Another year, another Insidious movie. We’re four entries deep into the world of the “Further,” psychic Elise Rainier, and her haunted, astral-projecting clientele. The first time around, in 2010’s Insidious, it was the Lamberts, whose son Dalton falls into a coma thanks to a Darth Maul–rip-off demon trying to take over his soul. In the 2013 sequel, the Lamberts were back, this time on account of Dalton’s possessed father. From then on, the Insidious films have been burrowing deeper into the past, in prequels that cling most closely to Rainier herself.
Insidious: The Last Key pushes the series to its furthest reaches to date. The movie could be called All About Elise. As played by classic scream queen Lin Shaye, the ever-weary psychic has had her own haunts to deal with: a childhood full of abuse at the hands of a father who distrusts her gifts and a spook who lures her into the dark only to try to feed on her powers. This all plays out in a lonely New Mexico valley, near a prison that executes its inmates. Young Elise, at most 9 years old, can name them all, describing — to her father’s horror — who they were and what they did to land themselves in the electric chair. One night, as punishment, her father locks her in the basement. By the end of that night, a member of Elise’s family is dead.
In the present tense of The Last Key, Elise has been called back to that house, which she left behind at 16, to solve the ghost problems of its new tenant. Or so she thinks. The house is full of so many spirits that it’s hard to keep track of which ones mean harm. There are women, for example, one of whom Elise recognizes from her childhood. There’s the ghost of her father, too, who is less spectral than psychological, apparent in every nook of the house, in every one of his long-abandoned jackets or pieces of furniture. The new tenant has, improbably, done nothing new with the place, so it’s just as Elise left it all those years ago, down to the crowded bunk beds she once shared with her little brother. As for Elise, she’s got her ghostbuster boys, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, series cocreator and writer of this script), who seem as prone as ever to lame jokes that deaden the rhythm of the movie. And she’s got her dreams: feverish reenactments of her childhood that she records in her journal.
Focusing on Elise is a smart pivot for a series that was always a little smart, at least in terms of its premise. This was a story, you might remember, that started in media res: At the start of the first film, the family had already switched houses once; the father had already gone through demon trauma of his own. These hauntings were already in progress when we got here, so of course the whole series has been premised on burrowing further and further back with each new episode. Where, really, could the Insidious series go but deeper into its own soul? Which means homing in on Lin Shaye. Shaye’s always been the standout of these films, and they’ve benefited from abandoning the bright but bored theatrics of Rose Byrne and the anonymous handsomeness of Patrick Wilson, who played Mrs. and Mr. Lambert, in favor of focusing on Elise. Accordingly, it’s been funny to watch this series grow over time. The first two movies were directed by James Wan; the original film arrived before he had sharpened his tools on The Conjuring. Traces of his better movies are all there in Insidious: the William Castlesque obsession with the hauntedness of each house, even though the houses themselves weren’t what was haunted. I’m a sucker for everything that’s creepy about this series: all the haunted-house fixings, the creaky floorboards, the cavernously dark hallways full of shadows. The terror of these movies never required that we believe in the broader concept. Who cares about “the Further” when there’s a coat rack in a dark corner prone to becoming a stupefying ghost any minute?
To watch the first two Insidious films is to watch Wan grow more sure of himself. The subsequent directors in the series, Whannell and The Last Key’s Adam Robitel, are a little more workmanlike, less prone to showing off, but eager to amp up the sentimental asides and easy scares. It’s too bad about Elise’s sidekicks (with the exception of a line — “She’s psychic, we’re sidekick” — that’s funny because it so adamantly doesn’t land) and some of the high-toned emotionalism of the backstory, including a reconciliation with Elise’s little brother. None of that is as compelling as Shaye, who screams and cries and psychically transmits feeling like the best of them, wandering the dark halls of her own past like an old pro in search of younger souls to out-act. The Last Key is sufficiently creepy. But it’s worthwhile mostly for the chance to see Shaye keep lapping the young’uns of the franchise. It’s a great turn for an actress with the prowess of someone who’s not only been here before — she’s earned her seat at the table of the genre. In The Last Key, she finally gets to feast.