Lin Shaye Carries ‘Insidious: The Last Key’

There are some movies that work because they deliver just what they promise. “Insidious: The Last Key” continues a franchise that has developed a fan following based on good old-fashioned scares and things that go bump in the night. This fourth offering is a prequel that takes place right before the first “Insidious” from 2010, and while the screenplay won’t be gracing any AFI lectures in the near future, it’s not that bad of a popcorn experience. It’s shot with a lot of style and atmosphere, and the scares aren’t cheap but based on a real sense of surprise and morbid terror. Yet it never gets exceedingly gory, director Adam Robitel knows how to use just enough violence to make you jump, but not too much to the point where the movie becomes a gross fest. Like a good B-movie, “The Last Key” doesn’t overstay its welcome. At 1 hour and 43 minutes, it uses just enough time to makes us laugh, jump and roll our eyes.

This time the tale begins in Five Keys, New Mexico, in 1953. A young Elise Rainer (Ava Kolker) begins to have visions of a demonic power in her house. When she decides to follow the demon through a door which opens into the spiritual realm of “The Further,” dark forces are unleashed into the home which soon ruin the lives of Elise, her mother, brother and father. Fast forward to 2010, Elise, now aged (and played by Lin Shaye) runs a paranormal investigate unit named Spectral Sightings with the nerdy Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the script) and the boisterous Tucker (Angus Sampson). The team is called to Five Keys to investigate ghostly happenings afflicting the new owner of Elise’s childhood home. Reluctantly Elise decides it is time to face her past and the evil force that has followed her life for decades.

If the plot of “Insidious: The Last Key” sounds a bit preposterous, well then that’s usually the case with most horror films, particularly of the pulp variety. The way to properly judge a movie of this kind is on how entertaining and well-done it is. Robitel adds just enough humor and style to give fans what they want and newcomers a few good startles. The screenplay by Leigh Wahnnell plays like a fun riff on the whole New Agey, ghost hunting culture that came into vogue in the 1990s with shows like “Sightings” and “Paranormal Borderline.” Spectral Sightings is a fun take on “Ghost Hunters,” and we get the obligatory moments where Elise wanders through some dark room while the guys observe through infrared screens, catching entities we can all see except for our heroine of course. When the team walk into a diner and meet two beautiful women, Tucker and Specs introduce themselves as “we’re psychic.”  The movie doesn’t even have to try too hard to explain where the demons, ghosts or The Further actually come from, the point is they exist and provide the vehicle for shocks.

Since this is a prequel of sorts, it doesn’t matter much if you haven’t seen the other “Insidious” movies. It stands pretty well on its own. What matters is that Robitel creates images that deliver. His cinematographer, Toby Oliver, who recently shot “Get Out,” immerses the movie in cold shadows and saturated colors. The settings feel vivid, and one element that makes the horror more effective is that everything isn’t just shown. We catch glimpses of terrible beings and demonic figures, just seeing enough to disturb but not enough to feel comfortable. One great scene involves Elise crawling through a rusted tunnel to sift through old, cluttered suitcases of previous murder victims. Robitel shoots it in an almost classic style where the tension builds from the vividness of the environment, we know something will happen but it isn’t given away. One of the movie’s opening scenes is a great scare where a character believes she is speaking with someone who turns out to not be where she thinks he is. We’ve seen it done before, but the point is Robitel does it well. The scenes in The Further are also created with fog and shadow, never going too over the top and I appreciated the fact that the movie never becomes a CGI fest.

It should be noted that “The Last Key” also does something different and that is that it makes a female lead in her golden years the heroine. It’s refreshing to see a pulp character at least be embodied by a persona that gives off a sense of maturity, as opposed to the countless genre flicks where a college sorority member runs through the woods in a tank top. Lin Shaye brings the kind of skill to this role that you rarely get in this sort of movie. I was pleasantly surprised at how much she contributed to making this a decent entertainment.

At times our senses are so oversaturated with either too much recycled blockbuster product or pretentious twaddle, that a decently-executed B-movie is a welcome escape. The dialogue can get terribly cheesy, which is expected, the core of the premise cheerfully casts aside rationality (like most ghost stories anyway), and the characters are just there to become targets for ghouls which are in turn tasked with freaking us, the viewers, out. “Insidious: The Last Key” gives us just what it promises, no more no less. If this isn’t your kind of movie, then skip, but if it is, then pass the popcorn and enjoy.

Insidious: The Last Key” opens Jan. 5 in theaters nationwide.