“Insidious” was an impressive accomplishment to a large degree because it managed to get away with a familiar bag of scary tricks: One of a gazillion haunted house movies with jump scares galore, James Wan’s cheaply-produced horror movie resurrected an old-school William Castle charm as it plowed through the usual ghostly motions. Four movies later, it’s still going through those motions, but over the last seven years it has also undergone a fascinating shift in context — away from the plight of the haunted, and more toward demonologist Elise (Lin Shaye), becoming the rare franchise of any genre to foreground a septuagenarian woman as its hero.
“Insidious: The Last Key” fleshes out her backstory with a clever structural gimmick: It’s a sequel to the prequel of “Insidious: Chapter 3” and a prequel to the original “Insidious,” which ended with Elise’s death. As a result, her character arc is informed as much by her evolving abilities as the foreshadowing of her impending death. Set in 2010, “The Last Key” finds the gifted woman revisiting her traumatic past and assembling the supernatural business that stole the show in the first movie. With Shaye’s performance as its anchor, the movie is often a perceptive character study, at least until it’s hijacked by the same bland trickery that so often fogs up horror movies with more to offer.
In “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 3,” Elise surfaces once an initial haunting has been established and duty calls; “The Last Key” positions her as the star from the outset, with a dramatic flashback to her childhood on the outskirts of a prison in Five Keys, New Mexico in 1952. It’s here that young Elise faces regular abuse at the hands of her psychotic father (a crazy-eyed Josh Stewart) whenever she makes claims about creepy ghosts popping up around their home at inconvenient hours of the night. Pretty soon, she’s locked in a shadowy basement, where lights flash on and off as a whispery voice beckons her to do terrifying things. Though her father remains unconvinced about his daughter’s powers, he gives her sufficient reason to feel ashamed of them. “Death,” he tells her, “is no cause for celebration.”
Cut to decades later, where Elise has finally found her place, if not the totality of her mission. In the aftermath of “Insidious: Chapter 3,” she has set up shop with the dopey paranormal investigators who steal the show each time out, oafish Tucker (Angus Sampson) and geeky Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also scripted). The Keystone Cops by way of the Ghostbusters, this awkward pair continue to trail Elise into haunted homes with cameras galore, and their penchant for comic relief remains as appealing as ever. Tucker’s ongoing attempts to add some flair to the trio’s business operations is a recurring highlight (his recurring stab at a company motto, “She’s psychic, we’re sidekick,” perplexes everyone around him). It doesn’t take long for the group to find a new gig, this time conveniently located back in New Mexico, in the same grungy house where Elise grew up.
It’s no secret that mid-range movies aren’t flourishing on the silver screen like they used to. Many people are opting to not go to the movies anymore, and it has mostly turned into a select few tentpole franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe making the lion’s share of the money. However, horror is one of the few remaining genres that can deliver competitive thrills on small to mid-range budgets, and by Adam Robitel’s overall assessment, the experience of getting scared in a crowded theater is still inherently appealing for many audiences.
Raw data certainly seems to back this up. In 2017, we saw several fantastic horror movies play well with critics and make a lot of money in the process. David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation proved itself as another hit for the Conjuringuniverse, and Andy Muschietti’s IT went on to become the highest-grossing horror movie of all time. In blunt terms, things are looking good for the horror genre right now, and it arguably can still compete in theatrical release because of the return on investment that horror movies provide.
From there, our conversation with Adam Robitel turned more specifically to Blumhouse’s recent string of horror successes like Get Out and Happy Death Day. Addressing Blumhouse’s ability to pump out so many hits in such a short period of time, Robitel explained that it stemmed from an emphasis on simple, catchy stories, saying: