The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
It took me Deeper into the Further: Portals, Technology, and the Uncanny in Insidious: The Last Key

Written by Josh Schulze.

Photo from the article Part of what has separated the Insidious series from much other contemporary horror cinema is its obsession with portals and astral dimensions. It posits that demons are less the restless souls that prey on specific spaces or random victims - such as those that appear in the Paranormal Activity or Conjuring films, for instance - and rather that they use people as vessels to traverse into our world in order to physically manifest. What made the first entry (Insidious, 2010) so chilling was the utter matter-of-factness that seemed to dictate the unthinkable proceedings. A young couple’s son one day falls into a coma, before evil spirits and demonic entities begin to pass through him like flour in a sieve. There is no detectable resistance from the young child; the demons seem to work their black magic before he has any chance to put up a fight. As a concept, it laid down a refreshing causality to the generic fare of a haunted house film, moving beyond the usual circumstances that see the spirit of a former occupier stuck between worlds with ‘unfinished business’, and no choice but to terrorise the new tenants until its conflict is resolved. These instances usually amount to a hefty chunk of necessary exposition and narrative verbosity - something the Insidious series appears to have been wary of. Indeed, although they have at times been criticised for their nonsensical, interweaving plots, few have held the films accountable for having ‘too many scares’. They seem hell-bent on dispensing with the explanatory narratives that permeate their contemporaries; rather, the Insidious films propose that the demons do what they want, and most of the time there is little you can do to stop them or explain such occurrences.

What chiefly governs the series’ narratives and aesthetics is the very idea of an astral plane being consciously utilised by demonic entities. It paves the way for unprecedented bravery, in that the only way to stop such terrors from coming to real-world fruition is to essentially fight fire with fire. As soon as we learn of its appellation as The Further, the world-between-worlds that demons start to consider their local train line becomes a site of mastery for the series’ true protagonist: Elise Rainer (Lyn Shaye). Calming hysteria and putting out fires in all four films, Elise provides the audience with the kind of certainty and relief that ‘expert’ characters generally bring to a narrative; much like Ed and Lorraine Warren of The Conjuring films, she makes her name (and a profit) from coming to the aid of the most recently afflicted. However, in the most recent entry, Insidious: The Last Key (2018), we finally learn the origins of her ability to successfully navigate The Further, while she herself comes to terms with the only real demon that ever managed to haunt her. In addition to this, the film develops a strange and intriguing stance on the role of technology in these portals between worlds. The conflation of technophobic and glitch-ridden imagery with rusty keys and ancient whistles certainly succeeds in jarring the audience with its affective properties, but its thematic implications are less immediately clear. Equally, the possibility of The Further as a site for the uncanny becomes the most actualised in The Last Key, and often functions emblematically for one coming to terms with past traumas. All these elements render the film the least coherent in the series, and arguably the most thematically rich and interesting as a result.

In his book Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, Jeffrey Sconce describes an “occult discourse that proliferates around emerging computer technologies” (202). In recent years, a handful of films have proposed the notion that paranormal entities could surface in and through technology in various ways. In 2014’s Unfriended, social media and the internet are suggested as vessels through which a restless spirit could return to haunt its tormentors. Similarly, in Olivier Assays’ less generically explicit ghost movie, Personal Shopper (2016), the protagonist’s deceased brother reaches out to her from the afterlife through a series of ominous text messages. This trend arguably has traceable roots to the J-horror boom of the early 2000s, with such films as Ringu (1998), One Missed Call (2003), and Pulse (2001) all sharing the commonality of haunted technology. In Insidious: The Last Key, however, the simultaneous timelines of young and old Elise complicate this sensibility, which usually tends to thrive on era-specificity. Were the images of haunted technology to only occur in the film’s present day scenes, we might consider them more ideologically in line with what Xavier Reyes and Linnie Blake term ‘digital horror’. Moments in the film in which the demonic entities begin to generate glitches on the camera screens of Elise’s colleagues, and stop their torches from working, seem particularly symptomatic of this thematic pattern. However, that the demons affect the electricity of Elise’s childhood in 1953 suggests otherwise. Rather, the correspondence of techno-hauntings with the recurring symbol of the key has the curious effect of associating two very different ways of travelling between spaces.

One would usually be considered more physical: the laborious mechanics of turning a key make it the more mediated and assertive method; the other seems destined to be considered in more abstract terms: the unlimited possibilities of data transmission through modern technologies make any kind of traversal both instantaneous and intangible. In The Last Key, they are often co-present, sometimes less explicitly than others. Take the film’s opening passages, for instance, that find the young Elise locked in the basement (her father’s way of punishing her for possessing such a dangerous ‘gift’). The chilling voice that called out earlier in the bedroom returns with the instruction for Elise to take the key that dangles rather untantalisingly in font of her. Half-expecting to find Narnia, Elise obliges, but finds something far more sinister and even surreal. Firstly, the sounds the key makes when turning have a grim fleshiness to them, like someone mincing meat, or twisting a knife in the gut. It is one of several instances that juxtapose the aural with the visual, complicating the logical relationship between the two and generating a less traditionally terrifying affective response, more so an inexplicable unease; things simply don’t match, and something is off. The door suddenly spits the key out, before it begins to creak open slightly to make space for the vile, gangly hand of an unknown creature that claws its fingers into the room. The key then morphs into one of its fingers, and its puerile scrapes along the doorframe are sound-tracked by sparks of electricity. Even in the generic context of demonic entities and haunted houses, this sequence doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and seems expertly geared towards inflicting sheer cognitive disturbance.

