Devious Dialogues by Mike Thorn and A.M. Stanley

Devious Dialogues: Mike Thorn and A.M. Stanley on the ‘Insidious’ Franchise

Given the recent release of Insidious: The Last Key, the fourth film in Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s Insidious franchise, Mike Thorn and A.M. (Anya) Stanley revisited the series for their latest talk.

Mike: Six years after they collaborated on their Se7en (1995)-inspired closed-room thriller Saw (2004), director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell applied their pastiche instincts to new ends with Insidious (2010). The first half of this film lifts liberally from both Poltergeist (1982) and The Exorcist (1973), while the second half veers into tonal wackiness with its extended astral projection sequence. I must say that even after two viewings, I can’t totally connect with this film. I like some of Wan’s visual orchestration (he uses camera movement and depth-of-field more thoughtfully than a lot of his contemporaries), but overall, Insidious feels, to me, like two half-baked movies squashed together. Do you have more fondness toward either of its “halves,” or do you think it works well as a cohesive whole?

Anya: The film works perfectly as a cohesive whole for me. From the jarring title card to the patient establishing sequences that endear us to the Lambert family, all the way to the phantasmical third act that refuses to adhere to subgenre standards, this film simply works. While the transition from Poltergeist to Carnival of Souls is unexpected, that is precisely what sets Insidious apart from its American haunting contemporaries. Whannell and Wan’s creation of The Further and an entire mythology surrounding it was an ambitious endeavor that played with the simple theme of death as a continuation of, rather than an end to, life. Both men are massive fans of Mario Bava, and it shows in the atmosphere and surreal tones embroidered throughout the film’s fairly straightforward narrative. It wasn’t until my third viewing that I realized how bloodless this film is, and yet it manages to earn deep scares by playing on our most basic, primal fears.

Mike: I didn’t know that Wan and Whannell are fans of Bava, but I would’ve loved to see that influence pushed even further to the forefront!

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) pairs Wan and Whannell again, and the duo takes a noticeably different approach this time around. Where its predecessor played at “slow burn” conventions, this sequel maintains a nearly constant tone of hysteria from beginning to end. I think a large part of its wild energy can be attributed to the convoluted screenplay, but Wan also pushes the possession and projection tropes even further — the performances are more highly elevated, the lighting is hyper-stylized, the camerawork is quite showy. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that this sequel “works,” but I find its go-for-broke sensibility significantly more interesting than the first film’s more restricted approach. Do you think Chapter 2 plays as an intuitive continuation of its predecessor, or are you surprised by Wan and Whannell’s approach?

Anya: I was pleasantly surprised by Wan and Whannell’s emboldened approach toward the second entry in the Insidious series. This is a film made by two men who are in their groove and enjoying the creative freedom that comes with the hype following a box-office success, such that they enjoyed with Insidious. In all honesty, Insidious 2 is the strongest film in the franchise, and the reason for that is because of the creators’ heavy emphasis on the Lambert family. In the same vein that Poltergeist’s effectiveness lay in our empathy for and connection to the Freeling family, so does Insidious: Chapter 2’s scare power lie in our emotional intimacy with the Lambert family, particularly with the matriarch Renai and her efforts to maintain the safety of the family while being highly attuned to the danger that they’re all in. Further, Wan and Whannell’s exploration of The Further and the rules surrounding this post-death realm keeps the series from going stale, as so many franchise sequels do. Simply put, I can appreciate the ambition here, and this is the one I keep coming back to.

Mike: Well, we’re definitely in agreement that Chapter 2 is the best of the series!

Aside from making a cameo appearance and taking on the role of producer, Wan was not officially involved in writer-director Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015). This entry acts as a prequel to the first two films, and also steps away from the focal family at the center of their narratives. The majority of Chapter 3 plays like pretty conventional Blumhouse-era teen horror (Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli is one of the series co-producers, and his presence feels stronger here than elsewhere). I think Chapter 3 is mostly efficient within its context, but when the climax veers into emotional catharsis, it strikes me as a strained, sub-Shyamalan effort. How do you feel about Whannell’s decision to shift the plot away from the Lambert family?

Anya: As much as I adore Whannell’s talent and creative ambition, Insidious: Chapter 3 is the biggest misstep of the series for me. The decision to step away from the Lambert family is not, in itself, a bad decision. However, Whannell’s replacement, young Quinn Brenner, just doesn’t have the empathetic pull that the Lamberts have. Again, I would compare the Lamberts to the Freelings of Poltergeist in their endearing charm; a charm that Quinn and her family don’t quite match. In a series that is so character-dependent, audience connection with those characters is paramount for the horror part of the story to work. Insidious: Chapter 3 isn’t necessarily a bad film, it tells a story with competence. But Whannell has proven himself in the past to be far better than simply “capable.” That point is strengthened with the latest entry in the franchise.

Mike: In that case, I anticipate some disagreement. I find director Adam Robitel’s Insidious: The Last Key (2018) an extremely frustrating movie, because there are so many things I like about it, but I think writer/co-star Whannell undercuts those merits. I love seeing seasoned paranormal expert Lin Shaye take center stage. Even if the film deals with her traumatic past in broad and conventional strokes, I am also impressed by Robitel’s willingness to tie the supernatural so explicitly to the lived and real. Unfortunately, Whannell writes the awkward Spectral Sightings duo (played by him and Angus Sampson) into near-center stage as well. I’ve found this pair consistently out-of-sync with the franchise’s established reality and tone — their comic timing is consistently off, and their performance styles don’t click with the material. This time around, they’re played as nerdy romantic interests for two underwritten young women who are given woefully little to do. How do you think the latest entry compares to the rest of the series?

Anya: It almost sounds like we didn’t even watch the same movie! While I agree that Shaye’s central role in the film was a solid choice and the thematic familial ties to the paranormal are near-Shyamalanesque in their boldness, I couldn’t disagree more about Specs and Tucker. At the screening I attended, the audience laughed at every awkward moment, every passive-aggressive exchange between the duo, and people murmured worriedly when one of the investigators was in grave danger in a rather tense scene. The audience (and myself) had no problem with the cadenced prowl between ever-heightening tension, heartbreaking revelation and comic relief, which is itself a comforting throwback to the first two Insidious films. I found the decision to give more screen time to the two goofy (endearing) characters acted as a perfect tonal counterweight to Elise, and Shaye’s powerhouse performance. When I complained about Insidious 3’s lack of a proper replacement for the Lambert family, this film ended up being a stellar course-correction in that Elise, Specs and Tucker became that very replacement that we need for the horrific moments to become truly horrific. In fact, I believe Elise says something in the film to the effect of “You two are my family.” It all made for a wonderfully-paced roller coaster. Insidious: The Last Key doesn’t quite capture the magic of its first predecessor, but it is a great story, full of heart, horror and humor.

Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is available for purchase at Unnerving Magazine. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.

A.M. Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.

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