The fourth instalment and second prequel in the Insidious series is well worth a viewing for devoted fans of a rather uneven horror franchise. The film’s strength is with its titular character now propelled to this ‘series’ center: Dr. Elise Rainier, the parapsychologist played wonderfully by Lin Shaye. Rainier has become a staple of the Insidious series, but her backstory and motivation were always subordinate to past characters, especially those played by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. Not so in The Last Key, which offers a satisfying origin to Rainier’s “gift,” a rather oxymoronic label to a burden that allows her to communicate with ghosts in the narrative’s construction of “the further,” an ominous nether realm similar to the Jinn that occupy real spaces in Islamic folklore. This origin story, elevated by Shaye’s strong performance, will likely satisfy the Insidious fan, even if the film’s jump scares and final climax appear rote.
The story begins in New Mexico in 1953, that idyllic time of Red Scares and nuclear panic within the nuclear family. The context is set up well, as we see a young Elaine playing with her younger brother Christian as her seemingly abusive and alcoholic father watches television – a news program about the latest communist threat – while Elise’s mother, dressed like the quintessential housewife of that bygone era, washes dishes in the kitchen. Elise and Christian are happy children, until a demonic presence afflicts them one night, signalling the start of Elise’s visions. Her father, the patriarch whose alcoholism compounds his impunity, beats the young Elaine for having these visions, which he believes is nonsensical and childish.
Of course, the presence returns, as insidious as its title, with plans to tear the nuclear family apart. Without spoiling relevant plot points, Elise grows into adolescence – her visions return in a frightening encounter – but she abandons her home (more importantly, a fragile young Christian) when her father, once again, refuses to believe her ghostly encounters.
Jump to 2010, the year that not only begins the franchise, but that sees a case that brings Elise back to her childhood home. A presence like the one that tore her childhood apart is terrorizing the new owner, and he needs her to investigate. Elise, along with franchise fav’s Tucker and Specs, the “Spectral Sightings” duo, begin uncovering uncomfortable truths about Elise’s past, including the true motivations of her abusive father.
Part of this uncovering – or unravelling, really – reunites Elise and Christian, the younger brother now with two daughters, one of whom is also gifted with Elise’s psychic abilities, and who will later travel with Elise to the Further. This now reunited family, along with Tucker and Specs, encounter a few credible scares that certainly had the audience I was a part of screaming then, as all scares go, subsiding with laughter.
But as with the series’ other films, the scares and actual horror, are hit or miss, reduced to contrived moments of ghosts screaming “boo” as opposed to a calculated build up of terror. The film’s final scene, which ties all loose ends of Elise’s backstory, and of course sets up the first film, is more action than horror.
Nevertheless, The Last Key offers a satisfying development of Elise, a necessary move that should add layers to the series if one is to revisit the other films. As a standalone film, while perhaps weaker than previous instalments, is still a fun experience. Go for the spectacle, and go for Lin Shaye, the unsung hero of Insidious.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality