After watching and ranking the Saw franchise, we needed a new horror series to work through (seeing as our real-world horror story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon). We really enjoyed the special kind of horror that only James Wan and Leigh Whannell seem to be able to create – so Insidious was the obvious choice. I’d already seen and enjoyed the first film, but was surprised to see that there were already four films, with a fifth on the way. They also have a similarly convoluted lore and mythology to the Saw franchise, something I’m a sucker for. So we jumped right in.
Here’s my ranking of the four films in the Insidious franchise. If you disagree, that’s okay! Let me know in the comments. It’s also worth mentioning that all of the films here are more than worth watching. Whereas Saw had an obvious weak instalment, I’d be fine with any of these films taking the top spot.
Insidious: Chapter 2
The second film in the series continues straight from where the first film ended, with director James Wan returning to helm it – with a script from Whannell (who went on to write and star in all four films). With the original team steering the ship, Chapter 2 is mostly more of the same inventive horror that fans had come to expect. It’s exceptionally well made, and delves into the mythology a bit more. It also features an extremely entertaining performance from leading man Patrick Wilson, who spends the majority of the film possessed and looking increasingly worse for wear. But it is Rose Byrne who once again provides the heart, and its her struggle to save her family from the unimaginable that keeps the film going, even as more and more plot points are piled on.
And that’s the film’s downside. Whereas the first film managed to keep it pretty simple, despite the mythology it was building, this sequel tries to do it all again and more. There are new characters, new spooky set pieces (thanks to an increased budget), and more characters. For the most part these elements all work, but you do come away feeling more like you’ve watched a straight-up fantasy film with horror elements, whereas the original was the opposite. It’s worth watching though, and is still a very strong film. But it feels more like Insidious 1.5, rather than a proper sequel. As much as I enjoy the Lambert family, I think the decision to shift the focus away from them is what makes the consequent sequel/prequels so much fun.
The Last Key
By the time the fourth film was released, Lin Shaye’s character, the psychic Elise Rainier, had more or less become the protagonist of the series. This is even crazier when you consider that she died at the end of the first film (but the Saw series did the same with John Kramer, with satisfyingly batshit results). The Last Key deals with her life, as opposed to her dropping in and helping others in need. Her childhood was one of abuse, as she discovered her powers, angering her narrow-minded father. She is called back to her childhood home to help deal with some spooky goings on, but things aren’t as they seem.
Sure, you don’t expect the fourth film in a franchise to be that good. And it’s true that The Last Key threatens to collapse under its twists and turns, but in my opinion, the film remains a surprisingly strong instalment, that remains loyal to the series’ love of practical scares and world building. There are a few twists that really impressed me, and there are some really strong scares here, which is what you really want. One scene involving suitcases almost had me biting my fingernails completely off. These films are excellent at setting up and then subverting the usual horror movie tropes. The framing and pacing makes you think a scare is coming, and then it happens in a completely different way that you never expected.
It’s also true that by the fourth film, I was just enjoying spending time with these characters. Elyse is such an unusual protagonist. For all intents and purposes, she’s a physic superhero. But watching this older woman and her two goofy sidekicks (played in every film by Whannell as Specs and Angus Sampson as Tucker) is just a joy. It’s so different to anything else I’ve seen. And it hadn’t lost it’s originality by the fourth film – at least for me.
The original Insidious is really something special. Like the Saw series, it was made on a very tight budget, but then made massive returns at the box office. It was the movie that really put Blumhouse on the map. It certainly put them on my radar. And even now, it’s really very scary. But it’s not all jump scares (though there are plenty of those). It’s the way dread and fear is built up throughout the runtime. Things might jump out at you, but you truly never know. As I mentioned above, the filmmakers ability to subvert those innate horror movie expectations is really exceptional.
The film introduces us to the Lambert family. They’re a normal family that experience an unfathomable tragedy when one of their sons falls into an unexplainable coma. After exhausting every option, they resort to recruiting psychic Elise Rainier. Some critics found the second half of the film to be weaker than the first. It takes a turn into the more fantastical, that I personally really enjoyed. I love movies like this when they have a strong, well-established mythos. And this film created two of the all-time great horror movie monsters in the Old Woman and Lipstick-Face Demon.
I also want to mention the ending, which I think is probably the best horror movie ending that I’ve ever seen. When things are settling down, as Dalton returns and life resumes, Elise dares to take a picture of Josh (Patrick Wilson). It turns out that things aren’t okay, and for the Lamberts, the nightmare is far from over. It’s such a ballsy way to end a film, and Wilson’s almost Nicolas Cage-like acting here floored me. It sticks with you, at the very least. And you will find yourself searching the background of your photos for the Old Woman.
I was initially sceptical of the third film. I really like Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson (I mean, who doesn’t) and I wasn’t sure a change of scenery was such a good idea. But Chapter 3 honestly surprised me by how inventive it was, with some of the very best scares in the whole series. The action now follows Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) and takes place primarily around the art deco complex of flats in which she lives, but in her family’s flat primarily. It was Whannell’s first time behind the camera, and he uses every single inch of the tiny setting for maximum effect.
In the timeline of the series, Chapter 3 is the earliest entry. As things progress from bad to worse (with some truly terrifying moments along the way), Elise, Tucker, and Specs are brought into the action. Seeing how these characters first meet is a lot of fun, and breaks up the pretty oppressive scares taking place elsewhere. It also establishes that even though Elise died at the end of the first film, Whannell knows exactly what he’s doing with her character – making her both tragic but also heroic. We know she’s going to die soon facing down a ghost, but she’s going to do a lot more first.
On top of deepening the world and advancing the mythos, Chapter 3 wins the top spot mainly for how original its scares are. There are things that I can safely say I’d never seen before. And it’s a great demonstration of Whannell’s unique talents behind the camera, and a hint of the great things to come with Upgrade and The Invisible Man.
I was as surprised as you that a threequel took the top spot (a prequel no less!) but go and watch it. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
News broke recently that a fifth film was in the works, based on a story by Whannell, with Patrick Wilson making his directorial debut and Ty Simpkins returning. I’m cautiously optimistic for this, and will definitely be checking it out. Hopefully there will be some mention of Elise, as Lin Shaye is really the star of this series. Look out for an updated list when that film releases. Until then, stay out of The Further.