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The fight against the paranormal gets personal

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Creators of hit franchises never know, at the very beginning, what elements will work, so decisions are made that sometimes can’t be altered without complex tinkering that defies the internal logic and mythology they are attempting to bake into their narrative worlds.  When working in the realm of the supernatural though, such outrageous solutions can be forgiven, especially if audiences really want to believe, and certain characters make belief something like an article of faith.

Take, for instance, Dr. Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the parapsychologist who works exclusively with her own dynamic duo – Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) – to protect those under siege by powerful and unseen forces. The first two installments in the “Insidious” dreamscape, directed by the new millennial horror maestro James Wan, focused on the efforts of Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) to protect their comatose son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from a spirit seeking to break free from The Further. When exorcism proves ineffective, the family reaches out to Rainier and her team, leading to a wild journey into the past.

Children in danger, possessed parents, and worlds within worlds where time and space lose definition would lead most to believe that there would be more than enough to sustain an ongoing saga. Somehow the “Paranormal Activities” franchise was able to do so with far less meat on its bones, right?

What “Insidious” has, in spades though, is Rainier, a loveable figure who never comes across as a traditional, infallible expert with all the answers. She’s not some kind of action hero capable of punching evil in the face or blowing it up. Rainier, Specs, and Tucker are both earnest do-gooders and comic bumblers with only the best intentions. And screenwriter Whannell chooses to have Rainier make the ultimate sacrifice to save the Lamberts. Of course, fans of the series had fallen hard for the paranormal team, so the only choice was to venture into prequels featuring the now departed Rainier, granting us a look at how she came to use her psychic gifts. Whannell took the helm this time, with Wan shifting into the “Fast & Furious” lane.

With the arrival of a fourth movie, a new director (Adam Robitel) grabs the reins as writer Whannell delves deeper into the Rainier backstory, going all the way back to her traumatic childhood. Continuing to occupy a past that hasn’t led into the inevitable collision course with the Lambert family, Rainier gets called to investigate strange goings on at her own family home. The narrative blends supernatural horrors, which are genre staples, with truly insidious real-life evil that offers insidious reflections on our current world.

Whannell pens a story about abusive men, as well as a variety of people who seem to know or have some idea of these reprehensible acts, but who refuse to act on their knowledge, thus trapping victims in a neverending cycle.   

“The Last Key” directly addresses the ability of the supernatural big baddie who has key-like fingers, which lock away the voices of victims. The image is frightening enough on a visceral and visual level (proving to be the perfect trailer sequence to lure audiences in), but it works even more effectively as a metaphor, because it encapsulates how powerful such silencing can be.

And within this critical framework, “The Last Key” gains increased cultural cache by granting Rainier the ability to confront her own dark past. She must stare down the evil of her father (Josh Stewart), as he abuses both her mother and her, and face her own culpability in his reign of terror over a host of female victims he kidnapped and tortured to death.

The gift/curse of psychic sight has been passed down from Rainier to one of her nieces, setting up a chance for generational redemption. Fortunately, the narrative doesn’t strand its male cohorts. Specs and Tucker get to play roles in the fight, showcasing a means for intersectional partnerships to make a difference.

It should be noted that “The Last Key” is not actively seeking to venture into such overtly political territory. The movie simply functions this way due to the accident of its release during this particular moment, but this reading affords the film a strong and engaging second life for curious audiences.

Yet, a bigger overall question looms for the series. “Insidious” has now reached a point where it has seemingly backed into its closed loop. So much of the success of the franchise has been built around Rainier, Specs, and Tucker, audiences will wonder what happens when you can’t keep staving off the inevitability of Rainier’s fate. Maybe it’s time to find another set of keys to alternative doors, because the faithful might not be ready say goodbye.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: B+