I love ghost stories on the screen, because the best of them become films about history and a kind of interior geography, films about how history can really really f**k with you, even when you’re not aware of it. In arguably one of my favorite ghost films of all time (which led to an abysmal, albeit author-helmed US adaptation/sequel) Ju-on: The Grudge, this latter aspect is expanded upon, with unwitting and benevelont real estate occupants trapped in a cycle of cruelly unfair blind revenge. The Insidious horror films tread somewhat similar ground, with the series plumbing ancestral history, hinting at the wider universe of the purgatorial The Further and its gaggle of life-hungry inhabitants. The third entry eschewed the gif-ready series mainstay the Lipstick Red-Face Demon for the most part, acting as a kind of prequel for the emergent paranormal protagonists, where the ony levity revolved around how busting ghosts made them feel good.

In Insidious: The Last Key, more of the overaching story comes to light, with the scares brought more resonantly to real-life aspects of abuse. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Insidious fans want, but for myself—a relatively casual consumer of the series, at best—this is exactly what I wanted. The stakes are a little different here, with a genuinely surprising development midway-through which I won’t spoil, but which drastically changes the tone of the story. And as for the newest demon KeyFace, in all his gangly metaphorical splendor, he’s an impressive addition to the short roster of villains, portrayed menacingly by Spaniard and modern horror vet Javier Botet.

For the uninitiated: Dr. Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, so cozy yet commanding in her role by now) and her two ghostbuster scamps Specs (Leigh Whannell, series creator always sneaky in his supporting role) and Tucker (Angus Sampson, brash and invariably eating a snack) contribute their mix of paranormal agency and spirit-seeking tech to help the haunted. Much of their success depends on Elise, in possession of some unique gifts for communicating with the dead and damned. She’s essentially “ghost-mom,” but it works, and we’ve been learning more about her background with each new film. While The Last Key isn’t another prequel, it fills in more of her backstory, with the bulk of it taking place in her childhood home, a fixer-upper with a host of closeted skeletons that she’s deliberately avoided until the events of the story.

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Insidious: The Last Key
Lin Shaye as Elise Rainier in Insidious: The Last Key

Black Girl Nerds readers will at least be pleased to know that this is the most diversely-cast entry, with supporting characters of different racial backgrounds fulfilling several key roles. I must admit that I never considered how much the series skews to white actors until I noticed this change, but was happy to see that this is at least being improved. Oz’s wonderful Kirk Acevedo is worthy of special note, and he arrives to the series complete with his penchant for mysterious and well-demonstrated inner turmoil.

Insidious has always possessed a blended tone, combining the real and deadly scares of The Further’s dangerous phantasms with the Laurel-and-Hardyisms of Specs and Tucker, who frequently bicker and mug for the camera. Unfortunately, in a rush to level its significantly darker (maybe darkest?) material in the new film, they lean on their shennanigans a little too hard. I wanted The Last Key to pursue its danger and more mature content with greater confidence, and seeing the two embarassingly, cartoonishly flirt with characters Imogen and Melissa Rainier took me so completely out of the film, effectively and suddenly draining it of its drama each time. This reads to me as a crowd-pleasing affectation to the script, to horror audiences that like a chuckling reprieve before they have the shit scared out of them, but I wanted it toned down or, at the very least, on par with previous entries. Instead, the majority of the content ends up as the darkest in the series to date, but also the goofiest.

Learning Elise’s backstory might be the real treat, and the series of flashback scenes and the way they weave into the present proved impressively consistent. For followers of Insidious’s track, Elise’s explored background clicks firmly into place with the wider mythos, and the young actresses who play her in the past are compelling to watch and feel right on point. As for her present-day incarnation, the sadness of a heroine who pines for her deceased husband while spending her days speaking with ghosts is a poignant contrast.

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It’s true, I wanted much more of The Eye (again, not the U.S.-remake) and much less Scooby Doo. But for a horror series running on its fourth entry, nothing about the story reads as laurels-resting or stagnant, and there are enough new and unexpected twists to make it feel like less of a cash-in than one might suspect. If anything, Lin Shaye’s performance grows in complexity with each entry, and this is the most intimate introduction to the character to date, as effective for newcomers and series regulars alike. It’s a January horror film not entirely reliant on jump-scares (but they’re definitely here, folks, including a few especially creative ones), making Insidious: The Last Key a worthwhile ticket.

Insidious: The Last Key is out in theaters now.