In one of the few sensible directorial switches in horror history, INSIDIOUS 1-3 and SAW 1-3 writer Leigh Whannell (who also wrote THE MULE and the upcoming COOTIES) takes over the reigns on the Insidious franchise from the increasingly busy James Wan (THE CONJURING, FURIOUS 7, and the recently announced AQUAMAN movie) to take us back, not so much to the beginning of psychic Elise Rainier's (Lin Shaye) career as a remover of evil spirits, but more like the job right before the Lambert family entered her life. In fact, the case that is featured in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 is actually one that drags Elise out of self-induced retirement after she learns that an old hag demon is lying in wait to kill her the next time she steps foot in the ghostly plain known as The Further.
In fact, a great deal of Insidious 3 is spent setting up events in the more familiar early chapters. This time around Elise helps out the Brenner family, in particular teenage daughter Quinn (Stefanie Scott of the Disney series "A.N.T. Farm," and the upcoming JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS feature), who is desperate to get in touch with her recently departed mother. She seeks out Elise for a reading, which is given reluctantly and with the warning that any attempt to call out to the dead can be heard by all other spirits, including ones you may not want hanging around your life. But after Quinn tries on her own to contact her mom, she is severely injured, leaving both her legs broken and forcing her to spend days on end alone in bed, making her an easy, non-moving target for a particularly nasty ghost called the Breathing Man (he wears an oxygen mask) that terrorizes the small apartment she shares with her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and younger brother.
In addition to introducing us to The Further and the old hag demon that makes life miserable for Elise, INSIDIOUS 3 just happens to show us that the Brenner haunting was the first such case to bring Elise together with the ghosthunters Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (writer-director Whannell), who are essentially frauds with a web series until Elise legitimizes their careers as documenters of the dead. As with most horror series' backstory attempts, all of this setting up what is to come/what we've actually already seen isn't particularly scary but at least it puts the audience in a familiar place. Still, I wish Whannell had spent a bit more time making us care about the current family crisis than getting us mentally prepared for the Lambert's ordeal, which is even referenced here as the reason Elise abandoned the medium business in the first place.
I did like the treatment of Quinn in this story, as a self-sufficient teen who is tragically forced to adopt the mother role in the family. She's not overtly sexualized, as many girls her age are in this genre, and that certainly makes it easier to take her abuse-by-ghost more seriously. Scott is one of the best parts of INSIDIOUS 3; she's not a hapless victim, but a girl who is willing to fight back, which makes her inevitable possession by this grotesque creature all the more tragic.
But when it comes down to it, all that really matters about INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 is whether it delivers the scares, which it does to a degree. Focusing far more than Wan ever did on jump scares than actual sustained tension and suspense, Whannell still shows signs of taking the time to get to know his horror craft as a filmmaker. There are a handful of fairly effective moments that work at sustained creepy mode, but Whannell seems to lack confidence that such sequences can carry the day; they can. And so out come scene after scene of things jumping out of the dark for a single scream, followed immediately by the realization that what just scared you was part of a dream or otherwise not real.
At this point in the INSIDIOUS series, a third chapter is a chance to get to learn a little more about what makes familiar characters tick in ways that we didn't in the first two films. Again, this is particularly scary, but they also don't dwell on it long enough to stand in the way of moving the Brenners' story forward. If Whannell and his team continue making films in this series, they're going to have to amp up the emotional component and give us something that takes the time to get under our skin rather than simply in our face. Still, a decent effort from a first-time director of horror is always appreciated.