We’ve had the sequel. Now, while it’s come quite early, we have a prequel. However, Insidious: Chapter 3 shows it’s more of a spin-off than a prequel, as Lin Shaye‘s wise and charismatic Elise from the first two installments of the franchise is given a lead role that’s only shared with Stefanie Scott‘s teen in peril.
Chapter 3 marks the third installment in James Wan‘s successful horror franchise and Leigh Whannell‘s directorial debut (a long-time collaborator of Wan’s.) And it seems like Whannell has learned a lot from his unofficial mentor, as Chapter 3 — albeit not better than the original — captures the essence of its pioneer while revealing a few of its own tricks. It even provides a nice little twist, but not the kind you’d expect from a low-budget horror conglomerate that relies heavily on jump scares. No, Chapter 3 has heart. And it’s as heartwarming as much as it is terrifying, giving you a bit of breathing room between each pop-up.
That isn’t to say that the horror is replaced completely, but rather Chapter 3 insists on plucking those heart strings after — or before — landing those piano-thumping, coming-out-of-nowhere jump scares we’ve all come to know and love, or hate.
Chapter 3 occurs “a few years” before the incidents of Insidious, according to a title card, and strays away from the Lambert family, save a few nods and a few demons here and there. Instead, Chapter 3 creates its own story with a new family. Said family includes the Brenners, who have been wounded after losing their mother. In light of this recent tragedy, Quinn (played by Scott) attempts to contact her mother and reaches out to Elise for help. Upon doing so, Quinn is warned to be wary of contacting the dead, because, surprise surprise, “If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you.” So what does Quinn do next? In typical horror film fashion, she expresses her urge for rebellion — that and her urge to contact her deceased mother — and continues to do so anyway.
It’s not the most original beat, but Chapter 3 delivers on what fans of the franchise and genre come for: scares. They aren’t exclusively jump scares either; there’s some creepy imagery in Chapter 3, so it doesn’t have to be as bombastic as its predecessors. But even when Chapter 3 does resort to jump scares — which is over 90 percent of the time — Whannell, again, shows more of what he’s learned from Wan. Before each one, Whannell decides to almost strip the audio with a vacuum, seems like producing a kind of ambient, dead silent atmosphere before getting in your face — think of it as the gentle calm before the storm. But this calm is much more insidious and increases tension as you brace for impact.
That and the impeccably timed sound effects — whether they’re via abrupt piano or crescendoing violin — make for some of the more effective jump scares found in any formula movies of the genre use today. Although, it is a bit disappointing the violin being played with a cheese grater didn’t make a screeching comeback in Chapter 3. Instead, a lighter and heartwarming score for the most part is placed in lieu of that, giving Chapter 3 a more distinguishable identity — as if Whannell’s movie needs to prove it’s not like its siblings. Like that’s a bad thing.
This third chapter — even though it takes places years before the first — also tries to prove that Shaye, 71, has the ability to lead with her character Elise. And it’s a point well-proven. It isn’t the fact that she’s given a backstory that makes her demise at the end of Insidious infinitely more tragic, but the fact that Shaye’s got chops. Elise has been such a scene-stealing character since her first appearance that Whannell’s reluctance to move on is a welcome objection. Gone are Shaye’s days with the Farrelly brothers and supporting characters in classic and mediocre horror, including Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and 2006’s Snakes on a Plane respectively. Only until late in her career is she given her defining role. She’s even given a handful of one-liners you’d expect to hear from John McClane. (There had to be at least one variation of “Yippee-ki-yay, Motherfucker!” in one of Whannell’s early drafts.)
And while those accompanying moments of triumph for our temporary action hero often conflict with tone and genre, they point back to the it factor Chapter 3 holds over its predecessors: heart and affection that isn’t as abrupt as the ending revelation of Mama and appropriately deceptive for those who see it as a threat. Considering Whannell’s collaborated with Wan for the majority of his career, it’s relieving to see that the now director capitalized on the opportunity to learn a thing or two. From the (generally) effective use of jumps scares to his visual savvy — there are some great shots in Chapter 3, including a brief, lofty tracking shot around the second act — Whannell has a technically formidable and pleasingly terrifying debut to put on his résumé.
Like its predecessors, Chapter 3 suffers from all the typical tropes and archetypes found in horror, but this prequel spin-off still manages to deliver on scares while simultaneously creating its own brand. It also doesn’t hurt to have your cast perform exceptionally with what they’ve got. Unsurprisingly so, Chapter 3 won’t convert the naysayers. If you despise emphatic and boisterous horror, my warning should go without saying — this was made for the fans and the fans only.