Underneath the surface of Insidious: The Last Key is a bleak tale involving the victimizing of women that seems at odds with its goal to be a crowd-pleasing franchise installment. The being that is haunting Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) has arisen from her own, distant past and lured her back to her childhood home in this installment, which takes places chronologically before 2011's breakout hit Insidious and its first sequel and just after the events of the previous movie, which was a prequel to all of the other ones. It's what screenwriter Leigh Whannell does with Elise's trip back home that immediately separates itself from the comparatively trivial horrors of the other movies.
The fact of the matter is that following the character's climactic death in the first movie with this storyline feels a bit like defiling a corpse. In the prologue, Elise is a child (played by Ava Kolker), gifted with the ability to know specific things intuitively and a sympathetic mother (played by Tessa Ferrer) who believes in her visions and cursed with an abusive father (played by Josh Stewart) whose twisted rules state that he forms the realities of everyone around him (often violently). In the basement of their home is a dungeon of sorts, and the victims of his wrath are sent there as punishment.
There are specific elements of this prologue that Whannell conceals from his audience until late in the film for reasons that are obvious: He wants those developments to be surprising. Indeed, they are but not for the reasons he perhaps thought they would be. The plot catches up to Elise in the present day as she is called to assist a reading of her old house by a man (played by Kirk Acevedo) who hasn't changed anything about the place. A cruel twist (one of many in Whannell's arsenal) is waiting for Elise at this house, as desperate events lure her brother Christian (Bruce Davison) and his college-aged daughters (played by Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke) into a rendezvous with - well, you get the idea.
The whole thing is a lot of hogwash by the end, the plot running in circles as Elise investigates hauntings to a repetitive and tiresome degree. Whannell even makes time for the wise-cracking ghostbusters played by himself and Angus Sampson, who both proceed to treat Christian's daughters as objects for their respective conquests. They might have been lightly amusing when they were first introduced, but the characters are cartoons who happen to be tangible beings this time, sticking out like a sore thumb instead of complementing the material with an occasional tonal shift. That regressive attitude toward women plays a big part in the cogs of the plot itself, too.
The result is a surprisingly mean-spirited movie in which the demons of the spirit world are merely stand-ins for the demons of the living world, with director Adam Robitel competently staging a series of routine scare sequences, the purpose for which the rest of the movie constantly calls into question: If what is truly scary is a trauma invested in human behavior, why do we need the hokey spiritual stuff? If the supernatural is truly where the effects of that trauma reside, then why are we treated to the routine jump-scares that populate this particular genre? Insidious: The Last Key is the nadir of this franchise, to be sure, but it's surprising, even by those standards, how misguided it is.
Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Leigh Whannell (Specs), Angus Sampson (Tucker), Caitlin Gerard (Imogen), Spencer Locke (Melissa), Kirk Acevedo (Ted), Bruce Davison (Christian), Josh Stewart (Gerald), Tessa Ferrer (Audrey), Ava Kolker (Youngest Elise), Pierce Pope (Younger Christian), Hana Hayes (Younger Elise).
Directed by Adam Robitel and written by Leigh Whannell.
Rated PG-13 (disturbing thematic content, violence/terror, brief language).
Released on January 5, 2018.