‘Insidous: Chapter 3’
Director:
Leigh Whannell
Stars: Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

It might have been out of necessity, but the best thing one can say about the “Insidious” franchise is it has, with its third outing, become a major showcase for Lin Shaye. An old school ham, Shaye — perhaps best remembered as tanning addict/exhibitionist Magda in “There’s Something About Mary” — actually commits sincerely to these ghost movies, which aren’t just ghost movies but semi-respectable outings that explore, or at least try to, ideas beyond mere scares. Shaye will do the funky head bobs during trance scenes and call a demon a “bitch” if she has to, but she also brings real gravitas to scenes where her character, psychic Elise, longs for her deceased husband. She treats the story as though it was, if not Shakespeare, then something worth taking seriously. 

At the same time, “Chapter 3” finds the series succumbing to what befalls any low-rent horror franchise: soldiering on because there’s money to be had, even as key players fall out. “Insidious” director James Wan is out; ditto name stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne. (Go see the later kill it in “Spy,” opening this weekend against her old series.) Elise is the now the closest thing to a main draw, and she died in the first, then returned as a helpful ghost in the second. And so “3” is a prequel, hopping back to show the pre-murder Elise reluctantly helping Quinn (Stefanie Scott), a teen plagued by a demon. Along for the ride, late in, are two more franchise favorites: in-over-their-heads viral ghost hunters Specs and Tucker, played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson.

Whannell is also the “Insidious” films' screenwriter; this time he adds directing to his duties. What he mostly proves, in his directorial debut, is that he’s no Wan, who has become increasingly masterful at moving the camera, allowing to explore spaces and stalk actors. (This didn’t happen so much in the movie he left the series to helm “Furious 7,” in which he was mostly there to make sure it kept mega-OTT.) Whannell’s camera, by contrast, rarely does anything. When Quinn’s legs are broken and she’s confined to her bedroom, Whannell is afforded the chance to play with the idea of being trapped in a room. He doesn’t take it, and he’s overly reliant on cheap boo effects. A couple times he does let the audience discover on their own that there’s some mysterious shape lurking in the background, ready to pounce on whoever’s in the foreground. But he tends to fumble the follow-through by doing generally what one would expect.

Granted, he hasn’t written himself much to work with. If the second entry OD’d on dense, un-care-about-able mythology, attempting to world-build with a simple ghost story, this one simply falls back on arbitrary rules made up on the fly. Its most notable aspect may be how badly it treats its teenage female lead, first hitting her with a car then throwing her around a room, and even almost out of a window. This, mind you, is on top of gifting her with a dead mom. It does let a woman, and an older woman, become the hero, though great as it is turning Lin Shaye into an action star, she’s also limited in her abilities. Mostly what she can do is push, which makes her look like a high schooler shoving someone in a school hallway, not a badass fighting evil demons.

“Chapter 3” does have a good idea, with which it does something, at least, to a point, sort of. It’s a film filled about grief, about people who, in their attempts to reach deceased loved ones, have come back plagued with an unwanted ghoul. It doesn’t develop this past the first level, but it’s there, and at its best “Chapter 3” is able to groove on a minor key melancholia — a film where being haunted has two meanings. It’s a step above being a cash-in threequel, but only a step.  

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge