Leigh Whannell – the screenwriter behind the first three Saw films, Dead Silence and both previous instalments in the Insidious series – makes his directorial debut with Insidious: Chapter 3, taking the reins from James Wan for the first time in their filmmaking relationship. To call Insidious: Chapter 2 underwhelming would be more than an understatement; the first Insidious film was a fantastic riff on films like Poltergeist, a creepy and occasionally terrifying exploration of hardcore sleep paralysis. While Insidious: Chapter 3 surely signals a return to form for the series, Whannell’s first directorial outing unfortunately falls slightly short of the mark, failing to live up to the quality of other, recent James Wan affiliated projects.
Insidious: Chapter 3 acts as a prequel to the events of the first film, kicking off somewhere between the events of the first film and spiritualist Elise Rainier’s (Lin Shaye) encounter with the Bride in Black (Philip Friedman) in Josh Lambert’s (Patrick Wilson) youth. Elise, retired after her encounter with Josh, is visited by Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) who is being contacted by a spirit she believes to be her mother. Begrudgingly, Elise contacts the spirit, who turns out to be someone far more sinister. Quinn leaves, after being instructed to never contact the spirit realm again, but continues to be stalked by an evil and sadistic force from the further,1 who, after incapacitating her, begins to physically, mentally and emotionally break Quinn, much to the chagrin of her father Sean Brenner (Dermot Mulroney), who enlists Elise to assist his daughter. It’s a nice little metaphor about abusive relationships that’s unfortunately a little too nasty for its own good, and far too sadistic to be fully enjoyable. While it may seem unfair to cast such judgement over a horror film, the sadism depicted in Insidious: Chapter 3 fails to scare and is a little hard to stomach overall. In this sense the film accurately depicts the emotional toll of abuse, but it prevents the film from attaining the escapist thrills of the first Insidious instalment, and is a little heavy-going for teen horror fodder. In fact, so much of what made Insidious brilliant was that it was family-appropriate horror that was actually scary – a Saw-ified Insidious focused on a somewhat explicit sense of sadistic terror, rather than goofy, scary fun, was not something I was looking for.2
That’s no sleight on Whannell; Insidious: Chapter 3 is an undeniably well made film, it’s just slightly misjudged. It actually fits quite nicely into the Insidious canon, retconning a lot of issues of Chapter 2 and managing to actually strengthen the overarching narrative involving the relationship between Elise, Josh and the Woman in Black. It’s rare that a prequel manages to substantially add to a series’ narrative without derailing or ruining it, and for that Insidious: Chapter 3 should be applauded – a lot of this has to be down to the fact that Leigh Whannell has been the screenwriter behind all three. The scares are quite clearly here, too, the fun ones are just a little too few and far between, as the film relies far more on a “shock” than a “spook” factor. In this sense, it feels tonally separate from both its predecessors – although, in the case of Chapter 2, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Overall, while Chapter 3 will offer something for fans of the series, there’s not much more here for anybody else. Although the setting and characters are definitely there, it doesn’t really “feel” like an Insidious film (nor did Chapter 2), which is a bit of a shame, because the first instalment is fantastic. In terms of prequels to Wan films, this is significantly better than Annabelle,3 and the troves of later Saw films which are (arguably) at least partially prequels. Should you check out Insidious: Chapter 3? If you have no particular interest in the work of Wan/Whannell or the Insidious series probably not, although it’s probably worth a look on home video for everyone else; it’s definitely a marked improvement on Insidious: Chapter 2.