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DOING THE LAMBERT STALK
Insidious: The Red Door (15)
Director: Patrick Wilson
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell, Scott Teems
Starring: Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson
Review: David Stephens
The Insidious franchise has long been a sturdy and (fairly) dependable pillar of mainstream horror since the original film was released in 2010 (13 years ago!!). James Wan’s unashamedly supernatural horror built an enviable reputation off the back of subtle background details, original mythos, and shit-your-pants scare scenes. However, the later sequels managed to circumvent the usual predictable route by delving into the past of a supporting character (Elise Rainier). This expanded the creepy notion of “The Further”, which acts as a purgatorial dimension for troubled spirits, as well as a conduit for those gifted with astral projection. Now for this latest entry in the series, the narrative has come back to “the present” and focused on the long-suffering Lambert family again. Of course, this means the return of Patrick Wilson as patriarch Josh, who appears not only as the lead but takes the directorial reigns for his first feature film foray. Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins also return to playing their established characters, as well as a couple of other familiar faces. It should be noted that is this also the first entry not to be written by creator Leigh Whannell for Blumhouse. So with a generous theatrical release in UK and US cinemas now in place, let’s open it.
The film starts with an important moment from Insidious: Chapter 2 (the movie which gave a young Jenna Ortega her first genre role, believe it or not, fact fans!) where Josh and Dalton Lambert (Wilson and Simpkins) had a year’s worth of memory wiped from their minds by Carl the psychic medium and demonologist (played by Steve Coulter). This was supposed to prevent them from astral projecting again and becoming possessed by more malignant spooks, like the Bride in Black or the Lipstick Demon. The story itself takes place nine years later, and things aren’t so great. Josh’s mother has just passed on, he’s split up with his wife Renai (Byrne), and Dalton’s acting like a real asshole. The gulf between father and son gets wider after Josh drops him off for freshman year at college and an almighty bust-up ensues. After a mental exercise is encouraged by the world’s most conceited art teacher (seriously, screw this character!), Dalton starts to hallucinate and seems to have awakened a new ability that puts him in danger. At the same time, Josh is also being harassed by supernatural entities that seem to be trying to communicate something. Something about a door…
It probably says a lot that certain characters in I:TRD get a lot less screen time in this instalment than they did in Chapters 1 and 2 of the franchise. Without being too spoilery we can include sadly include Renai and the Lipstick Demon in this list, without mentioning a couple of other barely-there cameos. Despite the prominence of the aforementioned ghoul in the trailers and some posters, the flagship creep hardly gets a look in and just occasionally snarls and gurns when needed. And this highlights the main issue with Insidious No.5. It’s all about the father, the son, and hardly ghosts. Pretty much all of the previous films, including the two prequels, have zeroed in on at least one spectral menace from the other side and some dark motives. But there’s no “Big Bad” here. Sure, ol’ Darth Maul-Face pops up occasionally to leer at the screen, but there’s no expansion of his role and no depth to the proceedings.
More than anything else, the plot zeros in on the emotional damage that having suppressed memories has had on Josh and Dalton. Renai has distanced herself from her husband rather than telling him the truth, which has destroyed their strong marriage. Dalton is emotionally barricaded and missing a key part of his life. It has to be said that Wilson is particularly good with this aspect of the character, with Josh believably cracking up as he approaches his car after an argument at the college. This is all well and good, but what about the signature horror and bombastic jump-scares? Well, they’re still here … sort of… but it’s minimal in contrast with the previous stories. When it gets it right, it’s pretty much on form with expectations. There’s a truly creepy scene during a medical cat scan, which has been (natch) spoilt by the trailers, but still rocks. There’s also a cracking sequence with a (literally) unquiet spirit in a bathroom and bedroom. In these moments, it feels like the dependable version of Insidious and what cinemagoers are anticipating. Uneasy build-ups with satisfactory “Boo!” moments. Sort of like a hyperactive The Sixth Sense. There’s even a vomiting ghost for the grossest scene!
However, those moments are few and far between. Wilson does have a good eye for cinematography, and he emulates Wan’s background details for some subtle frisson. However, his narrative pacing feels a little “off” and some teasing seems to be overlong with a less-than-effective payoff. Take the elaborate “memory game” sequence, which will have you looking at your watch before the inevitable jump scare finally makes an appearance. But most horror fans will be a little perturbed by the sheer lack of frights. The emphasis is very much on Josh and Dalton’s relationship status, with no distinctive antagonist or masterplan being identified. As a result, the stakes seem fairly small. The only people who are ever put into direct peril, are those two lead characters, and Dalton’s newly acquired platonic buddy Chris Winslow, nicely played by Sinclair Daniel as a likeable and pragmatic female roommate. Chris brings some much-needed levity to the situation and support for the younger Lambert. As an aside, it’s nice to see the ailing “delights” of college fraternities being mocked, even if it’s yet another step away from the scary stuff.
With the lack of focus and all of the poignancy stuff, it often feels like it misses the targets when it comes to the genre elements. Absolutely nothing additional is revealed about The Further or its denizens and the plot feels like it’s a retread of “Insidious 2” to some extent. Whilst it (probably) wraps up the story arc of the Lamberts to a significant degree, we wish that more time had been spent on the hauntings, giving a spotlight to Lipstick (or another Big Bad), or making the threat more substantial. Instead, we get a slightly nonsensical denouement and a contortionist’s convention in a dimly lit room. It’s not good enough really. Did we need to explore Josh’s genealogy to this extent when it adds very little to the outcome?
Having said all that (and given it a comparatively low rating), it should still engage die-hard Insidious fans. Casual viewers will be hopelessly lost mind you. Wilson is always worth watching and puts in another good performance, even if Byrne and others are wasted somewhat in their roles. Expect one or two good jumps for your bucks, but don’t expect a slam-dunk finisher. This is all about the feels and not so much the scares. It’s probably the end for the Lamberts arc and the Rainer tales, but James Wan and Jeremy Slater are already hard at work on Thread: An Insidious Tale, which will focus on more stories connected to The Further through new characters. Let’s hope some fresh scares and reinvigorated nastiness accompany it. Altogether now… “Tiptoe… Through the Tulips”.
It is an arguably appropriate and emotional conclusion to the Lambert family story arc but drifts too far from its horror roots. Despite a couple of killer sequences that harken back to previous franchise strengths, it feels a little laboured and unexciting. Wilson directs competently but this needed a few more jolts and touches of originality to fully satisfy as the “final chapter”.
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