As far as horror films from this century go, few have had the influence of James Wan and Leigh Whannell. The pair first made names for themselves with 2004’s Saw, watched that series grow into an annual bloodbath, then created a new franchise that started with 2011’s Insidious. While Wan has since moved on to the Conjuring series and its related films, Whannell has stayed with the Insidious series, writing each film and directing Insidious: Chapter 3. With Insidious: The Last Key, though, it’s becoming clear that Whannell needs to move on from a series that’s becoming far too convoluted in its efforts to keep a key player involved.
The Last Key opens with a glimpse into the early life of series protagonist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). Growing up within close range of a federal penitentiary that routinely executes inmates, young Elise (Ava Kolker) and her brother Christian (Pierce Pope) find themselves kept up at night by malevolent spirits. Their dad, who works at the penitentiary, doesn’t believe Elise’s abilities are real; their mom tries to assure Elise that she’s just a little different. One night, a spirit lures Elise to the basement and convinces her to unlock a door that lets loose evil ghosts, including one who kills her mother.
The film moves forward in time to just before the events of the first film, and shows Elise being hired to investigate her childhood home by its current occupant. In theory, this should provide plenty of solid, character-developing drama, but this is where the film begins to fall apart. The story becomes focused not just on Elise, but her companions throughout the series, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), and the jokey atmosphere they create. The central evil spirit, who has keys on the ends of each of his fingers, looks interesting enough, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about why he’s present in this film. Presumably, there’s some connection between this and the title, like this being the last key to unlocking the mystery of Elise. I don’t know. The film doesn’t really provide an answer, making the title just seem like something that sounded cool at some point during production.
What’s most frustrating at this point, though, is that like Insidious: Chapter 3, The Last Key is a prequel to the original two films by design, specifically to try and keep Elise involved. In and of itself, that’s not a problem. Shaye is a solid character actress who’s great when given even halfway decent material, and there’s something great about the protagonist of this series being an older woman. But the series did set up a way to move into the future at the end of Insidious: Chapter 2 that would still involve Shaye, even if the character of Elise is now longer alive. I appreciate taking a film to fill in some of the blanks for the character, but right now, the second half of this series is being set up to exist before the first half. It’s a bit much, and as interesting a film as The Last Key could have been in theory, that potential’s being squandered. At this point, if the series were to end here, it’d be fine. If it’s going to move forward, it needs to move past the events of Chapter 2. Just as long as Elise is still kept around.