“Insidious: Chapter 3,” the latest entry in the horror franchise first brought to life by master of scarimonies James Wan, is a rare kind of cinematic treat: a prequel with a purpose. Moviegoers acquainted with the first two “Insidious” films will find much to recognize in this installment, but the movie works on its own terms. Instead of clumsily nodding to its predecessors at every opportunity, the film spends more energy providing scares at regular intervals and using genre to talk about death and grief. The scares are by no means original, and neither are the themes, but “Chapter 3,” despite the title, is a good place to start.
Mr. Wan, technically brilliant and a consummate showman, did not return to direct this one, and Leigh Whannell, longtime “Insidious” scribe, is only a serviceable replacement. He’s used the prequel format to lower the stakes and temper audience expectations. But though his film is less ambitious than “Chapter 2,” and less scary, it is altogether more focused and more thoughtful. That movie was a phantasmagoric whirlwind, a sensory onslaught with innumerable ghouls lurking in every corner of the screen. I counted only three here. Marvel Studios, take note of the restraint.
Even the franchise’s most recognizable actors, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, are gone, but the on-screen family that’s replaced them is no less haunted. The matriarch of the Brenner family is a year dead, and her children and husband are still in mourning. The way each of them copes with the loss is the film’s emotional core. The teenage daughter, Quinn (Stefanie Scott, mostly bland), resents her father for being consumed with work, and he can’t understand why she, bedridden because of an injury, is trying to contact her mother’s ghost. That no one has any time to pay attention to the young son complicates matters further.
Or Further, the name for the signature hellscape of these movies, home to demons and many unfortunate souls, and the reason we keep coming back for more. Some malevolent spirit has managed to lure Quinn into its depths, so her father, whose helplessness is made real by actor Dermot Mulroney, calls in the big guns to get Quinn back. The paranormal investigators, played with great wit by Angus Sampson and Whannell, are mostly inept, but the psychic demon-slayer Elise Rainier (a ferocious and warm Lin Shaye, reprising her role) is up to the task. I would not enter the Further without her.
Aesthetically, the Further isn’t entirely convincing. Whannell wants to suck you into its world, but the eerily smooth textures and vibrant colors, contrasted by impenetrable shadows, makes the Further feel more like a set or a stage than a netherworld. That style worked under the direction of Wan, whose camera in “Chapter 2” swooped ceaselessly through the setting with the speed of a roller coaster. His Further was the whole theme park. Whannell, a more static filmmaker, just shows us the haunted house. That’s in line with his stripped-down approach, and it provides just enough space for his themes to cohere in a climax that is cathartic for its simplicity.
Horror movies have always explored the omnipresence of death and humanity’s futile efforts to pretend it’s not there, influencing every moment of life. Whannell’s solution is to embrace the dark without letting it paralyze you. His film’s most resonant image — Quinn, content in the arms of the wraith that wants her soul — conjures the sweet allure of extinction and the pointlessness of resisting it. Whannell is far from a poet, but Emily Dickinson, who once wrote that death is a form of courtship, would be proud.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on June 11, 2015.