The first weekend of January is typically a dumping ground for cheapo horror flicks. It’s been proven a reliable method of getting teenagers to shell out a quick buck for some throwaway entertainment after the more prestigious holiday season offerings. Insidious: The Last Key is this year’s option, and it’s absolutely not the worst January horror film I’ve seen. Compared to the remarkably consistent level of quality in the cheap but effective Insidious franchise thus far, however, it’s a disappointing step down in quality.
Blumhouse has made a killing lately with cheaply produced and insanely profitable horror films, and seeing as how The Last Key has already earned its budget back and then some, we’re pretty much guaranteed a fifth installment. Unfortunately, this is the first movie in the franchise that feels utterly bored by its own schlocky theatrics. In fact, director Adam Robitel and writer Leigh Whannell are clearly interested in a story of domestic abuse that is overshadowed by the usual trappings of a PG-13 jump-scare movie. Robitel and Whannell wisely allow Lin Shaye’s Elise to dominate this installment instead of using her as a supporting character, and they create a backstory to her character that is somewhat interesting, if only it were fully realized.
We learn that Elise grew up with an abusive father, and that her mother was killed by a demon Elise conjured through her gift of being able to travel into the Further, a supernatural dimension littered with entities that appear inexplicably when the screenplay needs them to appear. Yeah, I’m not sure how any of this works either. One weakness of the Insidious films is that the rules of these supernatural entities and how they are summoned are not very consistent, and if anything, The Last Key makes it all the more convoluted. Anyway, Elise has tried hard to forget about her past abuse, but when she gets a call from her childhood home’s new owner, she’s forced to return and relive past traumas.
There’s a good movie in here lurking underneath a lot of shoddy plotting, cheap jump scares and over-the-top sound design. One that more clearly tackles the issues of domestic abuse, survivor’s guilt, and victim silencing. A sequence involving a demon with keys for fingers silencing his victim’s screams by plunging a key into her throat and turning it like a lock is an appropriately effective visual metaphor that is never fully explored. I suppose I have to give the movie some credit for even attempting these ideas, even if they are pushed aside in favor of quick, forgettable jolts.
Lin Shaye gives an effective performance here that deserves a better movie around her. She’s always been the backbone of this franchise and it’s nice to see the story completely revolve around her. Though I wish a few side characters, including the wacky ghost-hunting duo introduced in the first film, were simply left out because they add nothing but unnecessary filler to the runtime. The climax, involving Elise finally confronting her demon, fails to successfully wrap up various story threads and settles for cheesy effects-laden imagery.
When the movie works, it’s typically in stand-alone sequences that are reasonably spooky, even if they add nothing to the overall story. One particular scare involving suitcases works because it plays with the audience’s expectations. We think we know when something is going to pop out, but the movie holds out just a bit longer. Robitel makes us wait for it. The anticipation is better than the actual payoff, but that’s how suspense works. Most of the scares don’t have the same impact. If you’ve seen any of these movies, you’ll pretty much know exactly when something is going to pop out and say “boo!”.
I commend the filmmakers for at least attempting to create an involving story with real human fears, but they are too-conveniently explained away by supernatural entities that exist solely as screenplay devices. It’s clear that the audience for these films are far more satisfied with loud sound effects, quick jolts, and fog machines than believable characters or actual horror, and the filmmakers are too happy to give them exactly what they want.