But what could it mean in the wider thematic context of the film? It is certainly not an isolated incident, for one. Shortly after the appearance of the creature’s hand, Elise’s mother dies a mysterious death at the hands of the same otherworldly presence. Broken and burst electric wires gather as if under a spell and weave their way up her body, before curling violently around her neck and elevating her off the ground - staging a conventional hanging for Elise’s father, who arrives in time to register the incident as being caused by her intolerable penchant for attracting evil. Traumatised, Elise runs away from home and concludes the opening passage. The film has set up its themes, aesthetic sensibility, and character motivations that continue decades into the future. In 2010, shortly before the events of the first film, we find Elise helming a business that specialises in paranormal activities and spectral pests. When she receives a call for help from her old address, the film subtly codes the incident as the first of many that force her to come to terms with some unsavoury facts. She snaps the tip of her pencil in a jolt of realisation: a symbol of her inability to properly register the information, to deal with it scientifically and clinically. This one will require more than a pencil and a notepad - the film preys on Shaye’s affected panic to resituate the focal case into the realm of the personal: this time, it is anything but ‘just business’.

Upon her return to the site of childhood terror, Elise’s first real jolt establishes the film’s true villain; her adversary in the narrative, and the entity that haunts her, is more real than demonic. Carefully moving through the hallway, the audience hold their breath for the inevitable jump-scare but are rather perturbed to spot Elise’s father carrying a younger version of her from room to room. Again, it is less traditionally ‘horrifying’ than it is intriguing; it troubles and it unsettles. This kind of misdirection, which plays on generic expectations, is repeated in an instance where we spot a looming shadow behind Elise after she recovers her long lost whistle. It turns out to be her father’s old military uniform, reiterating once more the true source of her fear. Indeed, where most characters would be relieved that a looming presence turns out to be an inanimate object, for Elise - who barely bats an eye at the paranormal - the memory of abuse is far more frightening. She touches the uniform, and feels her way down before she shocks her hand on a set of keys. It provides another clue for unlocking (sorry) the mystery of The Further, in its conflation of two modes of travelling: electricity, and doors.

The dissonance between the visual object and what we hear continues the trend of approaching affect almost backhandedly throughout the film. The most pronounced instances involve the creature sticking its key finger into one’s neck - first the young Elise in the basement, later her brother’s daughter - and twisting it once around to the soundtrack of cackling electricity. There is no blood, only a ringing, feedback sound effect and the victim’s sudden silence. They obey the creature’s command to shhh and cease their screams. As the narrative culminates with Elise coming to terms with her childhood traumas, as well as the effect of her escaping them on her younger brother, can help bring into light what these strange moments are perhaps hinting at. They key remains emblematic of a more conscious, controlled, and laboured ‘passing through’. It is more premeditated, and requires an active presence. It also occurs in the physical moment, marking an act in time. Electricity is more pervasive and intangible, and can seemingly traverse across planes of time. Elise learns that to fully conquer her trauma, she must deal with both ways: she physically returns to the site and blows the antique whistle, turns the key, and re-embodies the space where the events occurred. It demarcates coming to terms with the concrete reality of what happened to her, and represents traversal to a space of greater understanding.

On the less physical level, Elise also embarks once more into The Further itself and defeats the demonic entity by no longer fuelling it with the hate on which it thrives. Her journey beyond is littered with images of the uncanny, namely through her reuniting with firstly her younger self, and then later with her mother as she was when she died. The image of two Elises in the same physical space literalises the more abstract ‘coming to terms’ with the past, and comprehending the emotional effect the childhood event had on her development as a person. To see her younger self is, in the film, to truly understand herself. Equally, after the demon dissipates, the older, present-day Elise is awarded the chance to tell her young mother how thankful she is. Technology has, by this point, played a narrative and affective role in creating the uncanny image of an elderly woman speaking to her mother who is more than half her age in physical appearance. The intangibility of The Further is fully embodied, and not in an instance of horror, but reconciliation. It provides a setting for intersubjective experience, where characters of different ages and timelines are able to share a single moment, outside of time. While the physical confrontation of her past is the essential first step for self-understanding in the film, it is the intangible, uncanny disembodied traversal that ultimately brings Elise the inner peace she has always desired.

Insidious: The Last Key thus brings much to the table of the series, building on its established thematic and aesthetic ideas while firmly grounding these explorations in character. Elise’s arc is all the more felt when situated in the series’ chronology, highlighting the emotional distance she was able to enact when dealing with other people’s trauma. When she encounters her own, she takes full agency in their defeat, and it is the understanding of her demons that truly marks their demise. Indeed, as mentioned in my earlier review of the film, the narrative resolution resembles the deceptive simplicity of The Conjuring 2 (2016), where verbally naming the demon causes its undoing. This perhaps provides The Last Key with its true contemporary resonance, in that the acknowledgement, the naming, the coming to terms with, and taking emotional agency over the perpetuator of abuse marks a shift in power. As Dawn Keetley points out, Insidious: The Last Key has much to say in the climate of the #MeToo movement in its presentation of masculine power and the abuse of it manifesting in the demonic. Elise, who recognises the hatred that the demon feeds on, turns to its face and informs, “you can fucking starve.” The film may not go down as a classic, but it represents another case of contemporary horror cinema engaging with its time, finding inventive ways to nurture such ideas into a clear story, with - of course - some pretty scary moments too.

This Alternate Take was published on July 16, 2018.

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