I’m gonna make this quick and easy with two simple questions.
First of all, how do you feel about jump scares? Specifically, how would you like to see a horror movie built entirely around jump scares punctuated with violin screeches from an obnoxiously overblown score? If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good horror movie, don’t bother watching any of the Insidious movies. Stay away from the whole goddamn franchise.
Secondly, have you seen all of the four prior Insidious movies? If you haven’t, don’t bother watching Insidious: The Red Door. Don’t even bother reading the rest of this review. The film was made and marketed as the final entry in the series, this is not the place for anyone to jump on.
Except, of course, that “final entry” selling point is kind of a lie. But I should probably talk a bit about the actual movie before I get into that.
We pick up after Insidious: Chapter 2, which concluded with Josh Lambert (played once again by Patrick Wilson, here making his feature directing debut) and his son Dalton (a returning Ty Simpkins, all grown up) getting their memories and astral-projecting abilities suppressed by hypnosis. Nine years later, where are the Lamberts?
Well, Josh and Renai (Rose Byrne) are now divorced, because of course they fucking are. Josh is apparently losing his mental faculties, presumably due to the hypnosis and all the years taken off his life in the course of Chapter 2. (If you know, you know.) As for Dalton, he’s a moody and withdrawn teenager just about to start freshman year of college as an art student.
I might add that the film opens with the funeral of Josh’s mother (Lorraine, played by Barbara Hershey in the previous films), so the family is going through that bit of grief on top of everything else. I need hardly add that with Lorraine and Elise (that’s Lin Shaye’s character) both deceased, and with every other established paranormal expert in the franchise out of reach (aside from a few cameo appearances), that leaves Renai with the pitiable job as this movie’s “woman who knows everything, but won’t say anything until the necessary moment.”
Oh, and the younger two Lambert kids? Well, they’re pretty much entirely offscreen, so one assumes they’re doing relatively okay. Incidentally, Andrew Astor reprises his role as Dalton’s younger brother, with Juliana Davies briefly taking over to play little sister Kali. I can’t confirm why Brynn and Madison Bowie didn’t come back, but oh well.
Elsewhere in the cast, we’ve got Sinclair Daniel in the role of Chris, the unwitting roommate who settles into playing a skeptic/comic relief/sidekick for Dalton. Last but not least, we’ve got Hiam Abass playing Professor Armagan, teaching an art class that seems oddly and specifically made to tap into Dalton’s repressed childhood traumas and undo the memory suppression hypnosis. And we’re off to the races from there.
(Side note: I’d be remiss not to mention Joseph Bishara, once again composing the overblown score and playing the so-called “Lipstick Demon”, both iconic franchise mainstays.)
There’s really no point in discussing the movie further. If you hate jump scares, you’ll hate the movie. If you know nothing about the Insidious franchise, you’ve got no reason to care about this movie. If you’ve seen all the prior Insidious movies, you’ll know what to expect from this one and you’ll probably be grateful for the effort at tying everything together like the filmmakers knew what they were doing all along.
So let’s talk about the greater franchise instead.
As mentioned before, this film was made and marketed as the final chapter in the Insidious saga. That’s only half-true: This is the end of the Lambert Family story arc. Only a week ago, word came out that Thread: An Insidious Tale is in development with Mandy Moore and Kumail Nanjiani starring under the direction of screenwriter Jeremy Slater (late of “Moon Knight” with Marvel). Most importantly, Thread is confirmed to take place within the same setting as the previous Insidious films, but without any direct connection to the previous stories.
In other words, they’re going ahead with a soft reboot. That makes all kinds of sense.
Insidious was very much a product of its time. It was right there on all the posters, “from the makers of Paranormal Activity and Saw.” In other words, this was a movie specifically made to profit from middling box office grosses for a miniscule budget.
Even so, Insidious far more closely resembles PA than Saw. For one thing, this franchise is considerably less gory and violent, less focused on corporeal homicidal maniacs than ghostly spiritual threats. More importantly, both Insidious and Paranormal Activity are built on the notion that even the laziest of jump scares will be made vastly more effective if the suspense is drawn out long enough. Both movies have thinly developed protagonists who neither want or need any characterization or motivation beyond defending their homes and families. For that matter, the antagonists for both movies are vaguely-defined demons with no characterization or motivation beyond scaring our main characters and eventually possessing them just to be evil.
Trouble is, this is a trick with a woefully short shelf life. It’s hard enough for a one-trick pony to sustain a whole franchise, even harder when that one trick is something as quick and flimsy as a fucking jump scare.
The first movie was never built for sequels. Hell, it feels like every movie after the first one was done with the sentiment of “Okay, Sony, we gave you another sequel because the last one made money. And we wrapped it all up in a neat little bow so we don’t have to make any more. Are you happy? No? Shit, now what do we do?!”
