More than any other subpar horror series currently running, the “Insidious” franchise has the potential to become something great. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. Its world is steeped in an interesting mythology and its approach to demons, spirits and the afterlife is refreshingly novel. The de facto main character, Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, “Ouija”), is a compelling and likable presence, to say nothing of how impressive it is to see a 74-year-old woman leading a major horror franchise. And while it lacks the drop-dead gorgeous cinematography and deliberate pacing that James Wan — who helmed the first two installments — brought to “The Conjuring” and its sequel, the director’s self-described stamp of “crowd-pleasing but twisted” horror is still discernible.
All this is to say that the “Insidious” films have always been a cut above other horror films of similar ilk, which is what makes it so disappointing that they’ve never nailed their stories. Each of the now four movies in the series is a slight variation on the classic “haunted house” scenario where a family moves into a new home and is quickly beset by all manner of ghosts, ghouls and poltergeists. They’ve wisely shifted the focus from the families themselves to Elise, a medium-for-hire with the ability to astral project into a spiritual realm called “The Further.” But even with Shaye’s consistently game performance, it’s impossible to dodge the feeling that this has all been done before and done better.
To the credit of “The Last Key,” it continues this trend of leaning into the franchise’s strengths by finally putting Elise, and Elise alone, in the spotlight. Instead of any random family calling for her to investigate any random house, it’s her own childhood home, the place where she first discovered her ability and learned about The Further.
It’s an admirable attempt to provide the character with an interesting backstory, and Shaye perfectly communicates that past Elise’s struggle to overcome the scars it left on her. Director Adam Robitel (“The Taking of Deborah Logan”) even avoids an overuse of jump scares, opting for a tension-based approach that lends itself to several impressive set pieces. One in particular purposefully uses tinny audio to terrific effect.
Yet for all these strengths, “The Last Key” still winds up retreading the same climactic points that it has moved through for three movies in a row now. Inevitably, the story traipses its way back into The Further through a combination of idiotic character decisions and convoluted storytelling and inevitably some demon with a half-way decent design reveals itself to be the ultimate culprit beyond all the happenings. Even if it wasn’t repetitive in the worst way, it’s just boring this time around, and the monster behind it all is never given any clear motivation of its own to make it a worthwhile foil of Elise. Even the thing’s name doesn’t make any sense; Javier Botet (“It”) is credited as Key Face, but the monster has keys on its fingers (it’s actually cooler than it sounds) not on its face.
The “Insidious” franchise, therefore, once again wastes its potential on a story that its characters, its world, its star and, above all, its audience deserve better than. “The Last Key” makes some definite improvements, and if nothing else, it shows that Robitel may have a real future in the genre. But for those hoping that “The Last Key might finally break the mold for the series will be in for yet another disappointment.