If the Insidious film series was just a little more popular, there might be a bit of a ruckus online about it apparently ending with 2023’s Insidious: The Red Door. A few weeks before its premiere, trailers entreated viewers to experience the story’s “terrifying conclusion.” At the same time, Screen Gems announced plans for an “Insidious tale,” Thread, starring Mandy Moore and Kumail Nanjiani. While The Red Door brings back original cast members Ty Simpkins, Patrick Wilson, and Rose Byrne, there’s no guarantee they’ll be involved with future Insidious stories.
And that’s regrettable, in a way, because The Red Door is the most fully realized Insidious story so far — not the best entry in the franchise, and certainly not the scariest, but the one that explores the characters’ potential most thoroughly. This installment gives Wilson his first crack at directing, which gives him room to dig deeper into his character.
Will he ever have a chance to do that again? Hard to say. If the Conjuring universe, another horror movie series originated by director James Wan, were coming to a definitive close, there would certainly be more (or clearer) press about it. But while the Insidious series came first, it’s always been something of a kid brother to the blockbuster Conjuring movies and their spinoffs, like Annabelle and The Nun. That’s part of its stealthy charm.
What makes the Insidious movies work
In a lot of ways, Wan’s first Insidious does play like a dry run for The Conjuring. Both feature a family bedeviled by ghostly figures in their home, though Insidious is the rare horror film where the family actually moves away from the seemingly haunted house mid-movie. (Turns out, it wasn’t the house that was haunted.) Insidious has some of the slow-burn stateliness Wan later emphasized with his traveling-camera takes through the Conjuring house, but in Insidious, he mixes it with a PG-13 version of the shock-horror of his earlier Saw and Dead Silence.
Though the first Insidious isn’t as manic as vintage Sam Raimi, it has some of Raimi’s carnival spookhouse energy. “The Further,” the realm young Dalton Lambert (Simpkins) disappears into when he astral projects too far outside his body, is unashamedly depicted as pretty much the same as our world, only with ample fog machines, spooky lighting, and garishly made-up ghosts, like a lower-budget progenitor of the Upside Down from Stranger Things.
Wan directed one more entry in the series, Insidious: Chapter 2, before leaving his collaborator Leigh Whannell (who also wrote the first four films) to direct Chapter 3, which moves away from the Lambert family for a prequel about how professional medium Elise (Lin Shaye) dedicated herself to exploring The Further. A fourth film, Insidious: The Last Key, delves into Elise’s backstory, and leads straight into the beginning of the first entry.
How The Red Door picks up the Insidious threads
The Red Door rejoins the Lambert family around a decade after the events of the first film. In a bid to ease the troubled psyches of young Dalton and his father Josh (Wilson), who share their astral projection ability, the pair has undergone hypnosis to make them forget all about the events of the first two movies. But of course, dark family secrets can’t stay buried forever, especially when they involve ghosts who look kind of like Darth Maul.
Puzzle-piece, hopscotched continuity is nothing new in horror cinema, but it’s notable in today’s cinematic-universe world that the Insidious franchise hasn’t (so far) required actual spinoffs in order to, well, spin off in different directions. Instead, it made a good old-fashioned creative pivot after its weakest entry (and biggest hit!), Chapter 2. Even with Wan and the original stars back on deck, the first sequel is a repetitive, borderline nonsensical affair, mostly due to its decision to bring back the Lamberts without a clear idea of what to do with most of them. Renai (Byrne) is particularly ill-served, written into a hopeless state of denial in order to let her husband’s possession go unnoticed for so long.
The Insidious movies’ thematic resonance has always been a weak spot. They have a habit of teasing out potentially interesting subtext about family dynamics, repression, and labor-sharing, then abruptly dropping it — especially when it relates to Renai and Josh as a couple. Josh is the ultimate Patrick Wilson character: an outwardly charming but out-of-his-depth suburban guy whose slightly faded golden-boy looks belie his ineffectual nature. Even the first and best Insidious movie skimps a little on the opportunity to dig into Josh’s tendency to hide from his family and minimize Renai’s fears. It’s just easy enough to overlook because the movie unleashes a steady stream of gimcrack jumps and scares in its carnivalesque climax.
That novelty doesn’t last through Chapter 2, so in spite of Wilson’s and Byrne’s charisma, it makes sense that the producers chose the prequel route for the third and fourth films. Chapter 3’s focus on septuagenarian Lin Shaye — a classic scream queen from the ’80s movies Alone in the Dark and A Nightmare on Elm Street, among others — winds up being delightful. The third and fourth films complicate the continuity, but they also stand apart from the first two movies, as a two-part Elise origin that sets her up for the events of the first film.
Though Elise’s communion with various spirits has a vaguely New Age-y bent, the Insidious movies never get as piously (and sometimes uncomfortably) churchy as their Conjuring counterparts. They also don’t get bloated — their B-movie origins are still recognizable in the sometimes corny dialogue and the cheaply effective visual effects. Throughout it all, the filmmakers hold real affection for their characters, particularly Elise and her comic sidekicks Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell himself).
How The Red Door goes deeper than other Insidious movies
Despite this sincerity, the series hadn’t quite done right by the Lamberts in Chapter 2, and their return in The Red Door makes the new film feel like a legacy sequel, even though the series hasn’t been in stasis. The first order of business is to continue forgetting about Renai; after the movie’s nine-year time jump, we learn that she and Josh have divorced, and the hypnosis designed to free Josh of his frightening burden has left him increasingly “foggy” (which is to say, Patrick Wilson-y) in recent years.
In an attempt to reconnect with his now-teenage son, Josh drives Dalton off to college. Their road trip has some surprisingly realistic and well-wrought tension, a believable conflict between a surly teenager and a distant dad who wants credit just for kinda-sorta trying. (Again, classic Wilson.)
From there, The Red Door follows a dual track: At college, a new art teacher unwittingly unlocks Dalton’s repressed memories. Back at home, Josh attempts to investigate his fogginess. This makes for the most thematically fleshed-out Insidious yet, though admittedly not the scariest. The astral projection abilities that put Dalton and Josh in touch with various life-coveting ghosts are inherited, meaning that the characters are essentially grappling with barely coded versions of mental health problems, as well as abuse.
Part of the reasoning for wiping their minds of the previous movies’ events is the otherwise indelible nature of what Dalton and his siblings witnessed at the climax of Chapter 2: Josh attempting to kill the family in a Shining-esque fury. Yes, he was possessed at the time, but Renai makes it clear that in the kids’ eyes, that was their father, not an invisible evil spirit. (It’s a pointed observation, given how often horror uses demonic possession as a weird excuse for abusive behavior, as in last year’s risible Prey for the Devil.)
Some of the events in The Red Door will nonetheless feel trite to horror fans, who have endured any number of particularly clumsy post-Babadook movies that prioritize trauma-related metaphors over narrative surprise or visceral fright. The Insidious films have largely resisted foregrounding this kind of self-important exploration of trauma. But sometimes avoiding that theme, or skipping across it without acknowledging it, left the movies feeling muddled. Five entries in, the franchise has earned a little blathering about generational trauma.
It helps that Josh’s character is repressed in such a specifically macho way — he’s simultaneously unwilling to seek help (at the beginning of the film, he’s “just trying to push through” his mental murk) and covering up his helplessness with belligerence (telling Renai he “hasn’t had the bandwidth” to be a better parent). His consternated pain when he sends stilted text messages to his son is exquisitely rendered. Wilson understands this character down to the bone, and as the director, he has more room to fully explore Josh.
But is Insidious: The Red Door good?
As a director, Wilson isn’t as effortless a horror ringmaster as Wan or Whannell: He favors more actor-centric scares than wild imagery. But he makes great use of expressive close-ups (often of himself) and shallow focus, with a few creepy It Follows-like shots of blurry figures approaching from the distance, and a terrifically claustrophobic scene inside an MRI machine. Dalton’s college story, meanwhile, occasionally borders on campus-prank zaniness: It includes what can only be described as a puke ghost, and there’s one amusing use of the horror movie cliche about the haunted little kid who makes terrifying drawings of the ghouls only he can see. (Naturally, that kid grows up to become a star pupil in an insufferable freshman art class.)
The cutting between the two storylines is sometimes a bit sluggish, leaving Renai lost in the shuffle once again. And in returning to its original core family, The Red Door leaves behind one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable bits from previous installments in the series: the adventures of Elise, Tucker, and Specs. (They do get internet-video cameos.) Maybe the upcoming Threads spinoff will more closely resemble that sillier side of the series.
Still, the Insidious franchise’s B-movie sincerity serves it well to the end. Some of its thematic concerns are overly familiar at this point, but the film at least seems genuinely interested in the ways its characters might continue to harness their uncomfortable (and for Dalton, sometimes oddly exhilarating) abilities.
That’s where The Red Door ties in with Elise, who learns a similar lesson about her own powers in the previous films, allowing her to survive beyond her shock-effect demise at the end of the first one — both figuratively, via the prequels, and literally, via her projection powers. The filmmakers lean into the potentially unsatisfying nature of demonic possession movies by avoiding the idea that demons can be killed in a physical confrontation, or banished with mystical rites. In the modest Insidious universe, the demons are always there. Living with them is up to us.
Insidious: The Red Door is in theaters now. Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 are streaming on Max. Insidious: Chapter 3 is streaming free with ads on Tubi. All four previous Insidious movies are available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.