The Insidious franchise has always been one more ambitious than its capabilities. The original Insidious is a fascinating artifact of director James Wan’s early, low budget work, but Chapters 2 and 3 were exercises in diminishing returns, allowing screenwriter Leigh Whannell to craft a running mythology to the series at the expense of satisfying characters or plots. This left me worried as I entered Insidious: The Last Key, the fourth installment in a franchise that had always been on the cusp of mediocrity and obsolescence, but color me surprised that I walked away from the experience with more positive feelings than I’d had for any previous installment.
Set between the events of prequel Chapter 3 and the original Insidious, The Last Key picks up on Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a psychic investigator who has recently reestablished her desire to help people with otherworldly problems. However, that conviction wavers when she receives a call from a man who lives in her childhood home, claiming that a haunting continues to plague the property. Elise suffered a horrible childhood in that house, subject to the abusive whims of a father afraid of her spiritual gifts, but for the sake of the home’s resident—and with the help of her ghost hunting sidekicks Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson)—she returns to face both her literal and figurative demons.
What immediately makes The Last Key stand out from its predecessor is the more intimately personal story it is trying to tell. Elise has always been the throughline to justify the franchising of Insidious‘s stories, but this is the first time the character has been allowed to play center stage, and the result is all the more engaging for that inherent pathos. Lin Shaye has been playing this role for the better part of a decade now, so allowing her the opportunity to explore the character’s past traumas and to overcome them was probably the best creative decision Whannell and new-to-the-franchise director Adam Robitel could have made. It grounds the story in tangible humanity so that the mythmaking can happen in service to the drama, instead of shuffling those priorities as previous installments were wont to do.
The rest of the production also feels similarly more polished. Robitel seems heavily inclined toward experimenting with sound design and camera position, so while some of the jump scares tend toward predictability in their timing, their execution is at the very least creative. Even Insidious‘s obnoxious propensity to shoehorn inorganic comic relief is somewhat alleviated, provoking some genuine laughs, even if some delivery is still awkward and flat, particularly when the film goes for a long stretch without a complementary scare. And while the tried and true trio of Shaye, Whannell, and Sampson deliver franchise-best performances, various supporting characters don’t fare so well, even though their roles in the story is relatively fascinating.
Considering how lukewarm the rest of the Insidious franchise can feel, it might sound like damning praise to consider The Last Key the best one. However, it has an affection for these characters and their personal struggles that adds to the horror in a way previous installments struggled to achieve. As a creepy crawly character study and potential send-off for the character of Elise Rainier, Insidious: The Last Key is a surprisingly enthralling capper to a series that was on the verge of running out of steam.