It’s hard not to admire “Insidious: The Last Key,” the latest prequel in the demon-chasing franchise, for showcasing a 70-something, kickass heroine who has guts, guile and good humor. That alone makes it a serviceable horror thriller, even if good scares are less frequent than confusing story turns.
In a clever opening sequence, we learn about demonologist Elise Rainier’s tough upbringing, complete with a haunted house (naturally) and an insane, violent father who doesn’t appreciate her ghost-seeing gifts. As a young girl, Elise makes a fateful mistake to let loose some nasty apparitions in her dungeon-like basement, a decision that will shape her life and career.
Fast-forward almost 60 years, and Elise (the marvelous Lin Shaye) gets yet another phone call from someone needing her assistance to root out some evil spirits. But as it turns out, the spooked client lives in her childhood New Mexico home, and now she must literally confront the demons of her past.
She does this with the help — or hindrance, depending on how you look at it — of her amusing sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). The trio has a pleasant chemistry, helped immensely by Shaye’s ability to pivot from the humor to the scary stuff without compromising her character.
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Director Adam Robitel elicits some decent jump scares from time to time, but we can see them coming from around the corner. He’s at a disadvantage because this is the series’ second prequel, and the fate of the main characters is never in doubt, not exactly a winning formula for a horror story.
Whannell, also the writer, throws in a memorable twist at the halfway point, but it goes nowhere because it ultimately doesn’t have anything to do with the overall conceit of the series. The showdown with the demons is highly perfunctory, and the last half of the movie gets progressively jumbled as the filmmakers try to shake things up.
What would have given this movie a jolt and fresh blood are some memorable supporting characters, but alas, there are none in Whannell’s script. Elise’s odd client, Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), is paper thin, as are her nieces Melissa and Imogen (Spencer Locke, Caitlin Gerard, interchangeable), who seem fresh off Rodeo Drive, not a forlorn ghost town in rural New Mexico. Bruce Davison attempts to make an impression as Elise’s estranged brother, Christian, but there’s only so much an actor can do.
In the end, it’s left to Shaye to carry the film, and she does so with aplomb. The “Insidious” franchise may be running out of places to go, but Shaye appears to be just getting started.
‘Insidious: The Last Key’
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language.