[Note: This post contains major spoilers for Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, and Insidious: Chapter 3. Updated 6/17/15.]
Now that three Insidious features have been released into the wild (so far), it’s apparent that the most eccentric aspect of the series as a whole is how defiantly different each chapter is from its fellows, at least in terms of the story structure and rhythm. Whatever its merits and flaws, the franchise certainly hasn’t relied on a formula. Where some horror sequels are content to replicate the original film’s story beat-for-beat with mild changes in window dressing, Insidious: Chapter 2 instead scurried off in pursuit of one of its predecessors’ unanswered questions, splitting into two parallel plots and delving into some daft, disturbing places. Insidious: Chapter 3 mixes things up yet again, as it is not a sequel but a prequel, antedating the Lambert haunting that was the focus of previous installments by the weirdly ambiguous span of “a few years.” The new film echoes the first Insidious in some crucial respects: Once again medium Elise (Lin Shaye) is called upon to save a young person who is being parasitized by an entity from the spirit world, known in the series’ mythology as the Further. In other ways, however, Chapter 3 is insolently its own thing, a standalone tale that contains elements of both a ghost story and demonic possession tale.
While the Insidious films are scrupulously conventional contemporary horror features in most respects, there’s something bracingly incongruous about the way that the saga fits together. It is that uncommon film franchise where one truly cannot predict where the next installment will lead. If one is going to attribute this to a particular individual, the obvious candidate is Leigh Whannell, who has scripted every Insidious film and takes over directing duties from James Wan with Chapter 3. For better or worse, Whannell has undeniably kept the series fresh—or sent it hurtling off the rails, depending on one's perspective. The new film illustrates that while he has absorbed the expected directorial tics from Wan and other contemporary horror filmmakers, he seems staunchly unwilling to give the viewer precisely what they might expect from each new chapter. There’s something weirdly admirable about that, particularly given how indistinguishable the individual entries were in Wan and Whannell’s Saw franchise.
Insidious: Chapter 3 centers on the ghostly tribulations of high school senior Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott, baby-faced and sweetly vulnerable in the role), whose mother died a year and half back. Quinn’s harried father (Dermot Mulroney) has mostly checked out, but the 18-year-old is clinging to the tiniest signs that her mother's spirit might be lingering nearby, watching over her. This is the reason that Quinn calls upon Elise, who at this juncture in the saga is retired from the ghost whispering game. Although Quinn’s earnest grief moves Elise, the older woman is unable to help, on account of a malevolent spirit (Tom Fitzpatrick) that has a particularly murderous hatred of the medium. (This darkling being would be, of course, the Bride in Black, a.k.a. Parker Crane, the same ghost that once attached itself to a young Josh Lambert.)
Elise sympathizes with Quinn's state of mind, having recently lost her husband to suicide, but the best that she can do is to admonish the girl from any further attempts at contacting her deceased mother. Unfortunately, Quinn does not heed this advice. Upon returning to the old apartment complex where her family lives and her father work as superintendent, she continues to whisper to the darkness each night, hoping that her mother hears her. As Elise warned, something responds to Quinn’s pleas: a presence that emits rattling sighs from the apartment’s ventilation system, and which eventually appears as a shadowy figure that stiffly waves at her. Following a botched drama school audition, Quinn spies this person out on the street, which distracts her just long enough for a speeding car to hit her.
The left-field abruptness of this development is the first major sign that, despite initial appearances, Insidious: Chapter 3 intends to deviate from first film’s template is modest but significant ways. Quinn is critically injured in the accident, and briefly enters the Further when her heart subsequently stops in the emergency room. Unfortunately, this brush with death seems to solidify the attention (and power) of the malign spirit that she’s been unwittingly attracting. Weeks later, she is released and sent home to recover with two broken legs, whereupon the supernatural craziness starts in earnest.
The ghost that haunts her (Michael Reid MacKay) appears as a gaunt, blackened corpse wearing nothing but a hospital shift and an oxygen mask, through which it draws ragged, wheezing breaths. The mischief perpetrated by this entity—which Quinn dubs the Man Who Can't Breathe—starts with minor poltergeist activity but quickly escalates to shockingly violent assaults. It’s a marked change of pace from the much more gradual build-up of Insidious, which took its time tightening the screws on the viewer with comparatively lo-fi haunted house scares. In comparison to other spirits that have been depicted in the series, the Man Who Can’t Breathe is a chillingly aggressive apparition. He is not content to merely terrify mortals for his own sadistic glee, or even to imprison a soul who wanders unwittingly into his underworld territory (as was done to Dalton Lambert). Instead, the Man forcefully intrudes into the world of the living with the intent to take control of Quinn’s body and then slay her, perhaps claiming a few bonus victims along the way.
