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Where Are All the Insidious Fans?
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This summer, I watched through all five Insidious movies. I began with 2010’s Insidious, which of course was followed by Insidious: Chapter 2 and Insidious Chapter 3. I then moved on to the less obvious Insidious: The Last Key, and finished up with Insidious: The Red Door, which came out on July 7, 2023.
Why did I do this?
Because one of the last joys I can cling to in this life is watching through horror franchises and taking note of what changes occur from beginning to end. Listen, there’s a lot you can sink your teeth into here: How often do the movies get new writers and directors? Does the cast stay consistent from entry to entry? Is there a throughline connecting all of them, or are some completely standalone? How are the times they were made in reflected by the style and tone of the movies? Can you tell which ones were made pre-9/11 and post-9/11? I ask only the truly important questions.
This can be a fascinating exercise with any genre (The Mission Impossible series is one of the best), but there’s something about horror that takes things to a new level. Horror movies tend to have lower budgets, leading to lots of weird, unpredictable sequels. If the first movie is a breakout hit, the main cast often becomes too busy to return. So then, what do the producers do? Spin-offs? Prequels? Sidequels? The possibilities are endless, and sometimes, they’re even good.
This brings me to Insidious. I had vague memories of the first movie being entertaining, but it hadn’t left much impact on me other than the lingering echo of Tiny Tim music and “that one dude who looks like Darth Maul”. This seems to be a common occurrence, as further evidenced by the following tweet made by Jenny Nicholson:
So why is that? Why does no one seem to remember or care about the Insidious movies, when there are in fact five of them, all of which have profited well beyond their meager budgets? Hell, the latest entry, The Red Door, is now the highest grossing of the entire franchise! Not to mention the fact that Insidious was launched by James Wan, who would later go on to direct the first two films in the Conjuring franchise, one of the most successful horror franchises that’s still active today. For comparison’s sake, the “Conjuring Universe” subreddit currently has 5.2k members, while the Insidious subreddit…doesn’t exist. (Some marketing exec did manage to cobble one together exclusively for Insidious: The Red Door though, and that one has a whopping 539 members at the time I write this.)
People love The Conjuring! James Wan is a great filmmaker! Insidious is… basically just The Conjuring but a little different! Why did one take off and not the other? In an effort to explain this discrepancy, I will now comment briefly on each Insidious movie (spoilers WILL follow).
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In many ways, the first Insidious really does feel like James Wan’s prototype for The Conjuring. A family has just moved into a new house, they’re being haunted by demons/ghosts/whatevers, and they end up needing to call in a team of professional psychics/demon/whatever hunters in order to set things right. In one movie Patrick Wilson is the dad, in the other he’s the ghost hunter, but they’re still both Patrick Wilson movies. They even both share a little mini-twist, when the characters attempt to escape the hauntings by running away (to a new house in Insidious, a motel in Conjuring), only to discover that the location doesn’t matter; it’s these people specifically that the demons/ghosts/whatevers are really after.
The thing that really separates Insidious from The Conjuring though is its lore. The Conjuring (which ostensibly is based on true stories and real people) deals with ghosts and demons whose origins are explained only vaguely in religious terms. Insidious’ haunts come from a much more specific place: The Further, which is an alternate dimension in which the restless souls of the undead spend all eternity. From there, they occasionally prey on the living, specifically people who are skilled astral projectors. Astral projectors tend to leave their bodies and accidentally wander into The Further where some Further demons inevitably make a mad dash to possess their now vacant flesh.
Is The Further Hell? Is it another dimension? Does it exist in a dream world? Do all dead people go there, or just the murderous ones? Are there other places astral projectors can visit when they leave their bodies? Because in the first movie, they make it sound like the son (Dalton) has been doing this since he was little and he’s never had any problems until now, so… where else has he been going? They never show us any other dream dimensions except The Further, so… what else is there? Is there a… The Nearer?
It may or may not shock you to learn that none of these questions really get answered over the course of five Insidious films. We get brief glimpses into the inner workings of the Further, but the series isn’t really too interested in exploring that. Instead, the deepening of Insidious lore comes in the form of the characters and their backstories, which I’ll talk more about later.
