Leigh Whannell, writer of the original Insidious, takes the director’s chair for Part 3, a prequel looking at the origins of Lin Shaye’s spiritual medium. Dan Stephens explains why this is one of the best – and scariest – Hollywood horror films in years…
Given that Insidious: Chapter 3 is as good, or better, than the franchise’s previous instalments makes me wish first-time director Leigh Whannell had stepped behind the lens sooner. The co-creator of the Saw and Insidious films with long-time collaborator and talented filmmaker James Wan, Whannell has preferred to remain in the background but that’s all changed now. His supreme talent for staging suspense from the page is now extended to delivering it through the camera. His achievement is something friend and obvious influence Wan would be proud of; indeed, the director of the first two Insidious movies should be leading a standing ovation.
This chapter in the franchise takes place before the events of the original film, ostensibly providing a little origins story for spiritual medium Elise Rainier (the brilliant Lin Shaye) by way of a demon who has attached itself to sweet-natured girl Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott). In trying to contact her recently deceased mother from the beyond the grave Quinn has opened a doorway welcoming a rather nasty spirit with bad feet and breathing problems into her life. She calls on Elise for help but she is at first reluctant given her own problems with an evil ghostly presence. Meanwhile, Quinn’s widowed father (Dermot Mulroney) has an increasing sense of helplessness as his daughter’s predicament worsens.
Whannell’s greatest attribute as a horror film storyteller is his dramatic structuring. With the nuanced skill of a master magician, he draws his audience in with precise cues, quietly building to a heart-stopping payoff. He has such control over these quiet moments before the inevitable storm that audience anxiety becomes a puppet to be manipulated. Not only is his atmospheric posturing complemented beautifully by the foreboding cinematography of Brian Pearson but his profound awareness of expectation allows him to subvert his own dramatic motifs. The repetition of visceral thrills is therefore neither trite nor cumbersome, continually evoking that primal urge to duck and cover.
The result is one of the best supernatural horror films to emerge from Hollywood in recent years. What’s more astonishing is that this sequel is superior to its highly entertaining and equally well-made predecessors. Yet, Insidious: Chapter 3 finds another gear. The bones of the story don’t greatly differ, the haunted house/possession clichés are in place like a perfectly assembled flat-pack from Ikea, and yet Whannell has an uncanny knack of making you not care. He has you shaking so frantically with fear you’re too afraid to give a damn that the film is a basic copy of the first Insidious and a thematic retread of The Exorcist. By the time ghost hunting duo Specs (Leigh Whannell himself) and the “Mohawked” Tucker (Angus Sampson) join the battle, you realise the writer-director even has the audacity to throw in some extremely funny light relief.
Of course, Insidious: Chapter 3 doesn’t do anything new. Much of what we see is the result of a production line established with Wan’s first instalment and countless supernatural movies before it. And, if Whannell does have a weakness, it’s highlighted in some of the performances: Dermot Mulroney looks faintly embarrassed during those scenes he’s meant to emote at thin air. It’s good then that he has the brilliant Lin Shaye to count on – her world-weary spiritual medium is our guide and our saviour through this haunting tale of demonic stalking. Yet, Whannell’s fledgling directorial frailties aside, he has you hiding behind the sofa within the first five minutes and never lets you come out (with the last few seconds striking another blow to your nerves). Fans of slow-burning paranormal/haunted house horror will love this.