If you call out to one of the dead, all of them can hear you.” Basically, if you’re praying to your dear departed loved ones, you might be in for a big surprise when something nasty answers. Such befalls high-schooler Quinn Brenner (the appealing Stefanie Scott: Wreck-It Ralph), who asks her mom, who died recently, for help with an audition for drama school and accidentally catches the attention of the horrible spirit who used to live in the apartment above hers. Haunted apartment buildings are rare in movies, and this one is creepy and atmospheric, though I kept wondering if Insidious: Chapter 3 is supposed to be a sequel to Annabelle with its haunted apartment building. (It isn’t, but I had to double-check the Los Angeles shooting locations for both films in order to be certain that they weren’t shot in the same place.)
This isn’t a sequel to the otherInsidious movies, either: it’s a prequel, taking us back to the time when psychic ghost whisperer Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye: Jewtopia), who just about stole the first two films, resumed helping those being haunted after having withdrawn from the business. But a reliance on simple jump scares limits any true terror, and while writer-director Leigh Whannell’s understated restraint may be admirable in an era of overblown gory horror, it makes for an only tepidly frightening flick. (Whannell and Angus Sampson [Mad Max: Fury Road] also return as Elise’s ghostbusting partners, though this first meeting between them fails to make us understand why she had teamed up with them for the earlier movies, set after this.) The best thing here is Shaye, who is fantastic — again — as a performer, partially because Whannell has given her a meaty subplot to contend with as Elise grieves over the recent death of her husband (Adrian Sparks: The Purge: Anarchy). If Insidious 3 has any unusual soul for the genre, it comes from exploring the spiritual side of an older woman’s life and her loss of a long-term relationship… which is very rare indeed for a genre that so often focuses on teenagers.
Older hauntees are one of the factors that makes the teeny tiny indie horror We Are Still Here stand apart in a crowded arena, too. Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton [You’re Next] and Andrew Sensenig [Upstream Color]) aren’t quite as old as the 70ish Elise, but in their late 50s, they’re definitely not the typical horror-flick protagonists. Like Elise, they are coping with a recent loss — of their son — and their escape from their past life, with all its memories, to the old New England farmhouse they just bought is a slyly dryly funny riff on “cabin in the woods” tales. The directorial debut of Ted Geoghegan, who has a long list of credits as writer and producer in genre, is appealingly eerie as the Sacchettis slowly discover that they are not alone in the house, and why they were able to snap it up at such a bargain price. Here may be a bit too slow to get itself in gear — there isn’t really enough story here to justify even its minimal feature length — but by its ending, Geoghegan has descended into the bloody and the macabre in ways that simultaneously feel fresh and harken back to classic low-budget horror of the 70s. It’s probably not for anyone except dedicated devotees of the genre, but it does mark Geoghegan as a director to watch.