The Insidious franchise—like most horror series—began missing a step about two films in. The fourth installment, Insidious: The Last Key, starts off with promise, though.
Thanks in large part to a heartbreaking performance from Ava Kolker, the newest Insidious opens with a gut punch of an origin story.
By Episode 3, we’d abandoned the core family of the first two films to follow ghost hunters Elise (Lin Shaye), Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also writes the series). As this film opens, we glimpse the beginnings of Elise’s gift, the troubles it brings, and the demon she unwittingly released into the world.
Though the minor characters are full-blown clichés, director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) and his young actors create a compelling opening.
Can Insidious: The Last Key deliver on that promise?
Is it the tedious jump-scare-athon with none of the exquisite delivery we’ve come to expect from James Wan (director of the original Insidious, and producer here)? Is it the mid-film move from spectral thriller to police procedural and back? Is it the creepy attention Elise’s goofball sidekicks pay to her young and pretty nieces?
Or is the problem that the whole cool sequence from the trailer—you know, with Melanie Gaydos and all the ghosts coming out of the jail cells?—is missing from the movie.
Yes—it’s all that and more. The film is a jumbled mess of backstory and personal demons, clichés and uninspired monsters. All of this is shouldered by the veteran Shaye, who is, unfortunately, no lead.
Shaye has proven herself to be a talented character actor in her 40+ years in film, often stealing scenes out from under high-paid leads. (Please see her in Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, she’s genius.) But she doesn’t have the magnetism to carry a film, and The Last Key feels that much more untethered and pointless for the lack.
Everything runs out of steam at some point. Here’s hoping this franchise has run out of doors to open.
Releasing a film without a pre-screening for critics is usually a bad sign. A mid-February studio release is never good.
You know what else isn’t good? Rings.
If you’re wondering whether Samara’s story disappeared with the last VCR, puzzle no longer. Sadly, it did not. Indie hipsters at a garage sale take home some vintage equipment, find an old VHS tape inside and watch it.
If you’ll recall, watching said video of freaky images condemns the viewer to death within a week. The images relate to the accursed life of, in the English language films, a little girl named Samara.
Gore Verbinski’s 2002 The Ring managed to do two remarkable things. One: it surpassed its Japanese-language original (Hideo Nakata’s Ringu) in quality. Two: it was a deeply frightening PG-13 movie.
But Verbinski has talent, as does his cast, most notably 2-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts. Rings director F. Javier Gutiérrez is playing without those kind of all-stars.
At this film’s heart is still that Scooby-doo mystery to solve that is the foundation of nearly every ghost story – and Samara’s tale is essentially that. In this episode – which forgets 2005’s The Ring 2 ever existed – two college freshmen do the sleuthing.
The leads are, as far as I can tell, made entirely of wood or wheat toast. Matilda Lutz is Julia the Bland, devoted girlfriend and courageous ghost hunter. Her boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe – yawn) participated in a wild psychological experiment led by his professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) – garage sale junkie. That experiment leaves Holt with 7 days to live…and his time is almost up.
The film’s running time isn’t, though. Oh, no. Holt’s fate is revealed and we still have at least 3/4 of the movie to suffer through.
Sadly, the genuinely talented Vincent D’Onofrio gets dragged into this at a certain point, his only real contribution is to remind the audience what acting actually looks like.
Who says a sequel can’t be better – or at least as good – as the original? If you look closely, there are loads of excellent horror sequels: New Nightmare, Scream 2, 28 Weeks Later, Ringu 2, The Devil’s Rejects. But which are the best of the best? We have the answer!
5. Exorcist III (1990)
William Peter Blatty wrote and directed this dialogue-dense sequel to the 1973 phenomenon William Friedken had made of his novel. Blatty starts strong enough, garnishing shots with vivid, elegantly creepy images. He enlists George C. Scott to anchor the tale of a cop drawn back into a supernatural case. In other inspired casting, New York Nicks great Patrick Ewing plays the angel of death in one of Kinderman’s freaky dream sequences, joined by romance novel coverboy Fabio as another angel. Also, the always great character actress Nancy Fish plays the bitchy but reluctantly helpful Nurse Allerton.
There are also two of the scariest scenes in cinema. Eventually the story moves into a hospital and stays there, but just before that move, there’s a terrific confessional scare – crazy spooky voice, effective cackle, blood – that elevates the entire project.
And then there’s that insane flash of terror as one nurse crosses the narrow hallway in front of the camera, quickly followed by some gauze-draped figure, arms outstretched. Eep!
4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Romero returned to the land of the undead in ’78 with a full-color sequel to Night of the Living Dead. The film follows a news producer, her chopper pilot boyfriend, and two Philly SWAT cops ready to abandon the organized zombie fight and find peace elsewhere. The four board a helicopter, eventually landing on the roof of a mall, which they turn into their private hideaway.
Romero, make-up legend Tom Savini, and Italian horror director Dario Argento teamed up for this sequel. You feel Argento’s presence in the score and the vivid red of the gore. Bloated, dated, and suffering from blue zombie make up, the film does not stand up as well as the original, but it still packs a punch.
Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. Romero’s politics are on his sleeve with this one. He uses the “z” word, digs at Eighties consumerism, shows full-color entrails, and reminds us again that the undead may not be our biggest enemy once the zombie-tastrophe falls.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Tobe Hooper revisited his southern cannibal clan 12 years after unleashing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on an unsuspecting world, and he had the great Dennis Hopper in tow. Hopper plays a retired Texas Marshall. He joins forces with a radio host, played gamely by Caroline Williams. Together they flush the Sawyer family out of hiding. And just in case we’d missed how Leatherface got his name, the act of removing someone’s face to wear as a mask is revisited in a kind of weird wooing ritual.
TCM2 certainly gets weird, and boasts an unhinged performance by Hopper as a lawman willing to make some ugly choices to follow his obsession. Jim Siedow (The Cook) returns, and veteran genre favorite Bill Moseley adds a quirky ugliness to the proceedings. There’s also an awful lot of screaming, even for this kind of a film, but it’s a worthy genre flick. It pales in comparison to the original, but it deserves its own appreciation. Hold it up against any other low-rent horror output of 1986 and it’s a standout.
2. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
In 1981, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell crafted the single bloodiest film ever made. Six years later, Raimi gets a little Ray Harryhausen and Campbell gets a makeover in a sequel that’s mostly a remake. An even broader comedy, with clay-mation monsters aplenty, Evil Dead II works harder for laughs than for scares.
Expect a lot of the same: Necronomicon, possessed friends, demonic woods, dismemberment, and fun. Plus hundreds of gallons of black, green, and red goo. Nice.
The wide eyed, romantic Ash from episode one slowly morphs into the ass kicking, catch phrase spouting, boom-boom stick toting badass we’ll see in all his glory in the third installment. Ash would finally learn how important it is not to listen to tapes left by the owners of the cabin you’re secretly squatting in for the weekend. And we’d eventually learn never to wear Michigan State paraphernalia when camping with Bruce Campbell.
1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale and Boris Karloff returned to Castle Frankenstein for an altogether superior tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
Thesiger’s mad doctor makes for a suitable counterpart to the earnest and contrite Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, again), and a sly vehicle for Whale. This fey and peculiar monster-maker handles the most brilliant dialogue the film has to offer, including the iconic toast, “To gods and monsters.”
The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.