidious films, so fans of those movies will enjoy seeing how these three became a team. In addition, this movie explains a few more details about the Insidious universe and the Further in particular. However, Insidious 3 is very much a standalone film that viewers can enjoy (or not) without any knowledge of the other films in the series.


As usually happens in this genre, the plot is merely a device to set the stage for the fright sequences. Quinn and Sean are stereotypes, but Scott is an appealing character with some quirks (she’s trying to succeed in the theater) that make her more likable than most horror movie heroines. The screenplay’s best touch is to cripple Quinn early in the movie, making her helpless and forcing her to remain virtually stationary while bad things happen around her.


Leigh Whannell co-wrote the screenplay for the earlier Insidious movies with frequent collaborator Justin Wan (they also created the Saw series), but here he assumes directorial duties for the first time in any movie. He has a good feel for horror and his scares are more in the nature of a realization by the audience that something is lurking rather than the jump scare “gotcha” moments. He sets the stage for each scene quite well, dragging out the anticipation by the audience and then having something appear somewhere the audience isn’t expecting. Most of these scenes take place in dead silence, amplifying the mood, and he often hits the audience with a second jolt before they’ve fully recovered from the first.


The key to the spookiness in the film’s first half is the fact than the ghost is never seen long enough for the audience to comprehend what it really is, and it’s a lot more frightening that way. Eventually, Elise does go into the Further, and like the Wizard of Oz, the ghost is much less scary, and, in fact, almost comical. It turns out to be the spirit of an old man in a hospital gown wearing a breathing mask who looks like a zombie that arose from a nursing home in The Walking Dead. When the ghost is trying to capture Quinn’s soul, it hugs the near comatose girl, a scene that’s sufficiently icky but not in the least bit scary. Elise encounters other ghosts in the Further, and they aren’t all that scary as well. 


To make matters worse, Elise does battle with the ghosts primarily by using her fists to knock them around. And, to put it mildly, Lin Shaye is never going to be mistaken for Ronda Rousey in the martial arts world. To make matters still worse, Shaye’s acting, which has been one of the most entertaining aspects of the Insidious franchise, is completely off here. Her attempts to act tough in these scenes are ludicrous, and her sojourn through the Further resembles the little old lady in the Tweety cartoons bashing Sylvester over the head with her umbrella (come to think of it, Sylvester is scarier than the ghosts in the Further).


If I had to assess the blame for this ridiculous finale, I’d guess that Whannell’s inexperience does him in here. The sequence in the Further requires some imagination to make it scary or, at the least, creepy, and Whannell’s interpretation is downright mundane. Since Justin Wan has gone on to bigger and better things in another series (the Fast and Furious movies), the fate of this series seems to rest squarely in Whannell’s hands. Hopefully, he’ll build on this experience and manage a complete movie next time.   

Read other reviews of Insideious: Chapter 3:


Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) on IMDb