Insidious: Chapter 3 is the directorial debut of the talented Leigh Whannell, the screenwriter for Saw (2004), Dead Silence (2007), Insidious (2011), and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013). Demonstrable proof that Whannell can direct as well as write (and act), Insidious 3 is quite different, and more disturbing, than the first two Insidious films. It’s telling that the tagline on the movie poster is “This is how you die,” because the film seems itself to be driving toward death, with little to lighten the mood. The mise-en-scène reflects the darkness of the film’s trajectory, exuding decay: while the first two films have a generally lighter, suburban mise-en-scène, the latest installment is set in an old, dark, urban apartment building, and centers on a family struggling both to make ends meet and to deal with the loss of a wife and mother.
The film begins with Quinn (Stefanie Scott) visiting Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) to ask for help contacting her dead mother, whom she is clearly having trouble living without. Having opened the door to the dead, Quinn allows in a malevolent spirit, and the rest of the film is about the demon’s attempt to keep Quinn in the darkness, to keep hold of her soul. Elise is afraid to help at first, as she is dealing with her own “demons”—the suicide of her husband a year ago and the knowledge that one of the dead (an old woman) wants to kill her (as she will in fact do at the end of Insidious). In the end, though, she musters the courage to help, meeting up with ghost hunters Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who provide the only lightness in the film.
What makes this film so powerful, and so dark, is that its heroine, Quinn, is so deeply damaged. It’s clear that a large part of her no longer cares about living. Her mother is dead and her relationships with her brother and father seem similarly broken. She feels she’s just blown an audition, and has thus lost the only future she can imagine. She’s then hit by a car, almost dies, both her legs are broken in multiple places, and she’s confined to her room. And then the demon assails her in earnest.
As Elise explain it, the demon doesn’t want Quinn’s body so it can have life (which is what was generally going on in the first two Insidious films). Instead, this demon just wants to destroy: it has no motive besides plain old corrosive envy, the need to spoil something just because it’s good, the need to kill something just because it’s alive. This demon is, I think, a pure embodiment of the death drive—and it is successful, for a while, in taking parts of Quinn.
The demon is the source of the terror on a very immediate, visceral level in that this third installment certainly continues (and actually does more effectively) what the first two Insidious films accomplished in the way of jolting screams out of the audience through shock cuts—in this case cutting mostly to the pretty terrifying-looking demon from shots of unoccupied space.
But what makes this film different and, I think, better than the first two is that the demon is psychically bound to Quinn in a way the old woman was not to either Elise or Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson): she seemed to choose them pretty much at random. Quinn, though, seems genuinely lost—and the fact that the demon is apparently taking her soul bit by bit allegorizes that creeping loss, a loss of self that is manifest in the faceless, partially limbless Quinn double. She is struggling to find any meaning in life, any reason to go on, any feeling for other people. Scott plays her character well, conveying a kind of encroaching core deadness or indifference in her attitude toward others: she’s going through the motions, and the demon both sees and symbolizes this growing coldness in her.
Insidious 3 is more powerful than the first two installments, then, because it harnesses the alternate world of spirits and malevolent entities for more than just its own sake, for more than just their shock value. They express something about the damaging effects of trauma on the core of the self, on the soul, and how despair can become indifference and even, finally, evil.
Did Gwen agree with Dawn’s grade for Insidious? Check out her review here.