In a recent article published in the “Sunday Book Review” of The New York Times, Fantasy genre writer Neil Gaiman began his review of the seventh and most recent volume of prose by English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro with the following caveat:
“Fantasy is a tool of the storyteller. It is a way of talking about things that are not, and cannot be, literally true. It is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory in another.”
A few weeks ago, the James Wan and Leigh Whannell penned Inisidious feature film franchise saw the release of its third installment in the form of what is largely a return to the basic formula that made its initial feature, released back in 2010, such an unexpected delight and at times thrilling experience in big budget, horror genre filmmaking. In Insidious: Chapter 3, the Lambert family of the first two Insidious films is abandoned in the service of exploring actor Lin Shaye’s paranormal navigator Elise Rainier, which is a welcome bit of fan service after unceremoniously killing the character off early on in the proceedings of 2013’s Insidious: Chapter 2. In Insidious: Chapter 3, written and directed for the first time solely by Leigh Whannell, who got his start starring and co-writing with Wan in the original Saw film way back in 2004, Elise attempts to help a young girl being tormented by yet another insidious demon emanating from within the Further, all the while combating the Old Woman spirit from the two previous installments.
Despite the series’ penchant for an intensely claustrophobic use of jump scares supported by the franchise’s unrelenting score, which admittedly lends to much of the suffocating ambiance of the film’s theatric proceedings, Insidious: Chapter 3 is another consistent entry in what is perhaps the best popular horror franchise of this decade. In maintaining creative control over their independent property this time around, Wan and Whannell have insured that the cinematic universe of the Insidious films remains cohesive and thematically sound from film-to-film, which was certainly not the case with their Saw franchise of the 2000s, which saw a change of hands after only the first entry in the series, and from there began a downward spiral into regressive, sadomasochism, losing sight of what was an initially inspired take on a peculiar blend of Sartresian existentialism and melodrama. In Insidious: Chapter 3, Whannell handily takes the reins to Wan’s impeccably crafted horror vehicle, driving straight ahead and into the Further.
And yet there are still those few naysayers who see the cinematic journey first embarked upon by Dalton Lambert as holding little merit, the nightmarish dreamscape so emotively established in the first film sycophantic in its own self-adulation. For some viewers, Wan and Whannell have done little more than wade in the shallow waters of horror hound infantilism, their genre franchise unable to reach far beyond the mediocrity of its built-in fan base. Inarguably, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a loud, obnoxious thriller, and for some viewers, the Further is a playground better suited to the whimsy of the sort of adolescent immaturity that makes up for much of the very worst entries within mainstream horror, and to which the Insidious franchise largely belongs. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to mount an argument in the defense of Whannell’s latest horror film as anything more than fan service, the plight of Elise Rainier a thankless exercise in manipulative terror, a cinematic experience, moreover, that has become redundant and contrite of its own cliché ridden poor taste the third time around.
But there is something more to be said on behalf of the Insidious franchise that fantasy writer Neil Gaiman tangentially gets at in his own extrapolations on genre fiction, fantasy, and allegory, previously cited in his review for The New York Times of English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s aforementioned, contemporary fantasy novel for adults, The Buried Giant. In laying out his thesis that “Fantasy is a tool of the storyteller,” Gaiman makes it possible to extrapolate on the presence of ogres and other fantastic beasts within what is an otherwise mature piece of prose ostensibly written for adults. In much the same way, Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3 contains the Further, a realm which houses spirits and demons of light and darkness who serve to reflect a more human story centered around the pangs felt most intensely by characters ostensibly meant to stand in for ourselves and one another. In the Further, demons are the figurative means by which loss and regret may be rendered into metaphor, shading “myth in one direction,” and “allegory in another.”
In the central narrative of Insidious: Chapter 3, a young girl and her widower father are forced to come to terms with the loss of someone near and dear to them, inviting the introduction of the spectral presence of the film’s featured demon, the Man Who Can’t Breathe. In the narrative presented to us in Whannell’s film, the father and daughter duo are so gripped in grief that they cease to live, thereby summoning a force of darkness intent on keeping them in the dark. In this way, Elise acts as a spiritual guide and healer, bringing them to a place of reconciliation and acceptance from where they may see the light and spectral presence of spirits of the light beyond the Further, and out of the darkness represented by the Man Who Can’t Breathe. In Whannell’s fantastic rendering of the unreal and horrifyingly surreal, his film gets at some universally held truths and holistic messages of spiritual healing that exist beyond the grip of existential turpitude.
While much of the Insidious franchise still abounds in a certain fantasy that may prove too thickly applied for some viewers to embrace as wholeheartedly as Whannell may wish, Insidious: Chapter 3 maintains a certain tenderness in its depiction of its individual characters that allows them to navigate a narrative landscape that is otherwise heavy handed and cinematically discomfiting in an altogether inconclusive way. As Gaiman surmises on his own understanding of the mystery that abounds in Ishiguro’s fantastic fable:
“I suspect my inability to fall in love with [The Buried Giant], as much as I wanted to, came from my conviction that there was an allegory waiting like an ogre in the mist, telling us that no matter how well we love, no matter how deeply, we will always be fallible and human, and that for every couple who are aging together, one or the other of them, of us, will always have to cross the water, and go on…ahead and alone.”
While it would be a far cry to compare Leigh Whannell with Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman, the sentiment held between the two texts is akin in terms of theme, tone, and dramatic catharsis. In Insidious: Chapter 3, the shadowy form of allegory proves equally inviting and foreboding, capturing our common imagination no matter what form it takes, be it demon or ogre.