Movie review: ‘Insidious: The Last Key’

Spooky, scary ‘Insidious’ franchise has gone stale

We’re kicking off the new year with “Insidious: The Last Key,” an early January dumping grounds release to a horror franchise that has gone stale for just about everybody. Everybody, that is, except me.

As a fan of almost all things James Wan — the first “Saw” film, the “Insidious” universe and “The Conjuring” universe — I’ve, for the most part, enjoyed the direction he’s taken mainstream horror, but “Insidious: The Last Key” may have just put an end to that.

The “Insidious” timeline has turned into an overly convoluted mess. If you’re wondering about chronology, “Insidious: The Last Key” is a prequel to “Insidious” and a sequel to “Insidious Chapter 3.” The reason? Keep parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) — the franchises most iconic character — in the series. If you’ve seen the first two, you’d know why. And I’m willing to bet they’ll reshuffle the decks to include her in the inevitably forthcoming “Insidious 5.”

This time around, however, “Insidious: The Last Key” gives us a look into her psychic past. As a young girl in New Mexico — in a house built next to a terrible old prison where her father works and lots of people have been presumably tortured and murdered – Elise discovers her terrifying abilities. And it’s a secret to no one. Her mother is supportive, her brother is ambivalent and her father, a typical old drunk who sits in front of the television at all hours, is abusive and rejects her and her abilities. Things go sideways. Demons are discovered, doors that shouldn’t be opened are opened and someone dies.

Fast forward to 2010, Elise is a needed for an investigation that involves her old home. She’s well aware of the nightmares that await her, especially of the demon with large dangly hands with key fingers. She also brings her team of paranormal investigators, who provide some terribly awkward and unfunny comic relief.

Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by Adam Robitel (“The Taking of Deborah Logan), “Insidious: The Last Key” takes a heavier approach than the cheap scares expected. Whannell’s script (he’s written all four movies and directed “Chapter 3″) aims to dive deeper into the characters we’ve followed through this journey. But the execution of that is underwhelming. From a narrative standpoint, the family dynamics and the back stories that are integrated create a dry, stuffy atmosphere that halter its narrative momentum. And the jokes used to spice those bland scenes provide nothing more than an eye roll.

What works, however, is what always has. There’s some pretty chilling scares here and some clever twists. And the signature demon of “The Last Key” — Keyface — is a terrifying and twisted creation. Make no mistake about his appearance, he is a real person (Javier Botet). But unless these movies take place entirely in the “further” — where it’s as scary as ever — they’ve got nowhere left to go. But for PG-13 horror, you could do far worse.