The “Insidious” timeline is becoming so murky, even a scary ghost lurking behind a locked door in the basement might give up and say, “Time out! Am I even supposed to be in this particular story? Who am I haunting again, and what’s my motivation?”
And if a ghost might be thinking about ghosting the franchise, imagine how the viewer might feel.
“Insidious: The Last Key” is the fourth film in the franchise, and it takes place mostly in 2010 — but there’s also an extended prologue set in the early 1950s.
The third film in the series was titled “Insidious: Chapter 3” (2105), but it was actually a prequel to the original “Insidious” (2010), which was followed by a chronological sequel, “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013).
Now comes “Insidious: The Last Key,” which is a sequel to “Chapter 3” but is a direct prequel to the events depicted in the original “Insidious.”
So chronologically speaking, “Chapter 3” is the first chapter, “The Last Key” is the second chapter, “Insidious” is the third chapter and “Insidious: Chapter 2” is the most recent chapter.
Thanks to its place on the timeline, “Insidious: The Last Key” can resurrect the spunky, old-timey parapsychologist Elise Rainier (the wonderful Lin Shaye), explore and explain Elise’s severely effed-up childhood, and place her front and center in the movie’s main supernatural mystery thriller, which takes place in the creepy-spooky house in Five Keys, N.M., where Elise grew up. (Pops was a prison guard, and the correctional facility was literally next door to their house. Fun for the wife and kids!)
In a slow-paced prologue set in 1953, young Elise (Ava Kolker) sees spectral beings bopping about that creaky, creepy, house. (Probably makes it difficult for the kid to concentrate on her schoolwork.)
Elise keeps watch over her (understandably) spooked little brother Christian (Pierce Pope, and yes, a young Pope is playing a Christian). Their mother (Tessa Ferrer) tells Elise she’s special and should embrace her gifts, but her father (Josh Stewart) abuses Elise every time she claims to have seen a ghost. He beats Elise mercilessly and locks her in the basement, where she makes the acquaintance of multiple ghoulish presences.
Bad stuff happens in that house. Let’s just leave it at that and jump to 2010, where Elise (now played by Shaye) is about 70 and has a boutique business in which she talks to the dead so you don’t have to, or something like that. Elise even has a couple of bumbling, geeky, comic-relief employees: Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who aren’t of much use and aren’t as funny as they (or Whannell’s screenplay) would like us to think they are.
One day, Elise gets a call from a man named Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), who needs her help in ridding his house of demons.
But it’s not just any house. It’s THE HOUSE WHERE ELISE GREW UP.
Thirty seconds after Elise sets foot in the old house, “The Last Key” telegraphs an upcoming big “twist” with such a heavy-handed touch, this would have to be the first movie-going experience of your life to miss it.
Also, talk about a fixer-upper! We’re told Garza bought this place just a few months ago, but apparently nobody touched a thing for some 50 years. The old furniture is still there. The toys Elise and Christian played with are still there. Dad’s prison uniform — covered in cobwebs, but otherwise so crisp it looks like it was just picked up from the dry cleaners — is still there.
Who was the Realtor assigned to this place? At least take the quilts off the old bunk beds and tidy up the basement!
Elise reunites with her now-middle-aged brother (the usually terrific Bruce Davison, who wears a ridiculous bow tie and comes across as if he read only the script pages featuring his character, and couldn’t give a hoot about the bigger picture). She meets his daughters Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), one of whom has inherited the family knack for seeing ghosts.
Director Adam Robitel knows how to scare us with the classic, sudden-appearance-of-a-scary-thing-accompanied-by-a-loud-music-sting trick, which of course has been utilized a thousand times in hundreds of movies. The production elements and special effects are pretty cool, although I’m not sure why our ghostbuster heroes eventually find themselves walking knee-deep in fog that looks like it was generated by a dry ice machine purchased from an old Rush tour.
The main problem: too many ghosts in the kitchen. (And the bedroom. And the basement.) Good ghosts, bad ghosts, ghosts that might not really be ghosts at all — and the supposedly extra-scary ghost/creature/demon/whatever-in-chief, who is never fully explained and isn’t all that terrifying once it shows itself in all its grotesque grotesquery.
“The Last Key” isn’t necessarily the last chapter in the “Insidious” franchise. You don’t have to possess psychic powers to know that will all depend on the most powerful and often the most unpredictable entity of them all:
Worldwide box office.
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Adam Robitel and written by Leigh Whannell. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language). Running time: 103 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.