PLOT: Before the Lambert family, there was the Brenner family: Temporarily incapacitated Quinn is being haunted by a poisonous specter that has designs on making her his captive. It's up to tortured medium Elise Rainier to drive away the demon and save the young girl's life.
REVIEW: Ready to go back into The Further? I actually wasn't after the disappointing INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 seemed to all but close the door on a once-promising horror franchise. I maintain the first INSIDIOUS is one of the scariest movies of the decade (scarier than THE CONJURING for sure), so when the second one came up severely lacking in the chills department, I thought the train had run out of steam before it even got moving. Alas, here's INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 to pick up the pieces, with a new director (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), new characters, and a new evil presence. Same old Further, though, but we'll get to that later.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 takes place a few years before the events of the first two films; in those, the Lambert family found themselves under siege by malevolent entities intent on ruining them. Their story was wrapped up, as was the character of Elise (Lin Shaye), the gentle medium who sadly perished while helping the clan. Since Elise is such a likable character (not to mention she's adept at dishing out all the necessary exposition), a prequel focusing on her is the natural way to go, and at the age of 71, it's almost too damn cool a veteran actress like Shaye has her own successful franchise.
This time, Elise is here to help out another innocent being targeted by demonic spirits, a teenager named Quinn (Stefanie Scott). A few years after the passing of the family matriarch, Quinn is stuck playing mom to her younger brother while her demanding and overworked father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) tries to pick up the pieces as a single dad. Quinn begins to suspect her mother is attempting to make contact with her from the other side, thus she seeks out Elise, who wants nothing to do with the case. (She's had a few bad experiences attempting to make contact with the dead, natch.) After an accident seemingly caused by a shadowy figure earns Quinn two broken legs, the bedridden teen begins to realize that something is indeed trying to engage her... and it ain't her momma.
This set-up allows INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 to deliver the familiar but effective scare sequences associated with the series. The movie's second act is unquestionably its best, as Quinn is beset upon by an ominous phantom resembling an withered old man with a breathing mask. Whannell learned the goods from his predecessor, James Wan, when it comes to stretching out a tense scene to the breaking point until the inevitable loud noise jars us. Yes, there are jump scares aplenty in the prequel, and many of them are quite good. Horror fans like to knock jump scares, as if they're unworthy tricks in lieu of genuine suspense. Surely we've seen that hold true time and time again, but I don't mind them as long as they're earned, and Whannell earns more than a few here.
The cast in the film is appealing, which naturally helps boost our interest in the dire situation. While they're not incredibly well-developed characters, there's enough father-daughter strife between Quinn and Sean to elicit our sympathy for both of them. Scott, an unknown to me, efficiently relays the character's helplessness and sorrow, while also giving Quinn some bite toward the end when she becomes possessed by the predatory spirit. Mulroney is forced to play "uncool dad," but the actor makes him more than just a cipher by giving him an extra layer or two. And you can't say enough about Shaye, who is as locked-in as ever playing the brave clairvoyant; by turns scared, concerned, bitter and ultimately vengeful, Shaye's Elise is just so much fun to watch.
After a decent first act and a fine-tuned second, the film disappointingly falls apart somewhat during the third act - even though the emergence of Specs and Tucker (Whannell and Angus Sampson) is welcome. (Turns out their careers in the supernatural began as amateur - very amateur - ghost hunters.) I, for one, have ceased to be scared by The Further, and the movie's finale (predictably) spends a lot of time there. With every passing film, The Further has become less horrific netherworld and more cheap roadside haunted house; the INSIDIOUS movies are consistently more frightening when they're inserting ghastly visions in the real world. In this one, Elise's efforts in The Further conjure up giggles instead of gasps. The villains in these movies have a similar issue: each one has been less interesting than the last. Here, the wheezing specter is initially creepy, but the more we see of him, the less scary he becomes. Whannell doesn't give the ghost much backstory, which is okay, but as a character he's arbitrary; just a random guy in old-age make-up who occasionally pops up and grabs you.
While he may not be quite as skilled of a scare technician as Wan, Whannell manages to jolt the audience effectively a handful of times, using misdirection more than adequately in order to surprise us. His most fun sequences honor the trusty horror tradition of having a character moronically stick their head where they shouldn't, which naturally gets the entire audience screaming, "No, what are you doing?!" These movies often don't make a ton of logical sense, but that's not their purpose; they're here to prod you in the ribs every few minutes and, best case scenario, give you a nightmare or two. While Whannell doesn't deliver on the latter, he doesn't disappoint on the former.