Frankly one of the things I loved most about Insidious The Last Key was its Indie feel despite its big studio wrappers. Down to its bones you have some of the most talented people behind modern horror: Jason Blum, James Wan and Oren Peli, all independent filmmakers at one time or another.
Put Adam Robitel in the director’s chair and his muse Lin Shaye in front of the camera and what could go wrong in this proven franchise? Almost nothing.
The first half of the film has all of its Wan-der Twin powers activated. A creepy setting inside a warden’s Craftsman-style home, sandwiched between the slow chug of an insect-like oil well and the shadow of a huge foreboding penitentiary that makes Shawshank look like one of Junipero Serra’s California Missions.
Robitel plays with the viewer in the beautifully composed opening shot, he’s proven he is a master at visual storytelling in his other films. If I may be so bold, his OCD: Obsessive Cinematography Disorder, takes that level of perfection and infuses it throughout the floor plans of this haunted house with light shorn to the perfect amount of contrast. The talented Cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out) must have really grasped Robitel’s intent.
For those of you who don’t know, The Last Key is a prequel to the first film in which Shaye stars as Elise Rainier, a human conduit who ushers spirits in and out of The Further: a spiritual way station swathed in incorporeal gray.
We learn in the aforementioned open what a troubled life Elise had as a child in 1950’s with her younger brother. If she was not being haunted by the victims of Old Sparky from the neighboring Pen, her warden father forcefully shows his displeasure with her ethereal gifts.
From there we jump-scare back and forth in time to the year 2010. Given her past, that look of perpetual curiosity and fear Shaye has trademarked for this franchise is explained. And let’s just say her past is pretty bad. So our heart sinks when Elise is called back to her childhood home after getting a desperate call from its current tenant.
Getting jolted out of your seat is a common occurrence in The Last Key and to me it’s less of a patronizing gimmick because in Elise’s life, she can never tell when these specters are going to suddenly show up, she doesn’t have the luxury of foresight; Elise is not really that kind of medium and so the audience can peek over her shoulder to partake in her terror too.
Along for the ride are her wards — her “sidekicks” as they call themselves, Specs and Tucker played by series writer Leigh Whannell and actor Angus Sampson (how good is it to have an Angus in horror once again?) respectively.
Their girl Friday routine never grows fully stale thanks to frat boy timing and some truly funny quips. The only time they overstay their screen welcome is during some awkward interactions with Elise’s young nieces.
The first half of the movie serves up everything you would expect from an Insidious entry, dark spaces, dimly lit hallways and creepy creatures that blend into the background via soft focus.
The Last Key also has other things going for it too: broadsiding plot twists which I initially found both plausible and terrifying.
The main monster is named Keyface and though it’s not really explained in the film, from what I can tell he sticks one of his key fingers into a victim’s throat to stop them from screaming for help, then renders them unconscious by doing the same thing to their heart. This puts them into a coma, trapped in the Further until which time he can use them to do his bidding. I think.
It’s that type of uncertainty that hinders The Last Key in its third act.
Robitel gives us an inversion roller coaster launch that lasts about an hour and change, but in its final approach loses a significant amount of speed. It eventually derails into some “Awww” moments that feel forced and dare I say Disney-esque.
Anyone who has seen Robitel’s The Taking of Deborah Logan knows that in that film he left the viewer with an image so unsettling people are still taken aback when they see it in a meme. It seemed out of character for him to do less in The Last Key when his visuals are so strong in the beginning.
That being said, the incomparable Lin Shaye carries the film from start to finish even after the fork. She has such devotion and genuine presence, she makes Elise more than Mary Maudlin. She projects her character’s pain without making her a martyr even though given her past that would be justified.
So good an actress is she, you could just film her reactions to monsters and it would still be as effective.
Insidious: The Last Key is a sampler of scares taken from the James Wan book of moody haunters where pendulums in grandfather clocks are louder than your own heartbeat. Hallways are just foggy enough for light to pass through without giving away what’s hiding in the corners. And the scares jolt you to the same degree a Pop Tart would as it springs from the toaster.
The Last Key is full of great performances, visual style and some well-crafted suspense scenes that work effectively through most of the film.
The casual viewer is going to have a great time taking it all in, while the rest of us will appreciate the effort and the talent behind it all.
Insidious: The Last Key opens nationwide on January 5, 2018.