Hopefully The Last Key will close the door on Elise’s past and allow the series to further explore “The Further.”
The Insidious series has played out like a trippier, lower-budget cousin to The Conjuring series. This makes sense, as the first two main entries of both series were directed by James Wan, who continues to produce. Though the Insidious films lack the polish of The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, both series share a certain old-school elegance and a focus on strong central characters. In The Conjuring universe, those characters are devout do-gooders Ed and Lorraine Warren. Fittingly, that character for the Insidious series is the wonderful Lin Shaye’s kooky, blunt Elise Rainier, a senior citizen medium who has been at the center of each film despite having died in the middle of the first entry. In this age of the meticulously planned cinematic universe, it is rather charming to see a series bend the rules in order to follow a fan-favorite character even beyond her death.
Charm isn’t enough to keep the time-jumping series from feeling a bit tired, however. Insidious: The Last Key is the second prequel to the first Insidious, though it is also a sequel of sorts as some of the action takes place after Insidious: Chapter 3, which is actually the first film in terms of the timeline. While prequels can be satisfying, the inherent problem with them is that already knowing the fate of the characters can rob a film of tension. This is particularly difficult in the case of a horror film that needs tension in order to thrive.
With Chapter 3 and now The Last Key, series writer and co-star Leigh Whannell attempts to get around the prequel problem by increasingly narrowing the focus in on Shaye’s Elise. Chapter 3 explained how she met her assistants, comic-relief duo Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), as well as her connection to the demonic entity who killed her in the first Insidious. The main action of The Last Key is set after, and finds Elise and team on the tail of a key-handed spirit terrorizing Elise’s childhood home. This gives Whannell and director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) the narrative opening to jump into Elise’s childhood.
As with previous Insidious entries, The Last Key’s best bits are when we get to follow Elise into “The Further,” the shadowy, demon-inhabited alternate universe that Elise is able to astrally project into. And the film contains one near-classic scare scene, a wait-for-it doozy. But where The Last Key falls particularly flat is there is no one to care about outside of Elise. The first two films in the series were framed around the haunted Lambert family, winningly headed by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, and without similarly strong support for Shaye the bits between scares fall flat. Though Specs and Tucker have great chemistry with each other and Elise, their shtick feels like filler at this point. In addition, Robitel has also chosen to abandon some of the film’s old-school elements, like the piercing opening violin music, and it is missed.
It’s exhilarating to see a major film series centered around an older actress, particularly one as talented as Shaye, and the mythos and creature design supporting the Insidious series are top of the line. But the series to move forward in time and in storytelling, without forgetting that the Insidious universe has more going for it than Elise alone. There are plenty of Insidious stories left to tell, and hopefully The Last Key will close the door on Elise’s past and allow the series to further explore “The Further.”