While James Wan is busy rolling in Vin Diesel money from Furious 7 and preparing to tackle the insurmountable challenge of working in the DC universe and making Aquaman into a character people don’t just laugh at, his Insidious franchise has been left with one of his long-time partners: Leigh Whannell. He may not have had directing experience prior to Insidious: Chapter 3, but it doesn’t show as often as one might expect from a first-time director. The James Wan touch still feels present, even if it is considerably toned down. Whannell proves he has learned how to create tension and dread out of a situation, in what is probably the best film in the horror franchise yet.
Let’s not get carried away though, as Whannell still stumbles often throughout the movie. As a prequel to the Lambert family’s traumatic experience, Insidious: Chapter 3 focuses on the idea of loss and how to overcome it. For ghost stories, that is par for the course. What anchors the film is its ability to flesh out more of the Insidious lore without feeling created explicitly for that purpose. By following Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) as she struggles with her gift to see into “The Further”, a continuity is immediately formed and specific spirits are introduced that will feel familiar to fans of the series.
Unfortunately, Elise is the main character of the film, but not the one we focus on the most. Her struggle is similar to that of Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), a teenager in her senior year of high school, still dealing with the loss of her mother a year ago. After a visit with Elise, a spirit begins haunting her and getting increasingly more dangerous. When she becomes bedridden due to an accident caused by the spirit, she finds herself in a perilous situation. Scott is fine in the film, but her character is not particularly interesting, nor are her acquaintances. The real star is Shaye, who has so much energy and charisma that she can chew scenery with the best of them.
What comes as a major problem with the film, is its inability to maintain a specific tone throughout. Dialogue can often be outright terrible, and when coming from anyone other than Shaye, it’s just cringe-inducing. From Shaye it is delivered with the right amount of conviction and awareness. The expertly crafted tension in the movie is worthy of an applause, but when it all ends in a jump scare, the feelings of dread end up pointless. The jump scares are so frequent that they become jokes in themselves, which is fine by the end of the movie because it is clear that Whannell has given up on trying to be frightening.
This was the issue with the first Insidious as it had a really well-done first half that felt like the work of a master in tension. Atmosphere was what captivated me, and in this film the same applies. Except where the first film had a clear point in which its quality declined at a rapid pace, Insidious: Chapter 3 is filled with peaks and valleys. The awareness that Shaye has of awful dialogue can be felt in Whannell’s directing by the third act of the movie, but before that point, every moment of terror is rudely interrupted by a poorly done attempt to scare the audience.
Comparing this to other Wan films only feels natural because of how much Wan has clearly influenced the direction of this movie. When The Conjuring created tension, it never stopped until it decided it wanted to be something more thrilling. Whannell barely attempts to have thrills, yet when he does, it breaks the atmosphere and that insatiable feeling of dread. Like a story that keeps trying to build momentum, the only consistency ends up being Shaye’s magnetic performance and the build-up to each disappointing scare.