Sixtysomething Elise Rainier might be old enough to retire. But that’s the last thing on her mind. Instead, she’s only concerned with using her psychic skills to help those experiencing nasty and nettlesome ghosty problems. In fact, she’s thinking—with the help of her young techy sidekicks Specs and Tucker—that it’s time to kick their ghostbusting biz up a notch.
Now, don’t think of that in the wrong way: This isn’t some scare-the-chumps scam or anything like that. No, Elise is the real ghoul-grappling McCoy. Ever since she was a young girl, Elise has had a paranormal “gift,” one that lets her see dead spirits and demonic entities. And to her considerable credit, she’s demonstrated an unwavering inclination to help others with that unusual ability.
But it’s never been an easy burden to bear—for multiple reasons.
Skeptics have scoffed at the very suggestion of someone being able to see spirits in another dimension, and they’ve rejected Elise and her ability out of hand. Why, Elise’s own father, a prison warden, used to beat her, locking her in the basement anytime she mentioned seeing spirits around their house. And the fact that they lived on the state penitentiary grounds made for a regular parade of poltergeists (of recently executed criminals).
When she wasn’t dealing with her dad’s abuses, though, Elise’s childhood was still no stroll in the proverbial park. Her mother’s demonically linked death, as well as other spiritual torments, arguably left her even more psychologically scarred than the bleeding lashes her father often left across her back.
Yes, even now it’s hard for Elise to think back on those painful formative years. But she’s been forced to do so lately. That’s because she and her ghostbusting team just got a call from a certain Mr. Garza, a man who needs their help with a spiritual infestation of sorts in his home—the very house Elise grew up in.
Well, she did say she wanted to kick things up a notch.
As someone in her 60s, Elise is quite physically frail and vulnerable. But she’s also a determined, driven woman who’s not afraid to face down the worst of otherworldly creepies—even to the point of putting her own life on the line as she does so.
We eventually meet Elise’s adult brother, Christian, and his two young-adult daughters. One of them talks of how much she loves her dad. “You don’t know how happy that makes me,” Elise responds. Elise subsequently works diligently to free one of those young women after she’s spiritually attacked and has her soul stolen away.
Elise is also willing to face very real-world dangers (from a man with a gun) when she and her crew discover a woman who’s been kidnapped and held hostage.
The main action of this flick involves encountering and struggling against evil spirits and ghostly entities. Sometimes those encounters take place in a bleak spiritual plane called The Further. These interactions never appear to have any connection to God or to a Christian conception of spiritual reality, however. Instead, they’re just dark struggles with evil spirits. In fact, the one time that any of these creatures is beaten back by the power of “good,” it’s defined as the force of parental love.
That said, we do see a large crucifix nailed to a wall in Elise’s former home. And its current resident, Mr. Garza, has stacks of Bibles piled up, seemingly to ward off evil. He never speaks of any religious beliefs of his own, however. And Elise tosses a proffered Bible aside as being useless in her own battles against these entities.
The film’s primary source of evil is a demonic creature that a very young Elise almost accidentally releases into our world by unlocking a mystical “red door.” This ghoulish thing has keys for fingers and keeps other spirits locked in metal collars, unleashing his torments upon them whenever he pleases. We also see real-world female captives locked in similar metal collars, and it’s stated that the men who perpetrated those evils were possessed by this key-fingered demon.
At one point, Elise is prompted to whip and torture someone in The Further. But she soon stops, realizing that her overflowing hatred and violence is only feeding the key-fingered spirit. A spiritual rescue operation of sorts involves a woman being hypnotized and sent into the The Further to rescue Elise’s niece’s captive soul and lead it back to her flesh-and-blood body in the real world.
Elsewhere, ghosts frequently leap in and out of shadows. Some scream or pop into the frame with a shout. (Jump scenes abound here.) Young Elise recounts details of an executed prisoner’s life after meeting his disembodied spirit. She also talks to a dead child about where spirits go after death. (To “the dark,” she’s told). Elise falls into a trance (both as her young self and as her older one) that transports her spirit to a dark realm.
Spec and Tucker are a couple of geeky guys who make awkward, sometimes leering advances toward Elise’s two nieces. Spec eventually becomes friendly enough with one of the young women, Imogene, to give her a kiss. Both of Elise’s nieces wear somewhat low-cut tops.
We also see a woman being held captive in a locked room who’s wearing nothing but a dirty slip that covers her torso. Other female-looking spirits are dressed similarly.
A gun-wielding assailant gets hit from behind with a club; when he falls to the ground, a heavy bookshelf is pushed over on him—crushing his head and leaving him in a pool of blood. This is the only truly bloody moment in this PG-13 film. But hardly the only violent one.
We see many other painful looking, if bloodless, assaults throughout the balance of the film. Characters are thrown long distances, pummeled forcefully and impaled by sharp objects. A demon, for instance, has a broken cane jammed into its face. And we see a man beat a young woman to death with his cane. (The prone girl’s body is just outside the view of the camera.)
Elise’s father lashes her across the back with his cane when she’s just a young girl. We later see numerous scars and lash marks on her adult back. “I don’t have memories of that place,” she says. “I have scars.”
Someone with a wire wrapped around her throat is forcefully hoisted up and strangled to death by an unseen force. A woman is slammed forcefully into a basement wall as well. As she tries to escape, a demonic creature crawls to her, straddles her chest, drives a key into her throat to silence her cries, then cuts open her chest and drives another key into her heart. Later, something similar is done to another character.
A young woman is found bruised, bleeding and locked up in chains in a dungeon-like room. The lights dim in Elise’s childhood home when the nearby prison “fries someone” with an electrocuting charge. Elise’s brother, Christian, accuses her, “You abandoned me to a real monster, our father.”
One f-word and one or two uses of “h—” join two exclamations of “oh my god!”
Elise’s father and Mr. Garza both appear to be heavy drinkers who swig glasses of booze or bottles of beer in an effort to dull the daily pain of life.
Spec and Tucker’s statements about women are eye-rollingly smarmy.
This is a sequel to a prequel to 2011’s original Insidious pic. But don’t bother wringing your hands over any story bits you might have missed. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen any of the previous three movies in this paranormal thriller franchise. They’re all tied together with the most diaphanous and wispy story threads in any case. And when it comes to logic, well, that reasoning substance has never been more than a fleeting apparition in this series.
So it is, for the most part, with The Last Key.
The fact is, this flick could be considered the best of the Insidious horror lot. But that’s only because actress Lin Shaye takes center stage here and makes us care for her vulnerable sexagenarian ghost hunter—a woman who wants to help those in need and passionately puts her own safety on the line to do so. Her earnest performance might have made for a rather watchable movie in the hands of a different filmmaking brain trust.
Alas, instead we get pretty much what’s come before: deep-black creepy jump scenes galore, torture-like child abuse and an inexplicable and grotesque demonic thingy—this time one with keys for fingers (?)—that does horrific things. Fill in the onscreen gaps with other screeching fetid ghosties and a bit of feeble ghostbuster-crew humor, and you end up with
Insidious pic number four.
It’s a brainless and blanch-worthy way to start a new year of movies. But, hey, I guess we can only go up from here.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.