Chief among things that go bump in the night in “Insidious: Chapter 3” is the movie itself — a thuddingly dull prequel to James Wan’s very enjoyable (and highly profitable) demonic-possession horror franchise. Like last year’s subpar “The Conjuring” spinoff “Annabelle,” this direly routine ghost story marks a huge comedown in production values and performance quality from the series’ previous entries (which earned a combined $258 million worldwide), despite the presence of longtime Wan collaborator Leigh Whannell behind the camera and always game-faced elder scream queen Lin Shaye in front of it. But the movie’s cardinal sin is that it’s a stifling bore — a “chapter” even devotees may deem less than essential summer reading.
After devoting two films to the bedevilment of the Lambert family — specifically, a spooky old hag that had attached itself to patriarch Josh (Patrick Wilson) from childhood — the “Insidious” series seemed poised to continue on as a series of “Ghostbusters”-style adventures involving the paranormal investigators Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) and their mentor Elise (Shaye), who returned to the series in spectral form after dying (at Josh’s hands) in the first film. But curiously, Whannell (who scripted both prior “Insidious” films, as well as the Wan-directed “Saw” and “Dead Silence”) sidelines those amiable folks for much of “Chapter 3,” which takes place “a few years” before the events of the earlier films.
We’re introduced to yet another family who have unwittingly let a soul-sucking entity into their lives: widower Sean Brenner (Dermot Mulroney), his teenage daughter Quinn (Stefanie Scott) and bratty preteen son Alex (Tate Berney). Quinn, especially, is still coming to terms with the death of her cancer-stricken mom, whom she has been trying to contact vis the spirit world. But as one knowledgeable party advises early on here, “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you” — which, in Quinn’s case, means the presence she’s begun to feel watching over her is anything but motherly by nature.
Where one of the strengths of Wan’s “Insidious” movies was their plausible family dynamics (including Barbara Hershey’s wonderfully meddlesome grandmother), “Chapter 3” so often feels like a second-tier 1980s sitcom that you spend a good deal of the film wondering if Whannell was aiming for parody (like last year’s viral short, “Too Many Cooks”). Mulroney does his best (but still not very convincing) Tony Danza as the frazzled single dad who doesn’t know how to pronounce “quinoa,” forgets that his daughter is a vegetarian, and is forever screaming at his son to get ready for school (this character’s sole defining trait). We also get a lovestruck boy next door (Ashton Moio) who makes goo-goo eyes with Quinn (and gets dagger glances back from Dad), and, standing in for the wacky upstairs neighbor, an ectoplasmic emphysema patient (Michael Reid MacKay) whose restless spirit failed to vacate the premises along with his body. Soon, strange voices are wafting through the ventilation shaft next to Quinn’s bed, large cracks appearing in the ceiling, and tar-like footprints streaking across the floor.
Is this a job for an exorcist, or merely Mr. Clean? Splitting the difference, the Brenners seek out Elise, first seen here as a widow who’s turned her back on the spirit world after venturing there in search of her late husband and bringing back some unwanted ghostly baggage on the return (a revelation that directly ties the new film to its predecessors). Elise has arguably been the breakout (human) character of the “Insidious” films, and Shaye gives her the kind of elder-statesman glow that Donald Pleasance brought to the “Halloween” series. The younger sister of New Line Cinema founder Bob, Shaye was a frequent featured player in that studio’s movies (including the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) before becoming a member of the Farrelly brothers’ stock company, but Elise is the plum role of her long career, and she plays it with the joy (even when she’s being scared stiff) of an old working pro who’s been waiting for her moment in the spotlight.
It’s all the more puzzling, then, that “Insidious: Chapter 3” keeps Shaye in the shadows for so much of its running time, and keeps Specs and Tucker (introduced as bumbling practitioners of a YouTube ghostbusting channel) on ice for even longer. During most of that time, Whannell tries his hand at the kind of atmospheric, slow-burn scares that made Wan’s films textbook examples of what Roger Ebert termed “bruised forearm movies” (so named the intensity with which they cause your date to squeeze your antebrachium). But whereas Wan (who retains a producer credit here, and makes a cameo appearance) is the sort of director who can effortlessly turn a billowing curtain or creaking floorboard into an unbearable portent of dread, Whannell rarely makes the neck hairs quiver, let alone stand at attention. The only risk of arm injury here comes from the frequent checking of one’s watch.
Around the one-hour mark, once Whannell finally has the whole ghost-hunting band back together again, “Insidious: Chapter 3” gives off a few fleeting sparks of pleasure and conjures up a couple of memorably creepy images (including that of a half-formed woman with no face, hands, or feet). But what, finally, can one say about a movie in which the family being haunted seems more embalmed than the ghosts doing the haunting?
While none of the “Insidious” films have cost very much, this is the first one that can be said to look cheap, with the flatly lit, washed-out digital cinematography of Brian Pearson a poor substitute for the silky elegance John R. Leonetti brought to the previous films in the series. A distribution note: “Chapter 3” marks the first film to go out under Universal/Focus’ revived Gramercy Pictures brand, intended to become the studio’s new genre-film label.