Note: Spoilers for Insidious: The Red Door are discussed here.
Don’t worry, folks – this is not going to be another rant decrying the drudgery of long-running movie franchises. Mainly because for horror, this has been the norm for a very long time. Before Marvel, before Mark S. Fowler was appointed to lead the FCC, even before the James Bond movies had cemented themselves as a never-ending series of new missions with a rotating gallery of 007s, successful horror movies had been producing dozens of sequels cashing in on them since at least the heyday of the Universal Classic Monsters. Complaining about the release of the now-fourth sequel to a horror series that has been chugging along for almost thirteen years is like railing against the persistent success of self-help grifters presenting old, boring, not-all-that-useful personal improvement advice as Forbidden Knowledge™. Sure, it’s annoying. Sure, I would love to do away with that trend. But until I come up with a plan to literally overthrow capitalism, there’s not much I can do to halt or even slow down something that’s been a reliable profit-machine for longer than my grandparents have been alive.
If you are a studio executive, and you are trying to lock down as many close-to-sure-bet profitable releases on your long-range schedule as possible to please your shareholders, you would have to be engaged in a deliberate act of career sabotage if you happened across a hit horror movie and didn’t immediately make moves to bleed it dry for as long as possible. So rather than attempting the Sisyphean task of appealing to the “soul” of horror movie producers to leave well enough alone for the sake of the artistic integrity of the first Insidious, I want to examine the entirety of these movies on their own terms. I have no interest in asking “was extending that film into a prolonged saga really necessary?” because obviously the answer is “no, of course not” and that’s not even an interesting answer, anymore.
Now, cards on the table, I really enjoyed the first Insidious. It is not a perfect movie, but it is very effectively spooky, with some god-tier jump scares and protagonists who are shockingly rational in a genre that very nearly requires abject stupidity from its human characters. On the other end of the quality spectrum, Insidious: Chapter 2 is one of the most inept horror sequels produced in the 21st century, and but for Dead Silence would rank as James Wan’s most botched directorial effort. It is a bizarro world reversal of its predecessor by every metric I can think of, with amateurly-telegraphed jump scares, zero sense of mood or atmosphere, and head-slappingly dumb characters who take forever to work out information the audience gleaned several minutes earlier and make the most moronic decisions at the worst times motivated solely by what the script wants them to do at a particular moment. Unexpectedly, despite being *gag* prequels, Insidious: Chapter 3 and Insidious: The Last Key are mostly pretty decent; neither of them as nerve-rattling as the first one but never scraping the bottom of Chapter 2’s barrel. Plus, how cool is it that a mainstream horror franchise staked two of its installments on a woman in her seventies as the badass ghost-hunting main character?
So you have one of the best old-fashioned haunted
house someone movies of the last twenty years, one of the worst ghost movies produced in my lifetime, one seemingly ill-advised prequel that is not as bad as you remember paired with another, conceptually bolder prequel that is not quite as good as you may remember. Honestly, that batting average compares pretty favorably to the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist. Part of me is tempted to count my blessings with this one, keep my expectations in check for the (allegedly) final installment of the series, and then move on like a healthy, well-adjusted individual.
So anyway, I watched Insidious: The Red Door, and I started thinking about how it fits in with the broader canon, and I have come to the conclusion that the series made a storytelling blunder that, if avoided, could have given it a much more favorable batting average than most artificially-extended horror franchises these days. One creative decision that could have, at least, made this franchise… maybe not that much better in terms of overall quality, but almost certainly seem less… exhausted, when taken all together.
Here is my solution: disconnect the storyline continuity of the movies from each other. You can keep the “lore” of franchise mainstays like The Further, you can stick to the general conceits that fans have come to expect like those frustratingly effective jump scares, you can even keep Elise Rainier as a recurring character because we could all use more Lin Shaye in our lives. But move on from the Lamberts as early as possible. Sever all the callbacks and connective threads tying everything back to the first movie.
This actually is not as difficult an endeavor as you would assume. In fact, by being so overinvested in their own mythology, series screenwriters Leigh Whannell and Scott Teems put a lot of unnecessary extra work on themselves by concocting this elaborate web of connective threads and post-hoc backstories and laying out the exact mechanics of The Further. Despite its final scene directly dovetailing into the starting premise of the first movie, Insidious: The Last Key would have been more comprehensible as a narrative object if its main plot was not jammed awkwardly in between the events of Chapter 3 and the first movie. And on that note, isolating Chapter 3 from the overarching continuity of the franchise would be even easier and would have improved that movie to an even greater degree. Everything holding that one back from being the equal of the first installment are all the scenes gumming up the main plot’s momentum to explain some irrelevant detail of one of the previous movies or cobble together some needless origin sub-plot, leaving what was originally a pretty elegantly laid out ghost yarn way more muddled and bloated than it needed to be. Chapter 2… eh, probably unsalvageable, but at least if you swapped out the Lamberts with a different family, the wife and son characters would not have seemed so bafflingly idiotic for being at a loss to explain the husband’s strange behavior despite the ending of the first Insidious already conclusively answering that question. God, Insidious: Chapter 2 was dumb…
And bizarrely, despite being marketed so aggressively as this grand conclusion to the saga of the Lambert family, we are re-introduced to Josh and Dalton in Insidious: The Red Door as having their memories wiped of everything that happened to them in the first two movies. Now, as much as I too would love to erase the memory of the second installment from my brain, this means that if you wanted to enter this supposedly final chapter on the same knowledge footing as the two main characters, you should just skip the previous films and watch this one cold! Most of the interpersonal conflicts are rooted in stuff that happened offscreen after the events of Insidious: Chapter 2, so it would not have required too many rewrites to refashion this as a completely different family dealing with this threat for the first time, despite we in the audience having a pretty good idea of what to expect.
All of these should have been more standalone stories than they were, connected only by Elise the Ghost Hunter and the broad supernatural mechanics introduced in the first Insidious. Whannell, Teems, and Wan would have been able to craft leaner stories, more comprehensible stakes, better narrative pacing, and even if they had screwed up and put out a really bad installment, it would have just been a bad movie on its own, and they would have had an easier time quickly moving on from it and putting out an improved follow-up later without having to laboriously account for that last bum note. Some ghost or monster who became especially popular could be spun off into a standalone horror feature instead of jumping through a bunch of narrative hoops in an effort to shoehorn themselves into some increasingly tangled narrative web. They would have had the luxury of a wider fanbase who they could have promised a generally familiar set of tropes, locales, and some recurring characters while also no longer having to worry about alienating those fans by trying to link everything together in a convoluted overarching plot continually raising the bar for entry to jump into it. This would all work so much better that…
… hang on… did… did I just pitch The Conjuring universe?
Dammit, I’m just describing The Conjuring franchise. Ah, well. I mean, it is the most financially successful horror movie franchise of all time for a reason.