“Insidious: The Last Key” is the fourth in the “Insidious” horror franchise, taking place after the events of “Insidious: Chapter 3” but before those in “Insidious” and “Insidious: Chapter 2.”
That may sound confusing, but the good news is that “The Last Key” focuses entirely on Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and her two knucklehead sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote or co-wrote all four films) and Tucker (massive, gravel-voiced Angus Sampson).
In earlier films, Elise was a supporting character, a paranormal investigator with a special gift for seeing spirits. Despite her sweet, soulful face and smallish, weathered frame, she tread bravely into all kinds of ghostly realms.
“Insidious: Chapter 3” gave her a flashback-origin story. Here she’s helping herself, investigating events in her own childhood house.
As a child, her brutal father (Josh Stewart) beat her and locked her in the basement every time she saw a ghost; she saw a lot of them, as their house was located close to a prison where executions regularly take place.
Now a man named Garza (Kirk Acevedo) lives there, and he is terrified by malevolent things. He calls Elise, and she returns to her hometown of Five Keys in New Mexico for the first time in decades.
However, there’s something quite unusual about these ghosts.
“Insidious: The Last Key” is directed by Adam Robitel, who previously made something called “The Taking of Deborah Logan” and co-wrote the worst of the “Paranormal Activity” movies, “The Ghost Dimension.”
In other words, he’s a second stringer, taking over for the highly talented James Wan, who directed the first two “Insidious” entries, and Whannell, who directed the third and has worked with Wan since the beginning, on their 2004 hit “Saw.”
It shows. While Robitel tries to follow the playbook and stages some fine, scary scenes using open, three-dimensional space — a scene with Elise making a discovery inside a tube-shaped fan-duct is terrific — he also resorts to the usual loud noises and jump-scares.
His touch with the emotional scenes, as when Elise is reunited with her long-estranged younger brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), isn’t quite as sure. The drama feels a bit clunky and soapy.
As it rushes to its climax, the movie unwisely tries to play up silly flirtations between Specs and Tucker and Christian’s cute teen daughters (Spencer Locke and Caitlin Gerard).
This splits up the otherwise dependable dynamic between the very serious, deeply spiritual Elise and her doofus assistants, who could be rejects from “Scooby-Doo.”
Yet, whatever troubles it has, the series has a key in Shaye, a wonderful, longtime character actress whom moviegoers may remember as the leather-skinned Magda in “There’s Something About Mary.”
In her 70s now, she recently has come into her own thanks to the horror genre; she’s a welcome presence, both vulnerable and seasoned, in any eerie story.
Even if “Insidious: The Last Key” isn’t quite up to the level of its spookily satisfying predecessors, it may be worth a look just for her.
Insidious: The Last Key
Two and a half stars
Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Caitlin Gerard
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes