Open with a reluctant medium, an unsuccessful reading.
These first five minutes or so of Insidious: Chapter 3 sum up the remaining ninety-two minutes with depressing clarity. Sure, Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse have manufactured a suitably dark aesthetic, an occasionally unsettling package of jump scares and visceral death fetishes, a nightmarish and demonic villain, and an angelic white protagonist, but the parts are greater than the whole.
Neither individual parts nor whole package, to be clear, are very substantial.
The story takes place a few years before the initial installment in the Insidious series, some time in the late-mid 2000s, when teenager Quinn Brenner opens a door to the dark reaches of “The Further”–readers familiar with the rest of the Insidious series will recognize this dreary world of underpowered handheld lamps and hideously re-embodied voices–by visiting spirit medium Elise Rainier in order to make contact with her departed mother, Lilith. After the reading goes wrong, Quinn ignores Rainier’s frank advice to avoid talking to dead people and makes a connection with a respirator-wearing demonic presence–an angry old miner with black lung, perhaps?–through the air vents of her family’s hipster-proletariat apartment building while trying to reach her mother. This initiates a classic haunting sequence–what screenwriters call “fun and games”: bumps in the night escalate rapidly to full-on bodily violation and spirit possession. Skeptics must turn believers and seek the assistance of psychic intermediaries. Elise Rainier returns, thus, and overcomes her own demons to lead the final confrontation with evil. But–surprise!–the battle is far from over at the end. The Lambert haunting from the first movies hangs over the ending and clears the air once again for a fourth instalment in the series.
Storylines float to the surface and sink away again, barely acknowledged. Main character Quinn’s teenage friendships, fledgling romantic interest, and acting ambitions form an important leg of the story in the beginning of the film, for example: they are almost completely forgotten by its conclusion. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” haunts a seemingly empty building. His backstory–a former resident of the building turned soul-devouring denizen of “the further”–is left undeveloped. The fact that he is old and was obviously disabled at death is enough, apparently, to explain his paranormal anxiety. Quinn’s troubled relationship with her father is unconvincingly resolved; her brother is a foil, at best; her friends are forced caricatures.
There is little here for viewers interested in questions of race, gender, class, and age–Insidious is a rather retrograde product on the whole in these areas, in fact–but the cinematography is effective in a workmanlike way, and the movie will keep your attention for the entire 97 minute runtime. Which is nice, I guess.
This, then, is the wage of postmodern capital: a wholly predictable haunted house, a ham-fisted and cynical rumination on mortality mediated by basic cable spiritualism, and an open door for the next commodity in the series to enter the pop culture milieu. Insidious: Chapter 3 is effectively ineffective. It is maximally profitable with a minimal investment on the part of its producers. They’ve risked no cultural capital, placed nothing more than money on the line. Viewers–myself included–have so far responded by paying them back the money and then investing our own cultural capital in the film. This insidious arbitrage is the truly horrifying part of the entire experience.
The producers of the Insidious series are not alone. Neither are they cynical magnates laughing and rubbing their hands together as they steal from bovine audiences. They are logical actors at work in a global system that glorifies the most gruesome forms of self-interest. Hollywood is driven by profit, after all, and motivated by an army of willing promoters among the public to profit from the easy sell of franchises today more than ever before. They can’t help themselves.
We can’t help ourselves. Brand relationships broadcast through social media are an easy and powerful forge of identity claims. If I’m the kind of person who likes Insidious in a public way, whether you agree with my preference or not I hope that you’ll form an opinion of me that is favorable to my social strategy. Bundles of preferences are movable pieces in a game of identity claims that, powered by the internet, forms the very fabric of postmodern existence. Preferences can be easily and quickly located on the left-right spectrum of the culture wars; rapidly deployed to build or dismantle relationships with other people; worn; shouted aloud; photographed. We are what we like.
Hollywood franchises like Insidious are vitally important pieces in this game. Simple preferences–for the color green, say, or for long walks on the beach–are easily overshadowed by the cultural complexity of brand relationships. More than merely personal decisions, preferences for brands involve negotiating bundles of meaning. Apple computers, for instance, are symbols that stand in for images, videos, songs, other people you’ve known who have owned them, and conversations you’ve had or overheard–in addition to objects that do things and with which you may spend a great deal of time in interaction. These symbols do thirty years’ worth of cultural work daily. So, too, The Avengers, Jurassic Park, and so on. So, too, Insidious.
Viewed alone, Insidious: Chapter 3 is mostly hollow. It is merely visceral. As part of a franchise, it is completely empty. It is little more than a single level in a vertical marketing video game. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” is just a minor boss in a dungeon, a bump on the road to progressively “harder” bosses in even more deeper dungeons. Where does the game end? Who will be the final villain? Will the whole finale be one long jump scare planned and carried out by the Dark Angel Beelzebub to put this “insidious” horror film brand in a shallow grave once and for all? One can hope.