Insidious: The Last Key's timid ghostbuster doesn't pass in-spectre

By Jim Slotek

Rating: C

It must be said that Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Sinister, etc.) knows its game well enough that even its lesser efforts will make you jump occasionally.

And make no mistake, Insidious: The Last Key is one of its lesser efforts.

The fourth instalment of the Insidious series - basically a series of demonic tug-of-wars with The Further (where reside dead things with, natch, ill intent toward the living) – focuses more heavily than ever on scaredy-cat ghostbuster Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a character that’s always grated on me.

 Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier. Not exactly brimming with ghost-busting confidence.

Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier. Not exactly brimming with ghost-busting confidence.

Always seemingly frightened to the verge of an emotional breakdown, she appears an unlikely candidate for her line of work. I mean, do you really want to put your paranormal problems in the hands of someone who’s more scared of ghosts than you are?

But she has become what amounts to a series franchise character. And at least in Insidious: The Last Key, we get some insight into why she’s such a mouseburger.

Seems back in the ‘50s in New Mexico, her dad (Josh Stewart) was so enraged by his daughter’s supposed visions of executions in the nearby penitentiary, and of ghosts in the house, that he literally tried to beat the visions out of her.

Or was he influenced by whatever was behind door #1 in the basement?

And is something similar going on now that Elise has been called by the latest owner of her childhood home (Kirk Acevedo) to purge the place? Does it have something to do with a special key? Or a special whistle? Or a special fridge magnet?

Franchise creator Leigh Whannell – who puts in screen-time as “Specs,” one of a pair of Elise’s doofus investigative assistants – may be running out of things to have happen in The Further (or maybe his creative thunder has been stolen by Stranger Things and the Upside Down).

In any case, like any horror movie, Insidious: The Last Key works best when it’s basically the frightened fever dream of a child. Fresh from her latest inner-eyewitness of an electric chair execution, the young Elise (Ava Kolker) and her brother (Pierce Pope) experience a visitation in the dark of night, an opening with jumps and mysterious voices and a tragic death-by-demon that seems to bode well for the rest of the movie.

But after we experience Elise’s trauma, we’re thrown into the present and the half-baked X-Files episode that The Last Key becomes. Specs and Tucker (Angus Sampson) might as well have the words “comic relief” pasted on their foreheads (Tucker’s repeatedly unfunny intro: “She’s the psychic, we’re the sidekick”). They’re also there to ogle and flirt nerdily with the nieces that Elise never knew she had (Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke).

Once the whole thing heads into the netherworld, we’re pretty much at the mercy of the prosaic imagery that seems to be made up as it goes along, a place where even the things that startle seem to have lost their juice.

But for me, the Insidious franchise suffers from too much Elise. Shaye is a perfectly okay character actor, but as someone to hang a story on, she’s no Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (who played real-life supernatural investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring).

Her arc in this film has her come to the apparent realization that she is fated to fight those otherworldly creatures that feed on fear. I’ll believe it when I see it. She still comes off pretty much like a fear-eater snack to me.

Insidious: The Last Key. Directed by Adam Robitel. Starring Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell. Opens wide Friday, Jan. 5.