IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME:103 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1953. Elise Rainier is a young girl who is gifted/cursed with the ability to see ghosts and talk with them. Her mother Audrey is understanding, but her father Gerald prefers to cruelly punish her. Whilst locked in the basement, she’s possessed by a demon called Key Face who causes Audrey’s death. 2010, she’s working as a paranormal investigator, and gets a phone call from the current owner of her childhood house saying frightening events have been happening. Assisted by Tucker and Specs, she travels there and must not only deal with traumatic events in the past but with her estranged brother Christian whom she abandoned as a teenager….
So here we have a sequel to a prequel, and I really wish that we’d rather had have a sequel to Insidious: Chapter 2 that would have tied up some loose ends in that film that still remain. I wouldn’t be surprised if we still get that sequel at some point. But no, instead we get another prequel, something that really is becoming an excuse for laziness in modern cinema. I think I ended my review of Insidious: Chapter 3 by saying that there was plenty of opportunity to explore the world of this series, and hoping that the next film may do so. After all, the third episode basically just rehashed the first, though it was genuinely frightening in places [which some may say is the most important thing], did have a bit more of an emotional dimension, and also gave Lin Shaye’s terrific Elise character more to do. So does Chapter 4 try some new things to keep things fresh, or does it just rehash the same old scares and situations all over again, taking the approach that if something worked before, it’ll probably work again so why take risks and stand a chance of alienating many of the fans who should know exactly what they’re going to get and who don’t want to be disappointed?
Well the answer is mostly no, though not entirely. I’ll say right now that pretty much all the “BOO” moments are copied from ones in the earlier films, though I can’t help but admit that the hoary old device of seeing a ghost child quickly run across the screen in the background is still capable of giving me a shiver. And if you thought Tucker and Specs were annoying in the first two films, then you’ll probably want to strangle them here. Fans seem to be divided on them: I didn’t mind them too much before apart from a few irritating moments, but really did find the frequent attempts to make them funny just painful in this film, particularly when they try to hit on Elise’s teenage nieces. On the other hand this may be the most frightening and even disturbing out of all the films, not because it has more terrifying set pieces or is more creepy, neither of which are probably true. No, I say it because this one is just as much about human violence and evil, far more even than Chapter 2, and even seems to suggest that nothing is as scary as what so many of our kind are sadly capable of. While there are several spooky or jumpy moments which certainly seemed to worked a treat for many of the people at the showing of the film I attended, for my money they were rather tame compared to the scenes of human cruelty which are not dwelt upon but which will certainly linger in my mind for far longer. Of course some may say that a horror movie about ghosts is not the place to have something like domestic abuse, though I totally disagree, and here its shadow is cast all over the film.
So we begin in 1953, the alcoholic father Gerald watching a news programme about the latest communist threat while wife Audrey washes dishes in the kitchen quickly setting the scene. Just after the news that a prisoner has been electrocuted in the electric chair, little Elise happens to know the man’s name, family, and crime. That night, Elise hears an entity in the room and attempts to talk to it. Her brother Christian screams and in comes dad to whack Elise’s hands and lock her in the basement. While there, a demon on the other side of a red door tempts her in a child’s voice to open the door, directing her to a key hanging nearby. She picks up the key to open it, and a hand with keys for fingers attaches the key to its thumb. There’s a great Pan’s Labyrinth feel to this, expertly mixing fear and wonder, until the demon, Key Face, possesses Elise and causes the house to violently shake. Audrey goes to the basement to investigate and is strangled by a wire hanging from the ceiling. Well it’s a bloody good opening, and Key Face is immediately scarier than The Man Who Can’t Breathe, and continues to be so, especially when he slowly inserts his key fingers into people in moments which seem to have disturbing sexual connotations, until when you eventually see his CG face near the end, a sight which is disappointing to say the least. Still, at least he’s played by an actual actor, Javier Botet, who’s already portrayed Mama, The Crooked Man and It‘s Leper, amongst others.
We later find out that Elise ran away from home as a teenager after suffering years of abuse, leaving Christian on his own with his horrible, though posseessed, father. This causes problems when older Elise returns to the area and the same house, called upon by its current owner to deal with the ghost and the demon that Elise once knew only too well. Christian won’t speak to Elise, though his two daughters end up accompanying her, Tucker and Specs to the house. For much of the time though, this film really is Shaye’s show, it being a brave but commendable choice for a movie aimed far more at younger viewers than old to forefront a 74 year old actress. Shaye is never less than brilliant throughout, though even her features [and I don’t at all mean this as an insult to the lady] seem to suggest a life tainted by, or should I say, formed by, pain and trauma. And amongst many other things she conveys the act of being frightened like few others, something which gives the often unoriginal scare moments more punch than they would have had otherwise, though I did like the way on two or three occasions director Adam Robitel let us know something was coming but made us wait rather longer than is the norm today.
Of course you just know that the action is going to wind up in The Further, and I still feel that the potential of this idea hasn’t really been explored, though there are a couple of good touches here. The story itself does have two surprises [well, they were surprises to me] in store, screenwriter Leigh Whannell doing his best to keep things fresh and make them darker than before, while also sticking to the basic formula and tying things into the first Insidious so tightly that you could seamlessly join the two movies together. Of course one still has to ask if this movie was necessary and it probably isn’t, the traumatic back story of Elisa not relating to anything that happened in the other films, though it may go some way to explaining why she does what she does, even why – as far as we know – she’s never had a partner. And almost half of what you saw in the trailer isn’t to be seen. Director’s Cut anyone?….
Robitel mostly directs in the accustomed James Wan style, though I liked the way that, during a couple of paranormal investigation scenes, the movie switched to first person perspective found-footage style – it’s a nice addition that adds extra tension to those moments. In addition to thematic darkness, visually this one’s very dark as well, the only bright and colourful scenes being the ones outside the house, the interiors of which are perpetually gloomy. And Joseph Bishara’s score avoids his trademark throbbing strings and, apart from his plaintive piano theme for Elise, opts for a more ambient [well, except for the loud note that must apparently accompany every jump scare], approach that’s closer to sound design. I can’t say that it doesn’t work well. While as usual I’ve avoided reading any reviews of a film that I’m reviewing myself, I have the feeling that many written for this film aren’t very complimentary, yet a quick scan of the IMDB reader comments revealed that, certainly, a lot of fans of this franchise really like it. For me, little will match the spine tingling [I still remember the sensation going all over my body] terror I experienced when watching the first Insidious, though viewed at home it wasn’t anywhere near as effective, a disappointment considering that many of the great horror films are almost as frightening the second time as the first even if the effect of a first viewing can never quite be matched. But to this critic who’s a bit of a fan of this series despite his weariness with the type of horror film that favours jump scares above all else, this fourth installment is far, far better than it has a right to be, and I have the feeling that it’ll work almost as well a second time round too, partly because it at least tries for a bit more depth, and partly because the most frightening things in it could be taking place next door.