Ed. Note: This post contains spoilers for Insidious: The Last Key.
Often the fourth installment of a franchise is not well regarded; we have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Jaws: The Revenge, all derided in their inability to live up to any expectation one has when following along with a series. Insidious: The Last Key does not fall into that cursed tradition. It is more than standard horror movie fare. It is, at its core, a metaphor for abuse—how it can haunt us, how it never really goes away.
The Last Key opens with a young Elise Rainer (Ava Kolker) being whipped by her father (Josh Stewart), who is terrified of her clairvoyant abilities. This scene was extremely uncomfortable, extremely brutal, and I found myself tearing up at how realistically the abuse was being portrayed. “It’s not a Coen Brothers movie.” Lin Shaye, who has played Elise throughout the series, says about this scene during our interview. “You’re not expecting to be moved by that at the beginning of a film, and then realize it’s this woman that you’ve already embraced as kind of a friend in the other three installments.” The heaviness of this scene was felt by everyone. Director Adam Robitel tells me, “Ava was incredible…that was the hardest part for the crew, watching her go through that.”
And that abuse lingers, manifests into something else, an energy that does not dissipate— it haunts. Shaye, a warm and kind woman to begin with, has embraced her character with a serious passion, and it is obvious that Elise is important to her. “This issue couched within this piece of entertainment, that’s very powerful, because people don’t discuss their abuse. They cover it up. It’s their secret. The older Elise in the first movie…informs who she becomes. The fact that she can survive this kind of abuse, has also buried it. You’re dealing with her fear in a character that has not shown real fear. This demon is hers, she can’t fight back on this. She has to live through it. Working on it as an actress, it was a highly emotional shoot. Even though the father had a reason, it doesn’t matter. They all have reasons.”
And of her character, Insidious writer Leigh Whannell (who again plays Specks in the films) says, “What this film is is an exploration of Elise…slowly, throughout the films, she’s gained traction and importance. This is her one woman show. The violence of abuse is not just physical. The emotional violence can go on for generations.” Robitel adds, “Parents don’t press your buttons, they install them. An abusive parent can be far more scary than a demon could ever be.”
Whannell, who also directed Insidious: Chapter 3, says he initially struggled with what this third sequel would even be: “It was so tough to write because it was the fourth film. It was tough for me to think of something new to say. It’s developed organically…there was no roadmap to get to where we are now.” If you aren’t familiar with the other installments of Insidious, that’s ok, too. This movie, while focusing on an established character, does not hinge on backstory—it is the backstory.
Of course, it works as a horror movie, as well. The jump scares are expected but well-executed, and beyond the sometimes-overwrought dialogue there is enough humor to keep the film balanced. When dealing with abusive topics, it’s often easy to become very heavy-handed. The Last Key does not, something that could be attributed to the family dynamic the cast and crew has forged over the years. Whannell says, “When I think about the Insidious movies, I do think about the joyous side of filmmaking...If I’m hanging around with a bunch of horror people, I feel at home.” Lin says the crew added a lightness to the emotional filming, calling them “a great team”. It's easy to forget that Robitel has only directed one other film, a standalone (The Taking of Deborah Logan); his direction of The Last Key was “a learning curve”, but he navigated that curve successfully.
The Insidious films are a journey into realizing the whole of Elise, someone who was just a supporting character in the first movie, and with The Last Key she become the prime focus: a character we know, finally complete with a tragic backstory and a hopeful outlook, exchanging darkness for kindness and empathy. Robitel says, “At the end of the day the movie is about self-love, about accepting yourself, who you are, no matter what that is. The reason these movies work is (they’re) a catharsis. Horror, in some ways, looks at the darkness in ourselves. Holds up a mirror. At its core, (The Last Key) is about family.”
Lin told me, “You can’t destroy energy. I believe it’s all there, and what you attract is partly your responsibility.”
There is a lesson here.