For a film so transparently intended to tie up loose ends of a long-ragged horror franchise that has only released prequels in the last 10 years, “Insidious: The Red Door” is a surprisingly accessible introduction to the Lambert family and their unfortunate story of demonic possession. This happy July programmer may be as dull and rusty as a nail in the coffin could ever snap without breaking, but “Insidious” newcomers should rest assured that they’ll be able to follow their friends’ exasperation (also, with a spin-off called “Thread” already in pre-production, it’s not like anyone should expect this property to stay dead for long).
One reason you should be able to get in quite easily: The movie begins with young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and his father Josh (Patrick Wilson) being hypnotized into forgetting everything that happened in ‘Insidious’ and ‘Insidious’ : Chapter 2″, which effectively puts them on the same page as most people in the audience. For one more thing, Scott Teems’ screenplay – somehow even thinner than the line between our world and the monster-filled hell Dalton and Josh access through astral projection, or which It use to log in They — completely flattens the series’ not-so-complicated backstory on ‘The Further’ and Josh’s childhood. She becomes a flimsy pretense to mass-produce the genre’s most familiar tropes about inherited trauma on an assembly line of ultra-telegraphed scares.
However, that choice to double down on the drama underpinning the franchise may have been what inspired Wilson to step behind the camera and direct “The Red Door” himself. A classically trained actor who made it big on HBO’s “Angels in America” after an acclaimed stint on Broadway and once made a living as independent cinema’s most restless suburban DILF, Wilson has since re-engaged in a lucrative career in unapologetic (though extraordinarily varied) schlock. Where before it was ‘Little Children’ or ‘Young Adult’ mixed together with ‘The Ledge’, ‘The Conjuring’ and ‘Home Sweet Hell’, these days it’s all ‘Midway’, ‘Moonfall’ and whatever else is that James Wan may work on later (all hail King Orm!).
So while it’s pure speculation to suggest that Wilson saw the character-driven conflict behind ‘The Red Door’ as an opportunity to combine his training with his tastes, it’s like I always say: You can take the guy out of Carnegie’s drama program Mellon, but you can’t take the Carnegie Mellon drama program away from the kid. In fact, the first act of Wilson’s directorial debut feels more like a hard-nosed pain drama – or at least an Ari Aster film – than the fifth installment in a horror franchise about red-faced demons playing peek-a-boo with Rose. Byrne.
Set a decade after the events of “Insidious: Chapter 2”, the story begins with the Lambert family on the verge of unraveling. It seems that quelling a legacy of supernatural nightmares under one mega-session of hypnotherapy might not have been the best idea, because Josh and his wife (Byrne, dutifully appearing for a few crucial screen minutes) have since divorced, and he and Dalton have drifted apart due to brain fog shared between them. Driving the 18-year-old Dalton feels like Josh’s last chance to salvage their relationship, and — over the course of the tense but surprisingly smooth opening half hour — it’s an excruciatingly blown opportunity.
Simpkins plays Dalton as a non-character so vacant it’s hard to tell whether he’s being stalked or lobotomized, but there’s real pathos behind Josh’s inability to communicate with his son, and the patience Wilson displays with these scenes reflects a deeper interest in what is truly terrifying. people. Sinclair Daniel brings so much zing to his part as Dalton’s roommate that a comedy looks set to explode at any moment, and were it not for the mud-colored cinematography that makes every scene look a little sick (for some reason a staple of low-budget studio horror these days), you might almost forget you’re looking at a Blumhouse venue.
The swirling violins and sudden outbursts don’t begin until Dalton takes a silly art class taught by Hiam Abbass, who encourages his students to tap into their subconscious. From then on, none of the Lambert men can go five minutes without astral projection, as the shared experience brings them closer even as those pesky demons threaten to tear them apart forever. From the moment Josh is in danger, “The Red Door” is overcome by the feeling that it’s Wilson who is just trying to get out of this alive.
Teems’ script leans heavily on the afterlife as a metaphor for the physical manifestation of mental trauma (and the need to face that trauma head-on rather than wishing it away), but ‘The Red Door’ has no interest in unpacking the monsters beyond That. It’s bad enough that the Further is basically just blue photographic gel and a metric ton of dry ice, and worse that the various ghouls that call it home are reduced to non-interchangeable entities with no real desire of their own. Aside from the ghost of Josh’s father and the dead brother who can’t stop the projectile vomiting in the toilet even from the spirit world, none of the evil ghosts are even given specific identities.
That puts a lot of pressure — way too much — on the horror those ghosts might be capable of producing, and while Wilson clearly paid attention to what his directors were doing in previous “Insidious” films, the novice filmmaker didn’t has the skills to save this installment with just jolts. More loud than scary, “The Red Door” weaves its way from one predictable leap to the next, with the scenes ranging from mildly intelligent (the MRI sequence plays) to unnervingly flat (a home invasion sequence aping “It Follows ” with negligible effect). By the time Wilson hits the finish line, he’s so out of new ideas that the film’s climax offers all the thrill of watching people run around the haunted house at a local carnival.
The generic (and decidedly PG-13) rent-a-scare horror elements interfere with what “The Red Door” really wants to do, which is to help Josh end the cycle of hurt he threatens to pass on to his boyfriends. Interspersed between that father-son drama and jolts meant to galvanize him, Wilson’s creaky debut falls short of both. Art is the door to the mind, Dalton’s teacher insists, but it never opens wide enough to let anything memorable in or out.
“Insidious: The Red Door” is now in theaters.