This is a disturbingly grim fate for a young woman who has committed no sin but pining for her dead mother. Despite all of the The Exorcist knock-offs that have been cranked out over the decades, Insidious: Chapter 3 is the rare possession tale that taps into the sense of fundamental, horrific unfairness that characterized William Friedkin’s masterpiece. Whatever the viewer thinks of Quinn, she certainly doesn’t deserve the vicious torments inflicted on her. The brutality of those assaults is one of the main reasons that Quinn’s tale is worthy of attention, for it eventually drives her desperate father to Elise’s doorstep.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is thus revealed as the story of how Elise was lured back into the medium profession, notwithstanding her fear of the Bride in Black, or her despair at her departed husband’s silence. The dire threat posed by the Man Who Can’t Breathe compels Elise to enter the Further in search of answers. She eventually discerns that the ghost appears to have perished in one of the apartment complex’s units, and that he has enslaved several other souls from the building into a kind of unholy menagerie. (This contrasts the new film with Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2, which subverted the centrality of place in ghost stories by attaching the malevolent spirits to the Lamberts themselves.) Unfortunately, the Black Bride is waiting for Elise, and her near-fatal encounter with the ghost is so frightening that she has second thoughts about her ability to rescue Quinn.
This gives Whannell an oh-so-convenient narrative pause to throw more familiar faces at the viewer. Elise’s fellow medium and friend Carl (Steve Coulter) from Insidious: Chapter 2 pops in just long enough to provide her with some anodyne reassurance and encouragement. Meanwhile, Quinn’s family brings in the series’ goofball ghost hunters Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to pinch hit for Elise. Unfortunately for Quinn, Specs and Tucker are essentially just Internet-famous charlatans at this point in the franchise’s timeline, and their inexperience with actual ghosts puts everyone in severe danger. Fortunately, Elise eventually returns to help clean up their mess. In a climax that becomes frustratingly rushed and confusing at its apex, Elise faces down the Black Bride and then wrestles Quinn’s body and soul from the grasp of the Man Who Can’t Breathe.
In most respects, Insidious: Chapter 3 is an effective but fairly forgettable spook story. Of the franchise’s three films, it is the entry that feels the most like a scream-inducing amusement park ride, although as always Whannell presents everything but the bumbling Specs and Tucker in a remarkably straight-faced manner. Most of the film’s frights are of the jump scare variety, and while Whannell isn’t especially imaginative in presenting these jolts, he does know how to milk them. He exhibits particular skill at drawing out each strand of tension for a just a bit longer than expected. In short, it's the kind of pop entertainment designed for people who liked to be scared, but not necessarily stupefied.
The film's apartment setting isn’t exactly distinctive, but production designer Jennifer Spence does an fine job of making it feel like a formerly posh mid-century building gone faintly shabby, its fixtures outmoded and its surfaces marred by cracks and water damage. (Spence and Whannell also add in several visual nods to the The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, thankfully without being overbearing about it.) There are a few memorable creepshow details here and there, such as the tarry footprints that the Man Who Can’t Breathe leaves in his wake, and even a couple of downright disturbing elements. The eyeless, handless, footless faux-Quinn that is chained in the Further like a hobbled pet is pure heebie-jeebie fuel, as is the moment where a possessed Quinn smashes her own casts to powder and proceeds to wobble forward on grinding, unhealed leg bones.
Intriguingly, Insidious: Chapter 3 is just as notable for what it doesn’t do as for what it does. Unlike Insidious: Chapter 2, which practically wallowed in the Bride in Black’s convoluted backstory, the viewer learns very little about the Man Who Can’t Breathe, other than the fact that he is evil and has nasty designs on Quinn. This is by no means a shortcoming. After delving into the series’ baroque mythology in the previous film, Whannell here provides the audience with a bit of a palate cleanser: a straightforward innocent-in-peril scenario where the aim is to deliver a quota of screams while fleshing out an existing character. While Quinn’s fate drives the plot, Elise is the true protagonist, and Insidious: Chapter 3 is essentially a vehicle to elevate her from a Wise Old Woman to an Orphic heroine. (In this, the film is fairly distinctive. When was the last time a female septuagenarian filled the central role in a horror picture?)
This shift illustrates Whannell's surprisingly shrewd, holistic approach to storytelling, particularly for a genre that’s usually all too willing to simultaneously repeat itself and totally disregard continuity. While there is an undeniable banality to the Insidious series’ surface features, there’s always been a bit of auteurist gleam underneath, epitomized by Whannell’s fixation with world-building and his almost casual disregard for the Syd Field screenwriting paradigm. Even Whannell's shallowest characters resemble actual human beings who are responding to outrageous supernatural events, rather than mere tokens to be moved around in the service of a formula. It’s this sense of unruliness that still stimulates, three films into the franchise. Like a pack of teenage vandals roaming a subdivision on Halloween night, Whannell provides that ever-so-slight sense of uncontrolled, dark energy to an otherwise benign, prepackaged horror experience.