Insidious: The Red Door 2023 Movie Review
Halfway through “Insidious: The Red Door,” there’s a moment that encapsulates why the movie isn’t more insidious. Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson), the father from the first two “Insidious” films (this one is number five), has just dropped his son off for his freshman year at college. The son, Dalton, is once again played by Ty Simpkins, who was just a spooked kid in the earlier films; now he’s a spooked surly emo art student draped in hippie hair. Eight years ago, Dalton and his father were hypnotized so that they would lose all memory of the Further, the spirit zone Dalton got sucked into as an astral projection of himself. The hypnosis worked; they’ve forgotten the living nightmares they saw. But now the visions are coming back.
Josh, in his living room, tapes pictures to the window panes, trying to identify the people on them from the back, though the real action is happening on the lawn just outside: a hazy orange figure coalescing, slowly, out of a blur. (It’s the same diaphanous presence we saw several scenes earlier, creeping up to a car’s rear window.) As the figure began to draw closer, I steeled myself for Josh to lift one of those pictures and reveal a terrifying face of evil staring through the window. Instead, the ghostly figure enters the scene by crashing through the window, like some goon in a cop thriller. Jolting, yes. But not exactly scary or insidious.
Back in 2010, “Insidious” was directed by James Wan, who was best known as the director of “Saw” (he has since done the “Conjuring” series, “Furious 7,” and “Aquaman”). Even if you were a “Saw” fan, what was surprising about “Insidious” is how artfully unsettling it was. Wan drew on movies like the great oddball 1962 indie chiller “Carnival of Souls” to create a film that coaxed its fear out of the poetry of horror-movie faces. He also turned the Further into a true floating forbidden zone — a midnight attic of the mind.
In the years since, the “Insidious” series has replayed those tricks, and others, to the point that none of them — not even Lin Shaye’s weirdly becalmed space-cadet parapsychologist — have much scary surprise left.
“Insidious: The Red Door” tries to return us to the landscape of Wan’s first two “Insidious” films by bringing back the original characters. Dalton has grown up hating his father, because he felt abandoned by him. Josh, divorced from Renai (Rose Byrne), has been living in a fog, his wiped-out memories just out of reach. Wilson, in addition to returning to the role of Josh, directed the new film (it’s his first time behind the camera), and when Josh and Dalton show up at Dalton’s dorm room, their escalating quarrel is well-staged; it gives the movie a hint of a human center. So does Dalton’s roommate, Chris, who was scheduled to be a guy — but Sinclair Daniel, who invests her with a cosmopolitan brashness, makes the character winning enough that no one seems in too much of a hurry to head down to the housing office and correct the mistake.
For a while, Josh, back home, and Dalton, at college, are estranged but linked by their demon sightings, confronting this or that mucky spirit from the Further. One of them is a doozy: At a frat party presided over by Nick the Dick (Peter Dager), the first fraternity president who looks like the winner of the “I Want to Be Timothée Chalamet” contest, Dalton enters a bathroom and sees a demon puking his guts out in the toilet — and a moment or two later, he’s a lot closer than that. Gross, but effective. A scene in which Josh, trying to find the source of his brain fog, undergoes an MRI, during which the lights go out and a demon slithers around his head, is brought off with first-rate timing.
All of this, however, feels standard in its goose-the-audience arbitrariness. And when we learn who the orangy demon is, the film enters a zone of what might be called psycho therapy: My daddy did this to me! And that’s why I’m going to do it to you! Dalton, who’s a gifted artist, has enrolled in a composition class (presided over by a guru of a professor played with hilarious pretentious airs by Hiam Abbass), and the painting he does there, which acquires more detail as the film goes on, is of a red door with a scowling figure poised in front of it, menacingly holding a hammer. He looks like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” and the comparison is not incidental. Here, once again, an ordinary father becomes a wannabe killer, attempting to destroy his family with a blunt object. But this, too, is not very scary. (I’d argue that it wasn’t even scary in “The Shining.”)
A parallel-reality fear zone. Faces in the dark. The return of repressed family demons. These are the elements that “Insidious” elevated (and that Ari Aster sprung “Hereditary” from), but depending on their design and execution they can be spooky — or banal — as hell. For a first-time director, Patrick Wilson doesn’t do a bad job, but he’s working with tropes that have already been worked to death. It’s time to close this carnival of souls down.