What I love about the Insidious films (at least with the first one) is that watching it is like the film equivalent of going through a haunted house attraction, but without the annoyance of people screaming in your ears or tugging at your clothes every time someone or something pops from the corner. Yes, there are a lot of jump scares, the music is over-the-top, and the moments of humor with the paranormal investigators, Specs and Tucker, are incredibly awkward and out of place. That’s what I find so appealing, there’s a sense of fun that that is lacking in most modern horror. The creativity with the concept of “the Further” and some of the ghosts and demons are really interesting enough, but it’s the craft behind the camera that really pushes the film. Granted I was very disappointed with Insidious Chapter 2, but I was interested in revisiting the franchise with Chapter 3. Even if it is mostly because of longtime James Wan (director of the first two) writing partner Leigh Whannell is taking up the directorial duties for the first time, and I’m curious to see how he pulls it off.

Taking place a few years before the events of the first film, we meet Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) who is visiting Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) to see if she could get in contact with her dead mother. Unfortunately, Elise is out of the game, so she can’t help, but she warns Quinn that when “you call out to the dead, all of them can hear you” Quinn later begins hearing and seeing things later on, which only gets worse when she is hit by a car breaking both her legs, leaving her stuck in her room. It seems that in her attempt to contact her mother on her own, another supernatural entity has managed to latch onto her.

PrintAs I said, I was very disappointed with the second one. It went out of its way to answer questions that I never asked, it felt completely unnecessary, and I’m still baffled that it managed to throw in time travel somehow. The funny thing is Insidious Chapter 3 could also have the same criticisms applied to it, there’s really no reason for this to get made, and it goes out of its way to answer questions that I never asked. The difference here is that Chapter 3 is actually a fairly well executed, if flawed, horror film that works well on its own without feeling like a retread, even if it kind of is.

Leigh Whannell takes James Wan’s place as the director (while still writing and having a supporting role), and he actually does a very good job with the film. He certainly takes a lot of cues from his longtime creative partner, but it’s only natural given the specific type of horror that they have been doing with this franchise. He manages to create a good atmosphere and does a great job at building tension and a sense of dread. He also continues the idea that all the jump scares should be earned and should never be false. As in, there should be some build up to each jump scare and there should never be any moment where the music goes loud only to reveal that the scare was simply a cat, or a friend or something that wasn’t worth getting all worked up over. He doesn’t rely on jump scares though, since there are many moments that are quiet where you see shadowy figures in the distance or maybe even behind a character, and the camera simply lingers to a genuinely creepy effect.

It also helps that the acting in the film is really strong. Dermot Mulroney plays Sean, Quinn’s father, and he does a good job at playing that struggling single father who can’t seem to catch a break. He and Stefanie Scott do a great job in creating a believable family dynamic that really gets you to care about the situation. Lin Shaye continues to do genuinely stellar work as Elise. She gets more to do in this one, as we get to see more backstory behind her character. It gives her more room to create a meaty role that she does fantastic work with. Elise Rainer is honestly one of the most interesting and fascinating characters in recent horror and this film solidifies that. I also have to give major props to Stefanie Scott whose character suffers the most abuse in a horror film since probably the Evil Dead remake. She starts off emotionally vulnerable opening up about her mother’s death, then she botches an audition at a theater school (where there is a cameo by a certain someone if you keep your eyes open), then she gets hit by a car breaking both her legs and dies for a few minutes, gets haunted, thrown around her bedroom, gets a neck brace, gets possessed and walks around with her broken legs, it just never seems to end. I don’t think I’ve felt this bad for a character in a really long time.

The only real problems I had were minor, and most of them do stem out of the fact that it is a prequel that gives me information that I would rather not have. Most of it comes in the end, where (spoilers I guess if you haven’t seen the other ones) we see Elise deciding to go into business with Specs and Tucker, or when we see Elise naming the other side “the Further.” I didn’t need to know any of this. It borders on over-explaining things, though it’s at least never as lame as the explanation for the Bride in Black in Insidious Chapter 2. Speaking of unnecessary, the film ends on a jump scare that I really could have done without. And while I like how streamlined the story is, there were a few points where I felt the film could have spent a bit more time fleshing things out since they felt sort of quick and abrupt.

Insidious Chapter 3 is a very pleasant surprise. While it never reaches the heights of the first film, it definitely exceeds the second. While certainly flawed in areas, it works because of its focus, its tight direction and likeable characters performed by really good actors. It even allows for some sincerely poignant moments about how we deal with the death of loved ones. It’s definitely one of the better horror films I’ve seen this year, and it shows a promising career for Leigh Whannell as a director. If you aren’t already on board for an Insidious film after the first two, then this won’t convince you otherwise. But if you were disappointed with the second film like I was, this is a huge improvement, it’s well crafted, the characters are solid and it’s just plain spooky.