Film Review – Insidious: The Red Door
Insidious: The Red Door
With Insidious: The Red Door (2023), the Insidious franchise has now reached its fifth installment. This is surprising, given that it never quite got off its feet since the 2010 original. While I’m not the biggest fan of that first film, admittedly, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell did catch lightning in a bottle. A clever concept and strong production values made it a hit, with each subsequent entry trying – unsuccessfully – to replicate the same effect. Other properties James Wan has given birth to – such as the Saw and The Conjuring franchises – have lasted with various sequels and spinoffs. With Insidious, however, things feel stuck in place. Fans will immediately recognize familiar stylistic references. But rather than exploring new avenues and pushing the story in interesting ways, this release just kinda goes around in a circle.
It’s a testament to Wan’s skill as a filmmaker – to be able to tackle different properties in various genres and give each their own personalities. Insidious doesn’t look or sound like The Conjuring, or Saw, or Malignant (2021), or Furious 7 (2015), or Aquaman (2018). He never feels like he is repeating himself. That might be the biggest issue with The Red Door. Patrick Wilson does double duty as actor and first time director this go around. His approach checks off all the boxes for a horror flick, but I’m not so sure his voice as a storyteller is there yet. It doesn’t seem like he is creating something out of his own inspiration but trying to keep up with the previous installments. The result feels generic and bland. This is a forgettable movie that does nothing to take the franchise to new heights.
This isn’t to say that all the blame should be put on Wilson’s shoulders. He is burdened with a screenplay (Scott Teems) that does little to help him out. The narrative is split between two parallel arcs. The first follows Wilson’s character Josh, and the second featuring Josh’s now college-age son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins). Insidious fans will remember that both Josh and Dalton took the brunt of the scares in the first two films. We pick up a decade later, with the two suffering the effects of those experiences. In an early scene, they go under hypnosis in hopes of suppressing those memories, but of course that only lasts for so long. Because of this, Josh and Dalton’s relationship has become strained just as Dalton heads off to college. To make matters even worse, Josh has also become separated from his wife Renai (a criminally underused Rose Byrne).
At first, The Red Door operates as a dysfunctional family drama. Wilson’s direction and Teems’ writing take a long time to move all the pieces in the right order. There are some interesting bits. An argument between Josh and Dalton amplifies the long held animosity between father and son. Wilson and Simpkins’ performances help ratchet up the hurt and resentment, which ultimately becomes the central point of concern. But once the ghosts and ghouls come back to haunt the two once more, their story takes a back seat. The majority of the runtime consists of Dalton and Josh operating on their own – trying to investigate why each of them are experiencing hellish visions. And so, our characters are once again caught between the world of the living and the dimension known as “The Further,” where all sorts of monsters await them.
In a strange way, the narrative has a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of effect. There are creepy moments heavy with mood and atmosphere, but they are undercut with choices that drain the tension. In one scene, Josh stands in front of a window examining photographs he has taped to the glass. The camera steps back for a wide angle, showing Josh flipping each photograph over unaware of a figure standing in the far background. The lack of music or sound effect work to put us on the edge of our seats. Sadly, this well done moment is immediately followed by an action/horror scene that doesn’t go anywhere. This imbalance permeates everywhere. The editing flashes scary images to make an effective jump scare, but places them weird locations (such as inside of an MRI machine or the bathroom of a college frat house). The combination of fright and silliness leaves an awkward, almost comical aftertaste.
Since the story is split between Josh and Dalton’s perspectives, the momentum is constantly starting and stopping. There is no consistent rhythm or flow from one scene to the next. We see Dalton hanging out with new friend Chris (Sinclair Daniel) at college, and then double back to watch Josh worrying about his failing health and crumbling family. Because the two start experiencing their hauntings at the same time, their investigations give the audience the same information twice. There are plenty of talk about hypnosis and astral projection. Dalton and Josh fumbling their way through their cases becomes unintentionally funny. I particularly enjoyed the moment when the two discover the details of astral projection. Where Josh looks up old newspaper clippings to find what he is looking for, Dalton and Chris take the 21st century route by going on Google and YouTube.
Instead of feeling like a worthy curtain call for this story and these characters, Insidious: The Red Door limps its way to the finish line. It tries to end with a dramatic and heartfelt punctuation that isn’t earned, and thus feels phony and unsatisfying. Horror movies don’t always have to be scary to be effective – they can also be thrilling, exciting, entertaining, or even thought provoking. This doesn’t reach any of those. It just exists and nothing more. It’s a sad end to what was once a promising universe.