I need hardly add that the second movie retconned a major overarching villain to be, uh… whoo boy.
“Being raised as a girl and heavily tormented by his insane mother, Parker’s emotional and mental stability decayed over the years and his dark side would eventually manifest in the form of a mysterious elderly woman, draped in a black funeral dress. He would use this disguise to lure many women to their doom and escape detection from the authorities.”
That shit was problematic enough ten years ago. Go ahead and make that the premise for your horror movie slasher in 2023, the LGBTQ+ crowd and their allies will shut you down hard enough to make your head spin!
Thus the third and fourth movies were prequels, focused on Lin Shaye’s character. No way was this sustainable. How could anyone watch Elise Rainier face down and defeat so many nightmarish demons, watching her (stunt double) take and dish out all those punishing blows, knowing it would all end with her getting choked out like a bitch at the end of the first movie? It’s sweet that Elise reconciled with her family and got over her childhood trauma, but what’s the point when she’s getting killed off two days later anyway?!
Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that the third and fourth movies — most especially that fourth one — placed a much greater emphasis on moving past grief, maintaining family bonds, forgiving past transgressions, and so on. I bring this up because the fourth movie was the only one to be released after 2016.
Something very important happened in 2016, and a lot of important shit happened as a direct result in the time since.
Vaguely terrifying paranormal entities were all well and good in the Obama years, but then came the 2016 election. In that moment, and in the years since, everyone in the USA (and around the world, to a lesser extent) came to know what true horror really looked like. And it didn’t look like generic undefined ghosts jumping out to yell “Boo!” Thus we were treated to a whole new generation of socially conscious horror films based on race and gender and social status, codified with the triumph of Get Out in 2017.
Six years out from Jordan Peele’s cannonball dive, a horror film (never mind a franchise) based solely on jump scares and vague paranormal threats simply isn’t enough to cut it anymore. Little wonder the Paranormal Activity franchise flamed out in 2021, after sitting out the Trump years entirely.
For another case in point, just look at the Conjuring megafranchise — while that’s a WBD franchise and Insidious is with Sony, a great many filmmakers share both franchises, and they’re both made with the same principle of constant jump scares from two-dimensionally evil paranormal threats. Yes, The Nun II is coming out in a few months, and there’s supposedly a streaming TV series in the works. Even so, the films have come out to increasingly worse critical reception and diminishing box office takes. I might add that longtime megafranchise steward Peter Safran has moved on to more lucrative work as co-chair of DC Studios, and Ed and Lorraine Warren — whose controversial case files were the real-life basis of the series — are both now dead. So while I can’t confirm that the upcoming The Conjuring: Last Rites will be the series’ final entry… well, shit, just read the title.
(Side note: That’s if Last Rites gets released at all. As of this typing, no director or release date have been announced yet.)
Oh, and what about Saw? You know, the other franchise whose astronomical success birthed the Insidious series? Well, that mainline film series flamed out in — oh, what a coincidence! — 2017. The filmmakers tried a soft reboot with Spiral in 2021, buttressing it with timely post-2016 social commentary on police brutality, but that was putting a square peg into a round hole. It was a terrible fit that didn’t work and the movie was a bona fide bomb. Yet the filmmakers are apparently trying to revive the franchise once again with Saw X later this year. Good fucking luck with that.
The bottom line is that of the many similarities between horror and comedy, horror is a genre that’s fastest to age and most likely to age badly. Given that we’re not living in 2010 anymore, and recent global changes have irrevocably made the real world scarier than anything the late Wes Craven could dream of, it’s time to let the old franchises die.
Soft-rebooting the Insidious franchise is a smart move. The Further is a neat concept for the afterlife; the franchise has proven potential for deeper themes about grief and acceptance; and I genuinely like the conceit that some ghosts are malicious, others mean no harm, and there’s no easy way to tell which is which. I’d genuinely love to see an iteration of this franchise take all the positive aspects of this mythos, find some way to make it spooky without so many jump scares, update the themes to something more timely, and move forward without all the bullshit dead-ends and jerry-rigged continuity. You know, a franchise that was built from the ground up to be a franchise, that might be nice!
But to get that hopeful hypothetical better series, we have to wipe the slate clean. For better or worse, that’s all Insidious: The Red Door is good for. Its sole purpose is to get the current iteration out of the way and make room for the next one. Get the Lambert Family a ride home, put the chairs up on the tables, turn off the lights, lock the doors behind you, and hand the keys over to Jeremy Slater.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that Insidious can outgrow its foundation of paper-thin characters and bottomless cheap jump scares. Hope for the best and expect the worst, I guess.