Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)

I am as surprised to be writing these words as you may be to read them: Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) is a strong and worthwhile entry in the durable (but aging…) horror franchise.

As you may recall, the first Insidious (2011) cravenly cribbed its entire story structure -- and much of its narrative detail -- from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982).

Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainer -- a medium or sensitive -- was the equivalent of Dr. Lesh and Tangina, for example.  She even arrived on site with two ghost hunters who doubled as comic relief and monster fodder. And the child trapped in “The Further” (the astral plane”) in the 2011 film was much like Carol Anne on “the other side” in the Poltergeist franchise.

Yet despite the obvious and multitudinous connections to Poltergeist, I also felt that Insidious featured many effective moments .In particular, I liked the Old Crone monster and felt she was fearsome in appearance and presence.

My feeling for Insidious 2 (2013) are much less fond. The film explained too much, and wasn’t as scary as it should have been. The last act was a bit of a mess, too.

But Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) doesn’t go overboard explaining its central monster -- a creepy ghoul wearing a dirty hospital gown and a breathing mask -- and simultaneously offers a remarkably meaty and nuanced role for the great Lin Shaye. Shaye has very much become the franchise’s most valuable player at this point, and is a delightful modern equivalent to Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) in the original Halloween films.  She is a voice of authority and exposition, but also a unique and individual personality.

At this stage, I’d say you can’t make one of these movies without Liz Shaye. In many ways, she is the heart and soul of this third film.

Now before anyone claims I’ve gone soft, I won’t argue that Insidious: Chapter 3 is a particularly deep or resonant horror movie, only that it is an entertaining and occasionally touching one. The film features several technically-accomplished jump scares, and offers a re-assuring, only occasionally schmaltzy view of the after-life and its denizens.

While I absolutely prefer my horror films with big doses of psychological friction (The Babadook [2014], It Follows [2015] and carefuly imagery that helps to convey the story in symbolic ways (Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story), I am not such a curmudgeon that I don’t appreciate a well-made mainstream horror film.

And that’s what this is. Nothing more, nothing less.

Rewardingly, Insidious 3 doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and actually features an innovative twist or too.  It could have been a whole lot worse.

“When you go there…things come back with you.”

Sometime before the Lambert haunting, Elise (Shaye) mourns the suicide of her beloved husband, and gives up her life as a medium; going so far as to lock up her basement reading room.

But one day, Elise is visited by a kind young woman, Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) who wants to have a reading done. Quinn’s mother has passed away from cancer, and she is desperate to make contact with her.

Elise warns Quinn that the living should not “call out” to the dead, because all of the dead hear that call.

A few days later, Quinn begins to see a strange specter -- a creepy man in a hospital gown -- and is struck by a car.  She is released from the hospital, but both her legs are broken, meaning she is now a virtual prisoner in her apartment, which she shares with her father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and younger brother, Alex (Tate Berney). 

The dark specter, however, has latched on to her, and wants to capture and keep her soul in a dark corner of the Nether.

Elise attempts to help Quinn, but keeps encountering her own personal demon, one who assures the medium that she will be the cause of her eventual demise…

"Loving someone is just delayed pain.”

The creepiest and most effective moments in Insidious: Chapter 3 revolve around Quinn, and her worsening physical condition. 

The car accident that injures Quinn is shockingly rendered (and brutal), but an extended scene in her bedroom, in the dark, is absolutely the stuff of nightmares.  The demon is there with her in the room and skitters under her bed in one scene. As the demon stalks her, Quinn is veritably paralyzed and unable to escape.  The monster throws her off the bed and -- taking its sweet time with her -- proceeds to close her in the bed-room, shut down her computer, and pull the curtains.  We see the creature make these rounds, all while Quinn is powerless to stop it.  The scene builds and builds to crescendo of terror.

Two other jump scares are also brilliantly orchestrated, and achieve their desired impact.  One involves Elise walking alone, into her reading room.  She descends into the room (which is in the basement of her house), and follows goopy, mysterious footprints to a dark corner.  What happens next made me jump out of my chair.

Elise’s flashlight catches the path of the footprints as they, oddly, go up a wall.  And then…

Well, you get it.

The other most notable scare involves a swooping camera which peers out of an open window several stories up.  The first time the camera peers out the window, there is a body down at street level, in the dark…apparently pulped on the sidewalk. 

