With the third chapter of the “Insidious” series, Leigh Whannell steps up to take over as writer and director on the second franchise that he started with James Wan. As today's “Aquaman” news made clear, Wan has become a major asset to studios now, and while I doubt he's made his final scary film or even his final small film, I doubt we're going to see him make any more films in the “Saw” or “Insidious” worlds again.
So why not Whannell? After all, if there's anyone who understands this world, it's him. He was the one who created the mythology, after all, when he wrote the first film, and he's played Specs, part of the paranormal investigation team headed by Lin Shaye, in the other two films. When I first saw the set-up for this film, I assumed it would be an early adventure for Specs, Elise (Shaye), and Tucker (Angus Sampson), and I thought that sounded great. I like that Shaye plays her part as someone who deeply believes, someone who has great respect for the surreal experience that these people are going through when they come in contact with her, while the guys are both far less ethereal about the whole thing. It's a fun contrast, and they never felt like simple knock-offs of real TV paranormal “ghost hunters” or of the Ghostbusters, which is harder than it sounds.
Honestly, I wish this film was more about Specs and Elise and Tucker. And while Elise is in more of it than the other guys, it still feels like the emphasis is on the wrong characters here as we're introduced to Quinn (Stefanie Scott), a teenage girl still grappling with her mother's death. Her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) is ill-equipped to be any particular help to her, and when Quinn makes contact with something, she believes it is her mother trying to reach out to her. She accidentally invites something darker into her life, though, and it is Elise she reaches out to for help.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the ghost story itself. It makes sense, there's an internal logic to the way things happen, and Whannell does his best to keep a certain pace up so there are near-constant ghost attacks punctuated by scenes of the characters trying to figure out how to handle them. Quinn's just not a very interesting character, and the eventual unraveling of her personal haunting is fairly routine stuff if you know the genre. The things that are most interesting here have to do with Elise and her connection to the other side, the Further.
Here's the biggest problem I have with the film. Over the course of the first two movies, we've learned a fair amount about The Further, and it would seem like that's the other thing we could learn more about in this film. After all, Elise seems intimately familiar with it. But aside from a few brief nods… nope. They talk about it a bit, but we don't get much time there at all. I think the most interesting idea in these films at all has to do with the father and son characters from the first two, played by Patrick Wilson and Ty Simkins, who both have the ability to leave their bodies at night and explore the Further. There must be more people who can do that, so why not use them to explore more corners of that other world? Why tell such a familiar type of ghost story instead? When you've got an idea as big as The Further, why does each film seem to get smaller?
Your mileage may vary, but I'll confess some degree of disappointment only because I really dig Whannell. “The Mule,” the film he co-wrote and starred in last year, directed by Angus Sampson, is a wicked smart little crime movie with a wildly gross premise and a really careful execution. And I do like the first two films in this series, although one less than the other. I wanted to really like this and to see something that opened up the world. Instead, this is the most routine of the three.
Perhaps next time, Whannell will push further himself, or even someplace new. This time out, it's a short journey to nowhere new.
“Insidious: Chapter 3” is in theaters on Friday.