Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell did quite a lot of things right in 2010’s shamelessly entertaining paranormal thriller, “Insidious.” But as far as franchise-building goes, they made one crucial error: killing off the film’s most memorable character, the unflappably empathetic sexagenarian parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). For the first sequel, “Chapter 2,” they brought her back in spectral form, and for 2015’s Whannell-directed “Chapter 3,” they made even more room for her by approaching the film as a prequel. A direct sequel to that prequel, “Insidious: The Last Key” finally gives Elise the complete spotlight, and in doing so turns her into something of an action hero, complete with an origin story. Despite the indomitable Shaye’s best efforts, however, new director Adam Robitel is rarely successful in shaking the cobwebs off this increasingly creaky franchise: “The Last Key” is wildly uneven, confused and confusing, and it appears to leave the “Insidious” saga written into a corner yet again.
Largely taking place in 2010, shortly before the events of the first film, “The Last Key” makes ample time for flashbacks, beginning with a 1950s-set prologue depicting Elise’s very unhappy childhood. The daughter of a prison warden, the grade school-aged Elise (Ava Kolker) lives in a creaky house in the shadow of a New Mexico penitentiary, and her budding paranormal gifts are already drawing the curiosity of her skittish younger brother Christian (Pierce Pope) and the ire of her abusive, ghoulish father Gerald (Josh Stewart). In a well-staged early setpiece, Elise finds herself trapped in her house’s basement at night, beckoned by a child’s voice to unlock a mysterious red door, which she does with tragic consequences.
Back in the present day, Elise receives a call from the new owner of her childhood home, who has been experiencing strange phenomena of his own. Initially reluctant to revisit her traumatic past, she quickly relents, and heads back to small-town New Mexico with her two ghostbuster-wannabe sidekicks Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) in tow. Her new client (Kirk Acevedo) bears a noticeable resemblance to her father – he also walks with a Neanderthal’s gait, and does not appear to have done laundry in a fortnight – and Elise’s team has scarcely set up shop in the house before various apparitions begin to literally crawl out of the woodwork. Back in town, Elise runs into her now-grown brother (Bruce Davison) and his two adult daughters (Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke). Christian blames Elise for abandoning him when she was 16 – Hana Hayes plays the teenage Elise in flashbacks – and storms off, but it isn’t long before he and his progeny end up back at the haunted old house as well.
Robitel has a steady craftsman’s grasp of the rhythms that make a classic Blumhouse jump scare, but he struggles with the element of surprise; the setups to the scares are so predictable, the question is never if a demon will appear in a particular frame, but simply how many seconds the shot will be held until it does. Very little of the tension-breaking comedy comes off – a half-baked comic subplot involving Specs and Tucker’s attempts to woo Elise’s nieces is cringe-worthy – and the director will sometimes cut away to ominously emphasized objects that turn out to have no significance at all. But to be fair, the script doesn’t make things easy for him. At roughly the midway point, “The Last Key” makes its boldest gambit, halfway pivoting away from the series’ stock paranormal hauntings to horror of a different, if no more novel, variety. The revelation that occurs makes little sense in light of things that have happened literally minutes earlier, and when the film begins to lapse into surreal dream logic in the final stretch, it feels less like a conscious choice than an attempt to avoid accounting for loose ends.
If the film ties together at all, it’s mostly due to Shaye’s undeniable appeal. A veteran character actress, Shaye clearly knows how rare it is to have a role like this at 74, and she sinks her teeth into every scene. Given a line like “My presence draws the spirits out of their dark little corners,” Shaye is too respectful of her character to deliver it with a wink, but nor does she invest it with the sort of bug-eyed intensity that would make it ridiculous. Watching as the simultaneously vulnerable and fearless Elise throws herself into one perilous entanglement after another, you have to tip your hat to the “Insidious” brain trust for giving the character the starring role, but as the franchise’s chronology drifts ever closer to where it all started, it’s sadly clear that the character has nowhere else to go.