The first Insidious is pretty unanimously agreed to be the best of the series. James Wan is masterful when it comes to freaking me out with creepy demons lingering just out of frame. The score is aggressively unsettling in the best way. And the “Lipstick-Face Demon”, although he does look an awful lot like Darth Maul, is an effective and mysterious antagonist.
Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
This brings us to Chapter 2, in which Patrick Wilson’s character (Josh) is now possessed by a creepy old lady in a black bridal gown who’s been haunting him since childhood (it’s a whole thing). This movie is a bit sillier than the first. We pick up right where that one left off, which is great, because it did end on a pretty big cliffhanger, but I’m not convinced that that cliffhanger was the best thing to hinge an entire plot on.
For most of this movie we get Patrick Wilson doing a Jack Torrance thing, and it’s fine, but as an audience, we like Patrick Wilson. We don’t want to see him acting scary and weird, we want him to be the nice guy who stops demons. It’s kind of like the switch-up of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 1 to Terminator 2, but in reverse. Having to watch Josh be evil while pretending to be nice for the entire runtime is a little exhausting.
We still need some kind of mystery hook in this movie, and that comes in the form of exploring Josh’s childhood. Specifically, we learn about the original incident in which Josh (who was also a skilled astral projector as a child, much like his son Dalton) found himself haunted by a scary lady in a black dress. This led to his mom calling on the psychic Elise and her partner Carl for help. (Of course, Elise died at the very end of the first movie, so Chapter 2 has to navigate around that too.)
The big twist of Chapter 2 is that the “black bride” is actually Parker Crane, a man who was tormented by his mother and now dresses like her, attempting to appease her by killing innocent women. Which is… you know, it’s a twist, I guess, but was anyone really excited to discover the identity of the ghost from the first movie? It wasn’t even the red-faced guy everyone liked, it was just this old lady, whose creepiness only comes from the fact that she’s old… and now from the fact that she’s a crossdresser. Problematic nature of that reveal aside, it’s an answer to a question I don’t think anybody ever asked.
James Wan returned to direct Chapter 2, but unfortunately it just doesn’t have the same spark as the first movie. While there are still a few good scares, it’s decidedly weaker than the original.
Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)
Now we’re up to Insidious: Chapter 3, which is actually a prequel to the first two films, so maybe it should be called Chapter 0? (It doesn’t matter.)
This is the first Insidious movie without any of the core family members from the original, and it’s the first movie not directed by James Wan. Normally, these would be alarm bells indicating the decline of the franchise, but I actually think this one starts to pick things back up in a good way. Leigh Whannell directs after being a writer on the first two movies. Whannell was also a big influence on the later Saw films, and has since directed some great horror movies like Upgrade and The Invisible Man. So he may not be James Wan, but if anyone’s got the right to take on the mantle of the Insidious franchise, it’s him.
Whannell also appears in these movies as the iconic character Specs, alongside his partner Tucker, played by Angus Sampson. These two are ghost hunters who worked under Elise in the first two movies. Since Chapter 3 is a prequel, we get to see exactly how that partnership began! Now, none of these actors are big box office draws, but without the original fam in the picture, this is who we have to grasp on to.
In fact, they do an admirable job of keeping things moving. We learn more about Elise’s backstory, including the fact that she lost her husband, and that she’s stopped going into The Further at this point because she’s being hunted by none other than the black bride herself (see, everything’s connected). Specs and Tucker are also there providing comic relief.
That’s a lot more than I can say for the characters who are technically the driving force of the actual plot, Quinn and her dad. Quinn’s being haunted by a hideous new spirit known as “The Man Who Can’t Breathe” (again, potentially problematic for a number of reasons I’m not getting into), as well as the trauma of her recently deceased mother. It’s not a terrible story, and by the end, I did find myself invested in Quinn’s well being, but she pales in comparison to the returning characters, who seem a lot more interesting now that they’re being given more to do.
Chapter 3 doesn’t have as compelling a cast or narrative as the first two movies. It's campy, and yet more questions gets answered that no one was asking. But damn it, the lore is good and the spooks are good. Leigh Whannell has worked closely with James Wan, and it shows, as he’s able to accurately replicate his style, arguably sometimes more effectively than Wan himself did in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 was the movie that made me start to feel like a fan of Insidious as a franchise, and not just that first film.
Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
With the fourth Insidious movie we’ve dropped the “Chapter” subtitle completely, probably because audiences get scared off by movies with numbers higher than 3 in their name. This is a sequel to Chapter 3, but it’s still a prequel to Insidious 1 and 2, so the whole thing is kind of muddled at this point anyway.
The Last Key is where everything comes together for me. After appearing as a glorified cameo for three films, Lin Shaye finally takes center stage as the medium Elise, alongside Tucker and Specs. This time, the primary narrative directly involves Elise, taking us back to her childhood home to witness her superhero origin story. She then returns there herself in the present/past (because it’s a prequel) to confront some of her literal and figurative demons.
This is where my love for Insidious was finally cemented, because I can’t get enough of these characters. The three of them together are unlike any other horror family I can think of, and it makes for a completely unique approach to the material. Elise is a leading lady in her seventies, which is already rare, if not unheard of (unless her name is Meryl Streep). Then on top of that, you’ve got Specs and Tucker. Not at all who most filmmakers would choose to complement Elise, these are two schlubby weirdos in their 40s who mumble and stutter around girls, bicker about equipment, and eat hot pockets on the job. They’re strange, and sometimes even off-putting, which just makes me love them more.
And Lin Shaye truly kills it in her role as Elise. She’s got a terrific screen presence. She can be scary, intimidating, funny, or vulnerable when the script calls for it. Were there any justice in this world, she would be held in the same esteem as other renowned horror actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Blair, and Sigourney Weaver (that’s right, I said what I said).
None of these characters are played by A-list actors. None of them were designed to appeal to a key demographic or age group. There’s no romance between any of them. They aren’t related by blood. Elise is kind of like a mother figure to them, but she’s also their employer. It just doesn’t fit into any preexisting character dynamic that we tend to see on screen, and that’s what makes it so fascinating to watch. No one set out to make a movie about this trio specifically. They just started showing up more and more organically until the filmmakers finally realized that the only sensible move left was to make them the stars.
After all, there’s no reason for Josh or Quinn to pursue ghosts once their stories are over. Elise and the boys are true blue ghost hunters, so you could easily drop them into any supernatural scenario and make it make sense without too much stretching. I would gleefully watch an entire series about these three going on paranormal adventures together. (At the very least, it should be a comic book.)
Is The Last Key the scariest or most effective Insidious movie? No, that crown is still held by James Wan’s original. But there are some creative choices here in regards to monster design, I’m genuinely invested in Elise and her backstory. It’s an easy pick for my second favorite because it feels like the franchise finally finds itself here after scrounging around in the dark in search of an identity post-Insidious 1.
Insidious: The Red Door (2023)
This unfortunately brings us to the latest entry in the series, which is a huge step backward from what came before, and is easily my least favorite. The Red Door sees the return of Josh and Dalton (Rose Byrne’s Renai is there too if you squint and look in the background), who have come back to wrap up the loose ends that weren’t really there at the end of Chapter 2.
This movie’s premise was initially very exciting to me for a few reasons. First, it isn’t a prequel, which means it has to move the plot forward in some regard. The core cast comes back (plus, Patrick Wilson’s now sitting in the director’s chair), which I optimistically believed must mean that the script merited their return. Then, there’s that title: The Red Door, referring to the entryway to The Further. It seemed like this could be the deeper exploration of The Further and what it really means that I’d been hoping for all along.
Remember the lipstick demon? Well, they used him as the end-of-movie jump scare in pretty much every single entry since the first, to the point where it was starting to feel like a running gag that they’d keep teasing his presence without ever actually having him show up again. In a way, I admire that restraint, in that they kept coming up with new demon ideas instead of resorting to what worked the first time. But with the return of the original cast, it seemed like this was prime time to wheel the old fella out again and learn what makes him tick.
