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Let a horror series run long enough, and eventually, it becomes necessary to explore new avenues of its timeline. Adam Robitel's Insidious: The Last Key, the fourth installment in this popular saga, has done the very same by giving audiences a deep dive into the personal history of demonologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). The result? A movie that works on a deeply-visceral level, but doesn't offer the emotional punch that it should, considering the personal connection to the story's consistent hero.
The second movie on the Insidious timeline, canonically speaking (because part three was a prequel to parts one and two), Insidious: The Last Key focuses its attention squarely on paranormal expert, medium, and de facto franchise hero Elise Rainier as she lives her days coping with her own demons -- both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Her deep-seated personal issues with her past and her parents continue to haunt her well into adulthood, but she finds herself forced to finally confront the nightmare of her youth when the current resident of her childhood home contacts her and begs for help with a haunting. Unable to let the past die just yet, Elise, Tucker (Angus Sampson), and Specs (Leigh Whannell) make the trip and stumble onto a haunting that has plagued Elise's life ever since her younger years.
Unlike something like Annabelle: Creation -- a similar, James Wan-produced horror franchise prequel that recently hit theaters -- Insidious: The Last Key is the type of film that's definitely improved if you have a broader knowledge of the franchise. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, it actively acknowledges its status as a sequel to Insidious: Chapter 3, while also very clearly framing itself a prequel to the haunting of the Lambert family in the first two Insidious movies.
That said, what might ultimately prevent you from enjoying yourself with Insidious: The Last Key is the ultra-thin plotting. The film moves at a brisk pace and takes us through the story reasonably quickly, but the added downside to that speed is the fact that we do not find many characters or narrative threads to properly latch onto and empathize with. Despite some solid creature design, KeyFace is not a particularly interesting monster (especially compared to the Lipstick-Face Demon), and the film's attempt to find some catharsis for Elise with her brother (Bruce Davison) and her alcoholic, abusive father (Josh Stewart) ultimately doesn't pay off. Elise remains a likable, badass hero that we want to follow, but she deserves a better movie around her.
Part of that is due to a tonal imbalance in how Insidious: The Last Key approaches comedy. Tucker and Specs provide the film with its lighter moments as Elise's infinitely loyal assistants, but they also tend to force the story too far into goofy territory, which is partially a result of Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell's on-set improv. Comedy and horror arguably can go hand-in-hand, but The Last Key sometimes emphasizes it a little too much, and as a result, we end up with some reasonably creepy jokes -- especially in how Tucker acts around Elise's long-lost nieces. Going for laughs mostly boils down to a stylistic choice, and isn't inherently good or bad, but for the story that Insidious: The Last Key is trying to tell, it doesn't feel quite right. Maybe Tucker and Specs should've stayed home for this one?
If things like character and plot do not necessarily matter to you, however, and you are merely looking for thrills (which is a fair demand from a film like this), then Insidious: The Last Key definitely delivers. The MVP of the entire movie is director Adam Robitel, who knows how to draw tension out for as long as possible and misdirect audience attention in order to allow a scare to come from left field. Two sequences that stand out among the rest are the film's opening scene (set against the backdrop of a house adjacent to a prison) and a sequence in which Elise opens a series of suitcases mysteriously placed in a sewer pipe.
Of course, die-hard horror fans will recognize some of the tricks at play here. Between a first-person night vision sequence, and a flashback following a pair of kids being scared in a bedroom (something Annabelle: Creation did much better only six months ago), Insidious: The Last Key tends to lean towards the familiar. While the scares are well-handled from a filmmaking point of view, it would've been nice to see this groundbreaking franchise continue to attempt to freshen things up with some bold, new ideas.
Though skillfully directed, Insidious: The Last Key is not as good as previous entries. Scares come hard and fast, but they're underserved by its paper-thin plot and characters. The fourth film in the Insidious tetralogy is worth your time if you are an avid horror aficionado, a series completist, and a fan of Adam Robitel's work on The Taking of Deborah Logan, but if you're not, this definitely won't be the film that wins you over to the spooky genre.