Most sequels, particularly those of the horror persuasion, tend to lean towards the “bigger, louder, faster, more” style of storytelling: take everything the audience liked about the first film, amp up the intensity, toss in (maybe) a few new plot threads, and play it safe — because “playing it safe” is how the production companies keep a franchise rolling well beyond two or three movies. Fortunately we sometimes get horror sequels like Insidious: Chapter 3, which is actually a low-key and unexpectedly character-focused prequel that retains a few key components (and characters) from its predecessors, but also forges ahead with some earnest new material of its own.
Insidious: Chapter 3 opens “a few years” before the events of the first two films, and it tells the story of a charming young lady named Quinn (Stefanie Scott) who desperately wants to contact the spirit of her late mother. To that end, she enlists the aid of a sweet but tough old psychic (Lin Shaye), who warns Quinn to avoid provoking the dead without the aid of a professional. Whoops. Too late. Seems that poor Quinn has already earned the attention of an evil spirit who loves nothing more than making our poor heroine suffer; Quinn breaks both legs in a nasty car “accident” but things get even creepier once she’s stuck in her bed back home — because there’s at least one evil spirit roaming around, and Quinn can’t exactly defend herself (or even run the hell away) with a pair of broken legs.
First-time director / longtime screenwriter Leigh Whannell (he co-wrote the first two Insidious films with director James Wan, who recently graduated to the big time with Furious 7) seems to be well aware that his most loyal audience is teenagers (they were out in droves during the opening night screening I attended), and he does a fine job of creating a central teen character worth pulling for. (It doesn’t hurt that Ms. Scott gives a very strong performance.) And while the first half of Insidious 3 is sort of a (gasp) slow burn, it’s at least a slow burn with some decent writing and a handful of serviceably compelling characters. (Dermot Mulroney plays Quinn’s loyal but frustrated dad, and he’s always pretty reliable.)
Just as things threaten to get a little too low-key for the movie’s own good, well, that’s when a whole truckload of quick-shot jump scares fly across the screen — a few of them even jolted me, and I never fall for jump scares — and Elise (Shaye) pops back into the story to get everything back on track. Fans of the series will take great pleasure in seeing the first meeting between Elise and her two minions, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell), a duo that always generates a welcome spark of energy in each of the Insidious flicks. (One wishes that the trio had shown up a bit earlier than Act III, truth be told, but hey, better late than never.)
Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t exactly re-invent any wheels, nor does it upset the apple cart on the franchise’s established formula. But it does seem to exhibit a more than passing interest in three-dimensional characters (not to mention a dash of actual heart), and it’s always nice to see a “Part 3” that favors character, dialogue, and dry humor over just a bunch of noisy, random mayhem. It’s hard to tell if there’s anywhere left for this series to go, but at least they pulled off Chapter 3 with some class.