The second time the camera peers out the window, the jump scare occurs, and it’s a doozy as well. 

There is an algebraic equation to such jump scares, of course.  It was explained to me, many years back, by Evil Dead composer Joseph LoDuca.  Specifically, the equation involves the use of sound, and the lowering of the volume right before the “jump.” And that jump, of course, is accompanied by sudden increased volume of sound.  It’s not rocket science, I suppose, but the fact remains: all of Insidious: Chapter 3’s jump scares work flawlessly.

The creative twist I mentioned above involves Quinn’s wounds. After having both her legs broken, she injures her neck, and must wear a brace. So she becomes, over the course of the film, a practical invalid, even as she is stalked by the ‘foul creature’ from The Further.  It is quite compelling, and original the way the film makes Quinn progressively more vulnerable at the same time that the creature becomes a more overt danger. 

What I enjoyed and admired most about Insidious: Chapter 3, however, is Elise’s story.  The first scene in the film is but a nice, long conversation between Elise and Quinn, in Elise’s art nouveau home.  The scene takes its time, is well-directed and strongly-performed, and feels no pressure whatsoever to wow us or scare us.  I thought for sure the film would begin with an elaborate death scene.

But that’s not the case.

Too often, mainstream horror movies these days seem to think they must start at a fever pitch, continue at a fever-pitch, and end at one as well.  By contrast, this sequel opens with a sedentary scene and an intimate conversation that establishes character.  It eschews the fireworks.  It reacquaints us with Elise, and sets up her struggle in the film before launching into the terror.

Lin Shaye, I should add, has grown in into the role of Elise Rainer in a most remarkable fashion. This film gives audiences her best performance in the role. Shaye makes great use of her physicality (a vulnerability?) here, and also has learned how to turn and twist the dialogue to bring out more humor, and more pathos.  The Loomis comparison is a valuable one, I feel.  Shaye has taken a one-off supporting role and fashioned it into a full-blooded, multi-dimensional, central one.  In the earlier films, I sometimes felt that some notes Shaye hit rang hollow, but not here.  Shaye -- and Elise too -- have become nothing less than genre treasures.

The film’s central villain is a good one too, in part because the filmmakers don’t feel it necessary to create a whole psychological background or motivation for him.  He’s a terrible, sick thing, and one that creates fear in us because there are things about him we don’t know

Again, I often write here about how we don’t fear those things we can quantify and explain.  No, we fear the things that feel alien and unknown to us.  Too much back-story kills the fear.

The horrible thing or specter in Insidious 3 remains mostly mysterious.  When we first see it -- merely a silhouette waving to us in a dark auditorium -- we get a sense of its complete and utter wrongness.  Its terror grows from there, and is never sacrificed by an orgy of explanation or flashbacks.

There are some aspects of this sequel (and franchise) that still rub me the wrong way. In general, I dislike the treacly, sentimental, Touched by an Angel-type stuff wherein a ghost from the other side shows up -- all glowing and ethereal -- to help at a crucial moment.  I could also do without the occasions when a dead loved one leaves behind a “sign” for the living to see, so that the mourning character can soldier on in this mortal coil with the knowledge that everything is okay.

For me, horror simply doesn’t need to concern such re-assurances.  There are other genres that do fine with that concept.

But I understand that, as a mainstream horror series, Insidious must apparently scare its audience and then re-establish order and security before the end credits.  The great horror films don’t feel it necessary to provide that kind of closure or peace (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1973], Psycho [1960]), but…fine.

Long story short: Insidious: Chapter 3, made me jump five times in 98 minutes, and proved a good showcase for Lin Shaye’s talents.

And let’s be brutally honest: how often do modern horror movies focus on a 71-year old woman as the lead character and primary mover of the action?  This film should be lauded for not playing it safe, and for making Elise Rainer the center of the action.

And, finally, the sequel’s narrative was creative enough -- and featured enough ambiguity regarding its monster -- to keep me engaged.

Loving someone might be “delayed pain,” but Insidious: Chapter 3 is loveable enough, with no real pain involved at all. Instead, you may feel satisfaction that you have watched an effective, entertaining horror film. 

Three films into a popular franchise, that’s not a small or inconsiderable feat.

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