Psychic investigator Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) was killed off in the first Insidious, though – of course – that didn’t rule out keeping her around as a ghost in the second film. Insidious Chapter 3, directed by writer/co-star Leigh Whannell, and this fourth entry, which juices up the direction by calling in Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan), opt for the prequel route and fill in Elise’s backstory, delving into the origins of her talent and finding her tackling cases which lead up to the big bad of the first two films, accompanied by her slightly too-comic ‘psychic sidekicks’ Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). The field of spooky franchise films has become so crowded lately that Shaye’s regular presence in the parallel Ouija films slightly blurs the issue … and the lengthy flashback sequences to 1953 here evoke the course lately charted by the Conjuring films and their spin-offs. There’s a sense of a doppelganger-blighted shared cinematic universe being created piecemeal, with a strong likelihood that the Paranormal Activity and Sinister sagas will be subsumed into one big melange of insidious paranormal sinistrosity before long.
In the opening, we find young Elise – Ava Kolker and Hana Hayes, who aren’t as remarkable Lin-alikes as Lindsay Seim in Chapter 2 – having psychic flashes while living under the literal lash of her prison warden Dad (Josh Stewart) and eventually driven from the house after her mother (Tessa Ferrer is throttled by a spook, abandoning her younger brother Christian (Pierce Pope) in a home where Dad is worse than any apparition. In 2010 – you’d need to watch all the films again to sort out the order of internal chronology – Elise gets a call from Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), who lives in the house where she grew up and is having his own haunting woes … with the traditional haggard, harried, shift-wearing women and a particular demon known as Keyface (inevitably, Javier Botet) who has a thing about locks and chains. Back in her New Mexico home town, Elise runs into her estranged brother (a welcome Bruce Davison) and undercharacterised nieces (Cairlin Gerard, Spencer Locke), who might also have a touch of her psychic talent/curse. The main reason for sticking with the Insidiouses is the sheer joy of seeing a whole series built around long-serving character actress Shaye, who gets to carry stories and be taken seriously after so many bit parts and jokey cameos … though this means that the supporting casts tend to be stooges.
Whannell, who has stayed on as writer, plays variations on the haunted house premise which stave off the inevitable repetition – here, there are a few extra mysteries, including some non-supernatural crimes and a neat reversal where some characters everyone takes for ghostly turn out to be alive after all. Like all the series, it ends in a limbo – which is at once prison and hospital – with intrepid souls venturing out in mortal danger to rescue innocents from the fiendish. Robitel stages the scares well, but is stuck with iffy comedy banter that sits ill with a story rooted in hideous abuses. The need to set this a few years ago perhaps blunts the possible suggestion of a resurgance of American evils from the 1950s (the historical event the flashbacks hinge on is the Death of Stalin, but there’s also a literal bunker mentality cold war pareanoia) in the present day — though the story features a hat-wearing contemporary villain who clings on to the junk of the past and recreates the appalling (and perverse) attitudes and actions of Elise’s horrible father, a prison warder who tells his cowed wife not to protest when reaches for the whip ‘I punish people for a living – don’t tell me how to punish our daughter’.