Lin Shaye is a trouper. As Elise Rainer, septuagenarian psychic, she not only faces down demons from hell (or rather “The Further”), tossing them through walls with her ectoplasmic kung fu, but says lines like “I think . . . no, I know, that if I start again she will kill me!” and makes them sound like they mean something.
No wonder writer-director Leigh Whannell is sorry that she [spoiler!] was bumped off in Chapter 1. That movie had already exhausted every hackneyed trick in the carnival haunted house repertoire, and none of the other characters in the film seemed like they had souls worth losing.
Hence this prequel featuring Elise years earlier, as good as new, or so it seems (she has a haunted past that looks like it might be the seed of Chapter 4). This is the story behind the convoluted, entity-infested stories in the other films, and it explains nothing because there is nothing worth explaining. It does, however, offer the advantage of a relatively fresh start, allowing Shaye to shine until the filmmaker’s derivative and clichéd imagination takes over.
It begins with fresh-faced, 17-year-old aspiring actress Quinn (Stefanie Scott) knocking on Elise’s door. A friend recommended Elise to her as a good psychic, and Quinn wants to summon her dead mother, who she thinks is trying to contact her. Elise, however, has given up communing with the dead because of an unpleasant encounter. Nonetheless, touched by the girl’s innocence and bad acting, she gives it a shot. After some jump-scares, dimmed lights, and multi-decibel blasts on the soundtrack, Elise gives Quinn the bad news: The thing contacting her is not her mother.
Then things get really crazy. Greasy black footprints appear on the floor and go up the wall and vanish. A greasy, cadaverous guy in a filthy hospital johnnie and a “Blue Velvet”-like oxygen mask pops up when you least expect it — face to face, or in the street, or hanging from the ceiling. It’s trying to take over Quinn’s soul, so Elise has to visit The Further, which is like a seedy rooming house and about as exciting, and find out something or other.
Punctuated by intermittent, bogus jump-scares, the plot thickens into opacity. Still, questions remain. Why does the nitwit ghost hunter insist on ineptly writing down what Elise says during a trance; couldn’t they afford a $30 tape recorder? Could the demon seeking Quinn’s soul be the embodiment of her father’s repressed incestuous desires? And will there be no end to these chapters?
“Insidious” cost $1.5 million and grossed $54 million. “Chapter 2” cost $5 million and made $161 million. There’s no end in sight, and that’s what’s really insidious.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.