Director Adam Robitel fumbles the baton pass with the January-appropriately awful “Insidious: The Last Key.” This latest entry is a shocking low for Blumhouse Productions, one of the few horror studios with consistent high-quality outpour. Even staple performer Lin Shaye’s hardened bad-assery against demons can’t save a plot that heaps on too much without developmental reward. An origin story on top of the former sequel’s pre-Lambert beginnings, “The Last Key” grapples with the scarred childhood of Shaye’s Elise. Rather than giving fans deeper insight into the endlessly fascinating “Further” spirit realm, Robitel and writer Leigh Whannell stagnate the series with trope regurgitation. Possession, a gaggle of idiotic behavior and laughable sentimental pauses are all present without skipping a jump-scare.
An extended prologue in Five Keys, New Mexico – yep, the movie is that subtle – paints a brutal picture of Elise’s upbringing. The Rainier family home is located near an insane asylum from which its patients’ executions can be felt and detailed by young Elise. Her father, Gerald (Josh Stewart), is a temperamental anti-Soviet propaganda-consuming domestic tyrant. Gerald employs violent forms of punishment on Elise whenever her psychic abilities are mentioned during a haunting. Her mother, Audrey (Tessa Ferrer), believes in Elise’s powers but feels they should remain secret to avoid Gerald’s wrath. Tessa Ferrer is one of 2018’s shining early discoveries, exuding maternal fortitude and admirable courage for her little ones.
In the film’s most effective scare sequence, a familiar demon terrifies both Elise and brother Christian in the sanctity of their bedroom. Following this disturbance, young Elise is locked in the basement and encounters a door emanating pure evil. A demon on the other side who looks like the lovechild of Gollum and “The Grudge” ghost beckons Elise to unlock it. Upon doing so, tragedy obviously strikes and a villain designed more brilliant than written emerges. It all spirals downhill from there as the film jumps fifty years ahead just to rope Elise right back to the past.
A new paranormal pest control job returns Elise to the childhood home she willingly fled. It seems the demon with a key fetish isn’t done twisting residents to his will. The parapsychologist is accompanied by her new partners, The Spectral Sightings duo, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). What begins with comedy derived from the pair’s clumsy attempts at humor devolves into a charmless gag. Audience respect for the twosome further diminishes once they obnoxiously begin hitting on Elise’s nieces fifteen years their junior. Coupled with the movie’s problematic scapegoating of demons to excuse humans’ innate monstrous behavior, “The Last Key’s” script is confined in disarray.
Other than an empowering mother figure and the aforementioned opening sequence that rises to James Wan’s standard of excellence, “The Last Key” proves more foe than fiendish friend to the genre. The intricate camerawork is also sorely lacking this time around. Gone is the swinging frame that expertly shakes audiences to clutched breathing. Moreover, unlike former Wan productions, the sound design doesn’t add complexity to its prevailing blaring quality. However, the film’s ending does add a spark of hope that the low-grade prequel past is now firmly behind us. Lin Shaye and the Further deserve a better sendoff than the hackneyed fog they’re currently bogged down in.
“Insidious: The Last Key” is distributed by Universal Pictures and opens in theaters nationwide on January 5th.