Ghosts are always operating out of the same playbook. You can’t see a movie haunting without some aggrieved spirit’s paranormal activity following a familiar pattern. First, small objects are unaccountably rearranged. Then there are strange noises – thumps, voices, bells, and whispers – though it rarely comes right out and say what it wants. Finally, the ghost makes a move towards its real aim: an abduction, a possession, a curse, and so on and so forth and what have you. Do the freshly deceased attend some sort of haunting seminar? Maybe there’s mandatory accomplishing-unfinished-business training? Is there an application to become an accredited poltergeist? Because heaven forbid some grabby ghost just snatches a soul willy-nilly without going through the proper steps. There’s apparently a clear process to follow.
There was plenty of time to think about such things while watching Insidious: Chapter 3. I had to do something to pass the time. Most horror movies, even the bad ones, can kick up enough general unease or sprinkle in enough jump scares to keep me alert. But this one, the second sequel to what was a clever and effective spin on the haunted house subgenre, is dull. It didn’t scare me. It not only won’t trouble my sleep, it almost put me to sleep. I could feel a nap tugging at the edges of my attention. But I stayed awake, even though its loudest jolt is right before the end credits, a good way to make sure a dozing audience wakes up in time to exit the theater.
Chapter 3 is technically a prequel, finding Lin Shaye’s psychic character a few years before the events of the first two Insidious chapters. (If you think 3 will do a lot of foreshadowing with regards to her fate in the other entries, you would be correct.) Shaye, a longtime character actress, does well with a lead role, playing a character with grandmotherly feeling about her, but she’s also weary and sad from all the ghosts she’s had to communicate with over the years. She’s a terrific presence, but the movie proceeds to let her down. Her character’s prior terrific mysteriousness is laboriously explained away. And despite what feels like constant paranormal assaults, there’s never much in the way of a good disquieting rattle to match her weariness. It’s all rather superfluous, unless you’re really curious to see how she met her goofy assistants.
The scenario isn’t as intriguing as either the original or its lesser sequel. Proving all you need to make a horror movie is a girl and a ghost, Chapter 3 finds a teenage girl (Stefanie Scott) mourning the death of her mother. She’s made increasingly vulnerable by the vengeful spirit (Michael Reid MacKay) who breaks her legs, leaving her housebound with only a skeptical father (Dermot Mulroney) to help her. It takes him noticing the black paint footprints on the carpet before he believes something’s haunting. That’s when the psychics are called in. It’s a totally standard horror set-up, but nothing that couldn’t work if the old clichés were executed well. After all, its predecessors weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel and had much of the same creepy visions.
But you can feel a difference behind the camera this time, with the series’ screenwriter Leigh Whannell making his directorial debut. (James Wan, who helmed the first two, went off to make Furious 7, a better use of his time.) The images lack the same creepy snap, and they’re cut together in a way that really only communicates rudimentary horror concepts. At best, it repeats tricks we’ve seen in the other Insidious movies, silhouettes behind curtains, faces in the dark, that sort of thing. He certainly didn’t help matters by writing himself an awfully thin script, with half-developed stock characters and a limply formulaic story. (A few supporting characters even disappear, and not in a scary way, never to be mentioned again.) It has the feeling of a cheap direct-to-video sequel that has somehow escaped its disc and wound up in multiplexes.