“Insidious: Chapter 3” is the prequel to a pair of films about the supernatural torment of a troubled family. It’s good for a handful of genuine scares, but a late film tone change and some general clunkiness keep it in mediocre territory.
Rather than expand the tale of Chapter 1 and 2's much-maligned Lambert family, “Insidious: Chapter 3” turns back the clock a few years to focus on Elise (Lin Shaye), the psychic who kept bailing them out.
But “Insidious: Chapter 3” isn’t really an origin story. We meet Elise at the tail end of a distinguished psychic career as she’s suffering the effects of numerous supernatural bouts and the emotional fallout from her husband’s suicide. When she is approached by a teenage girl named Quinn (Stefanie Scott), Elise is hesitant to get back in the saddle.
It’s no spoiler to say that eventually Elise will come around, but before we get there, we have to spend some time exploring Quinn’s predicament.
Quinn lives with her father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney), and her little brother, Alex (Tate Berney), on the fourth floor of a five-story apartment building. Quinn’s mother died, and the teen is feeling her loss as she applies for a theater school on the East Coast.
Yearning for her mother’s influence, Quinn tries to contact her, but her amateur psychic efforts wind up inviting an evil spirit instead. The spirit — which appears in the form of a shadowy old man wearing a breathing mask — torments her constantly and seems to be coming from the apartment upstairs.
Director Leigh Whannell — who wrote the screenplays for the first two films — spends about half the film letting the audience twist on the rope while we watch the “man who can’t breathe” terrorize Quinn. There’s a fine line between being scared and being antagonized, and Whannell wanders well into the second area before finally allowing “Chapter 3’s” plot to grind forward.
Unfortunately, that’s also about where “Insidious: Chapter 3” falls apart, taking a decidedly dark tone and injecting it with sudden bits of humor that feel out of place. By the time the third act kicks into full supernatural resolution mode, “Chapter 3” feels painfully uneven and pedestrian.
There are a handful of “aha” moments sprinkled in for fans of the series. We get to see Elise make the acquaintance of her future ghost-hunter sidekicks, and we learn more about what makes her character the confident leader she was when she first encountered the Lamberts back in 2010’s first installment. But an element of style is missing from Whannell’s effort that gave director James Wan’s films a bit more personality.
It doesn’t help that the acting and writing is often clunky, making it that much harder to suspend disbelief in a genre that insists on doing just that. The best thing Whannell does is put his heroine in a pair of leg casts early in the film. The added degree of helplessness — think Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark” — projects a genuine level of distress on the audience.
It’s not enough to make “Insidious: Chapter 3” a good film, but it helps.
Like its predecessors, “Chapter 3” is a sworn believer in the jump scare: Better to punctuate a sudden visual with a jarring sound effect than to let the horror really get under your skin. If that’s all you’re looking for, then “Insidious: Chapter 3” will deliver. But you probably won’t remember much by the time Chapter 4 rolls around.
“Insidious: Chapter 3” is rated PG-13 for frightening visuals, violence and profanity, including a single use of the F-word.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.