No such luck. The red demon appears briefly toward the end of the movie and accomplishes very little. He more or less does the same stuff he did the first time around, listening to Tiny Tim and trying to kidnap Dalton to take over his body, but… why? Are you telling me this dude has been chilling in The Further for over a decade just pining over the body of this one kid? (sorry) Are there no other humans he can try to possess? We still get no insight into who he is, where he came from, what his deal is, or what The Further’s deal is. It’s all just a big nothing.
The story itself has promise. Dalton is having traumatic dreams, and Josh has to re-learn the truth about their pasts so that they can overcome the trauma and demons together. The big issue is that most of the movie focuses on Dalton’s cliche-ridden college dorm life, which just isn’t as much fun to explore as the spooky mansions of old. The bigger issue is that absolutely nothing in this movie is even a little bit scary. It’s the exact same type of scare that we’ve seen dozens of times at this point, but without even an ounce of James Wan’s style or substance. It’s predictable at every turn, and unless you’ve never seen a horror movie before, you probably won’t even flinch during most of these jump scares.
The biggest issue is that Elise, Specs, and Tucker, are once again reduced to minor cameos. It’s truly the worst insult of the whole affair. After rightfully being elevated to main character status, they’ve had their positions unjustly yanked from under them. Now, I understand that Elise is dead at this point in the series canon, but this is an entire saga about dead people interacting with the living. And worst of all, Insidious: Chapter 2 ended with a scene in which Specs and Tucker take on a new job alongside ghost Elise who is seen only by the audience (and a little girl played by a young Jenna Ortega). In this scene, Elise is shocked by an off-screen demon, presumably the lipstick demon himself.
This is a cliffhanger that’s been waiting to be resolved for ten years, and The Red Door gives us nothing in return for waiting. It’s catering to people who only remember the first couple of movies, while at the same time not giving anyone what they really want. Some of this could be forgiven if The Red Door were actually any good, but it’s not, and it’s a pretty disappointing end for the franchise at this point in time.
Now, where does that leave us? Insidious is a horror franchise with five movies of mixed quality that have nonetheless been very profitable. Why haven’t they left more of an impact outside of one memorable image? The simple answer might just be that “they aren’t all that good”, but I don’t buy it. The vast majority of Saw movies are irredeemable trash, and that franchise has tons of vocal fans.
You know what else Saw has? Lore. A lot of complex lore layered over itself so many times that eventually it struggles to even hold itself together, but it’s lore nonetheless. And Saw’s producers seem to mostly understand what its audience likes about that lore, namely Jigsaw and his numerous proteges and secret machinations.
Insidious’ producers don’t seem to quite grasp what people like. The first movie was successful simply because it’s so well crafted, but after that it stagnates. All I want is to go deeper into the characters of Elise and the gang, and to learn more about whatever the god damn hell The Further is. Instead, each movie seems more or less content with throwing some new ghosts and scares at a new family, then teasing the possibility of depth and development for the next movie, which never seems to come. It’s like at the end of each movie the writer and director go, “yeah, we know you want answers, but that’s kind of tricky to figure out so we’ll just leave it for the next group to tackle”. Continually passing the buck doesn’t make for the most inviting reason to keep watching.
And yet, there’s still enough here that I like to make me a fan. Plus, people seem to keep going out to see each movie in theaters! Maybe that weird “Insidious amnesia” works in the franchise’s favor, as viewers can’t remember that the last movie was disappointing. They just have a vague idea, like I had, that “Insidious was sort of good, right?”, and they never get let down enough to write it off completely. On the other hand, they never stick around to discuss the plot online or speculate about what might happen next, outside of a few freaks like myself.
Now that the story of Patrick Wilson’s family is really, truly wrapped up, I’d love to see Leigh Whannell come back to tackle another entry picking up where the others left off. Or maybe Insidious needs some weirder, more creative spin-offs to stand out in people’s minds, which can then be folded back into the mainline entries, a la The Conjuring. Either way, I’m going to continue to check out every new Insidious movie that gets made. Right now they occupy a strange space - not bad enough to be enjoyed as campy schlock, but quite good enough to transcend their place as middling horror franchise. If someone like Whannell were to come along and connect the existing dots in a cohesive way, I think it could make the leap to the next level.
Long live Elise, Specs, and Tucker.
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