Elise Goes Home: Lin Shaye only reason for completists to check out “Insidious: The Last Key”

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

Able to keep bringing back an audience and milk the "Insidious" series for all it's worth, Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse Productions have the savvy to play with time in order to keep around one of its coolest assets: veteran medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, in a rare leading role). “Insidious: The Last Key,” the fourth entry, is actually the second installment, chronologically taking place after 2015’s “Insidious: Chapter 3” but right before 2011’s “Insidious” and 2013’s “Insidious: Chapter 2.” While the sleeper original and its pretty effective sequel (both directed by James Wan), as well as the even-more-effective prequel (directed by Leigh Whannell), all felt of a piece and seemed to have found a proper place to end, “Insidious: The Last Key” is undeniably the weakest of this scary, immensely fun quadrilogy. It fares well as an emotional journey for Elise, but as a horror film, it feels more generic and plodding, waiting for the next scare to come. The great Shaye notwithstanding, “Insidious: The Last Key” tests the devotion of even diehard fans.

As a child (Ava Kolker) in 1973, Elise lived with doubt and pain from her abusive prison-guard father (Josh Stewart) for having a special psychic gift that allowed her to communicate with the dead. In California, 2010, the parapsychologist has grown to help others using that gift with the help of her ghostbusting sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). When she is called back to her penitentiary-adjacent childhood house in Five Keys, New Mexico, to offer her expertise to current owner Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), Elise must confront her scarred history and traumas, as well as her estranged brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), who resents his sister for leaving him. For Elise, purging the house of the demon that killed her mother (Tessa Ferrer) might mean taking a trip into the purgatorical place she calls “The Further” before it claims her nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard).

In a series that couldn’t part with its Tangina-like medium just yet, Elise was strangled to death by the demon that possessed Josh Lambert and then resurrected as a specter herself to bring Josh back to the world of the living. As with “Insidious: Chapter 3,” where Elise was still alive and kicking, “Insidious: The Last Key” builds upon the mythology of how Elise became who she is by delving into her traumatic history, but after an involving prologue, the narrative structure strikes an uneven rhythm. Once the film moves to the present and finds Elise taking a trip to Five Keys to cleanse her house—it was never “home” to her—of the spirits she unleashed with her powers, there is a bit of misdirection. For better and for worse, the script by series writer Leigh Whannell diverts from being business as usual, paying off a throughline that the worst monsters are the humans who live among us but then doubling back on that idea by introducing the real force at work. When the film brings the demon with keys for fingers, credited as “KeyFace,” into the plot proper, the creature is creepy when left in the shadows but betrays the tangible practical effects of the “Lipstick-Faced Demon” and the “Bride in Black” when it’s rendered with the most CGI.

Helming the fourth installment, director Adam Robitel (he of 2014’s eerie “The Taking of Deborah Logan”) doesn’t quite have James Wan’s atmospheric panache, but he nonetheless has a way with adequately planting his jolts, sometimes on the off beats. A majority of the tension relies on watching Elise walk around the basement and darkened rooms with only a flashlight and a night-vision POV camera, although with a prequel, there isn’t much suspense when it comes to the fates of Elise, Specs and Tucker. There is, however, one socko jump-out-of-your-seat moment involving a bunch of suitcases in a dark tunnel that keeps teasing and psyching out the viewer with a waiting game before something pounces.

The key to whether “Insidious: The Last Key” works at all is Lin Shaye, who gets a substantial amount of screen time as she should. Starting out by filling out bit roles in genre pictures and finding her calling in several of the Farrelly brothers’ comedies, the 74-year-old character actress really gets her due as Elise Rainier in the “Insidious” franchise. This is Elise’s story, and this particular time, Shaye is called upon to bring more emotional heft to a tale that wants to be more than a broken record of jumps. Elise is the type of horror heroine who is still human to not be indestructible, but one feels comfort in going along with her into places others refuse to go. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson also reprise their roles as Specs and Tucker, whose Mormon missionary attire gets an explanation, but the film often leans too heavily on their doofus comic relief, which especially earns more eye-rolls than chuckles when they inappropriately hit on Elise’s pretty nieces. As Melissa and Imogen Rainier, Spencer Locke (2012's "Detention") and Caitlin Gerard (2012's "Smiley") each get their own moments of peril to be placed in and lend some assistance to their aunt, but they are mainly horror-movie pawns.

Simultaneously ambitious and not ambitious enough, “Insidious: The Last Key” may display more craft than the majority of PG-13 horror sequels or prequels theatrically released during the doldrums of January, but it doesn’t change that a follow-up with the “Insidious” namesake shouldn’t be this much of a letdown. Completists might even be disappointed that the title card does not open with the trademark violin-heavy score. Ensuring finality without recapturing the same unsettling spell of its predecessors, this entry just makes one wish the series would give up the ghost. Out of anyone, Elise Rainier deserves retirement.