With her mesmerizing gaze, her cavern of a mouth and a demeanor that manages to be at once soothing and steely, Lin Shaye isn’t just a scream queen for the ages. She’s one of those character actors you’d gladly follow anywhere: through a dank basement, down a sewer pipe and even into a vehicle as creaky and faint-by-numbers as “Insidious: The Last Key.”
Given all the strained inhalations on the soundtrack and the general air of choking on fumes, “Insidious: The Last Gasp” might have been a more appropriate title for the fourth and potentially final entry in this lucrative, once-diverting property.
As with most studio horror franchises of late, the chronology is nearly as tortured as the characters. The story told in “The Last Key” directly anticipates the events of 2010’s enjoyable smash hit “Insidious,” a fun and modestly budgeted freakout that briefly introduced us to the gifted parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Shaye) before abruptly killing her off.
Elise didn’t stay dead, of course. “Insidious: Chapter 2” (a sequel) and “Insidious: Chapter 3” (a prequel) found ways of resurrecting her, and this latest movie – directed by newcomer Adam Robitel and written by series mainstay Leigh Whannell – is the first to place her front and center, where she belongs.
The haunting she’s investigating this time is rooted in her own history, forcing her to retreat backward into the past even as she moves forward in time, toward the case that we already know will end in her death.
The filmmakers, whose affection for Elise is obvious, have tried hard to do right by the character, even if in the end they haven’t cooked up an origin story worthy of her. With the exception of one clever twist at the midway point, what transpires here is thin, vaporous and awfully derivative. But my goodness, how Shaye holds you, even through the most routine of jolts and the most ludicrous of circumstances.
Having begun the series as a secret weapon and then steadily wended her way into the spotlight, she never condescends to the material she’s given, even when condescension might seem warranted. She invests all manner of paranormal mumbo-jumbo with unsmirking conviction and brings a shiver of gravitas to a line like “I will find it and I will finish it.”
The “it” in question is a demon that has haunted Elise since the beginning, as we see in a flashback to her unhappy 1950s upbringing in the dusty town of Five Keys, New Mexico.
There, in a creepy, penitentiary-adjacent old house, the young Elise (Ava Kolker) is already communing with spirits, a gift that earns her the quiet support of her loving mother (Tessa Ferrer), regular beatings from her nasty prison-warden father (Josh Stewart) and fearful incomprehension from her younger brother (Pierce Pope).
Elise inadvertently opens a portal to the unknown and sets a life-altering tragedy in motion, unleashing a force so evil that she eventually flees the house in terror. Back in the present day, the septuagenarian Elise hasn’t gone back home or seen her family in decades. But when she hears from a desperate hauntee (Kirk Acevedo) who just so happens to be living in her old house, she decides it’s time to return to Five Keys and face her demons in every sense.
Going along for the ride in their Mystery Machine-style truck are Elise’s good-natured, ghost-busting sidekicks Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who, despite dressing like Mormon missionaries, waste no time in hitting on a couple of local lovelies (Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke). Their attempts at flirtation are only mildly less creepy than the sharp-clawed specters that are forever lunging into view, always just a few seconds after the movie has convinced you there’s nothing more to see.
It’s a nifty trick, and Robitel repeats it fairly often. He doesn’t yet exercise the kind of virtuosic control of the camera demonstrated by James Wan, the director of the first two “Insidious” movies (and an executive producer on this one). But for the most part, he plays by the rules established by his predecessors, keeping the camera steady, cutting judiciously and allowing tension to build in gently measured increments.
“Insidious: The Last Key” isn’t an especially scary picture, least of all during a protracted climax in a mysterious netherworld that suggests a blackout rave at Alcatraz. But to its credit, it isn’t an overly assaultive one, either. Its cheapest and most indelible effect is that strange glimmer in Shaye’s eyes as Elise steps gingerly but fearlessly through a house that she knows to be full of unfriendly visitors.
It makes a difference that she isn’t just another unfortunate victim rushing mindlessly toward her doom; she’s a skilled professional, doing her job and doing it well. You may not believe everything she sees, but you believe her entirely.
starring Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer and Aleque Reid. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language. Running time: 1:43