Insidious: Chapter 3 takes place a few years prior to the events of the two previous movies. It centers on teenager Quinn (Stefanie Scott), who believes that her late mother is trying to contact her from beyond the grave. She learns soon enough, however, that the thing that's reaching out to her isn't her mother, and that it seems to want to do her harm. Quinn and her family reach out to psychic Elise (Lin Shaye), who at this point in her life has reservations about using her gifts. But with Quinn's life at stake, Elise is forced to face her fears and head into the Further to fight for Quinn’s freedom from the darkness.
This movie only really comes to life once Elise really enters the picture. She’s there at the very start, but largely disappears for the rest of the first half. The film instead focuses on the concerns of Quinn’s family. Her recently widowed dad Sean (Dermot Mulroney) is struggling to adapt to life as a single father. Quinn is afraid that she may be forced to stay home to help take care of her little brother, in the process giving up her dream of attending a prestigious theater school. A near-death experience sends Quinn on a quick trip to the Further, and her troubles escalate from there. While she recuperates in her room, made immobile by two broken legs, she suffers the attention of this otherworldly being.
This first half, which contains the bulk of the scares, is just okay. It mainly feels like an obligation. The movie goes through the motions of sketching out the family dynamics, even though it doesn’t really matter. In spite of going through all of that, there’s little sense of who these people are. Dermot Mulroney’s Sean is mostly there to look flustered and confused. Quinn has a little brother, but he’s more plot device than character. And Quinn is mainly there to be a victim, the film drawing terror from her helplessness in the face of a supernatural being that bears ill will towards her person.
The second half reveals the true point of the film. It turns out that it really wants to be about Elise. Ultimately, the emotional journey of the film belongs to that character, and all the time spent with Quinn appears to mostly be a compromise in the name of commercial appeal. Because big studio logic tells us that we can’t have an old woman as a main character, and so it instead baits audiences with the promise of an attractive young star at the center of the story. Thankfully, the first half isn’t a complete waste of time, as the movie is able to craft a few strong horror scenes that aren’t overly reliant on startling people with aggressive sound design.
The journey into the Further turns the film into something else: a metaphysical adventure film that employs surreal imagery to generate an atmosphere of terror. It gets weirder in there, the movie letting things get downright eerie in the darkness. And at the heart of it all is Lin Shaye, the seventysomething character actress who has found an unlikely role worthy of her skills in this franchise. Shaye is able to handle all of the film’s conflicting tones, as deft with the serious horror business as she is with its goofy sense of humor. There are plenty of clunky components to this movie, but as long as Lin Shaye is on screen, she’s able to hold it all together.
Ultimately, Insidious: Chapter 3 is just more of the same. And in horror, which is a genre that tends to benefit from a lack of familiarity, that isn’t a good thing. But as the film takes its focus away from the same old jump scares to exploring the surreal reaches of its specific vision of the world of the dead, it creates something more interesting. Also: Lin Shaye is awesome, and every moment that she’s on screen on this film is worth watching. If only the rest of it was as good.