By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — The easiest way to judge the quality of an “Insidious” film is to gauge how quickly the actors get into a poltergeist-haunted house. On that score, “Insidious: The Last Key” (Universal), the fourth installment in the franchise, does not disappoint, since it opens in one.
A low budget, however, confines the plot to just a few spectral, gloomy creatures who inhabit this series’ signature imaginary locale: To wit, the astral plane, somewhere between here and the hereafter, known as The Further.
There’s not even a smoke machine to mist up the proceedings. And, since there’s essentially only one way for a wraith to leap out of the dark to frighten someone, that reliable trope is dispensed with in the opening minutes.
The rest of the story can be aptly summarized by the classic World War II-era lyric “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.”
Working from a script by returning screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who’s back in the frame as well as ghost-hunter Specs, director Adam Robitel does the best he can with tired material. As always, Lin Shaye plays Elise, a compassionate parapsychologist who uses her gift to help others — or at the least, shoo those pesky spirits out of their houses, with the help of Specs and colleague Tucker (Angus Sampson).
This time, the dwelling is the one — on the grounds of an abandoned New Mexico state prison, no less — where Elise spent most of her childhood with her brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), and their physically abusive father, who beat her whenever she saw troubled spirits. Executions next door provided a ready supply of troubled souls zooming around.
The structure has a new resident, but the same sprite who has lived there since the 1950s.
Her return to this fraught spot enables Elise to embrace the cliche of dealing with her own personal demons. Along the way, she has to reconcile with Christian, from whom she’s become estranged. By fortuitous circumstance, he has a daughter, Melissa (Spencer Locke), who shares Elise’s ability to poke about in the Stygian netherworld.
There are many locked doors, dusty keys and furnishings, creaking floors, the occasional spirit with an ulterior motive and, late in the proceedings, a King James Bible becomes a prop. There’s also a crucifix on one wall that, as sharp-eyed audience members will notice, serves no purpose other than to augment the decor.
Overall, the fright factor is low and originality is long gone. Yet the moral compass in this good-natured series remains as dependable as ever.
The film contains an occult theme, fleeting gore and a single scene of physical child abuse. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.