While ghosts by themselves are frightening, the idea that they can hurt the very people we love is several shades scarier. “The Conjuring” and “Insidious”—the two James Wan joints that have spun the two most successful and sophisticated supernatural horror franchises of the last decade—understood this timeless fear at a deep level. Through respective sequels and spin-offs that you probably have mixed up at least once, both of these collections handed us stories about loving but desperately trapped families, with only bad options to choose from in their ghost-infested lives.
Now “Insidious: The Red Door” revives the tale of one of these movie clans—the one haunted by a spooky form of sleepwalking starring the terrific “Scream King” Patrick Wilson, and not the other one that also stars the same Patrick Wilson—reuniting the Lamberts nearly a decade after the disturbing happenings of “Insidious: Chapter 2.” If you are a devotee of the dark moods, red-faced monsters and creaky floorboards of these spooky cinematic page-turners like this critic, you might find that you’ve dearly missed this troubled family at first, easing into the next episode of their unnerving journey during the film’s initial act. Though the straight sequel “The Red Door” proves fast that it doesn’t have much else to offer to the viewer other than some fan-service-y familiarity, becoming wearisome rapidly despite a dedicated cast and actor Wilson’s capable direction in his filmmaking debut behind the camera.
One thing to note about that aforesaid familiarity: it is indeed crucial to possess in order not to get lost in “The Red Door,” written by Scott Teems and franchise regular Leigh Whannell. In other words, some homework of seeing at least the first two “Insidious” movies is necessary to comprehend the everlasting trauma of this one’s main characters and register the weight of their predicaments. (Meanwhile, you can safely skip the spin-offs “Chapter 3” and “The Last Key.”)
Still, a little “Previously on Insidious…”-type reminder is provided right at the start here, briefly summarizing what happened at the end of “Chapter 2.” Adamant to save his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from “The Further”—a dark place of lost souls that he had wandered off to in his sleep—Josh (Wilson) had also travelled to that deadly dimension, coming back a murderously possessed man pursuing his kids and wife Renai (Rose Byrne). The family had no choice but to forget their trauma through hypnosis, erasing a whole disquieting year from their memories in order to live happily every after.
Well, not quite. Fast-forward to today, and Dalton (a very grown-up and gifted Simpkins) has become a quietly suffering artist, departing for a liberal arts college on the heels of his grandmother’s funeral. Josh and Renai have split up, and Dalton can’t seem to stand his dad. We learn as much during their eventful drive to Dalton’s college—before we know it, a dramatic quarrel flares up between the father and son, with Josh says things he’d regret later. On the sidelines, we meet Dalton’s new best-friend-to-be Chris (a wonderful Sinclair Daniel), a spirited Math student that the script inexplicably underutilizes, failing to give Chris her own story.
That’s too bad, because the friendship of Chris and Dalton charges much of the story that sadly downgrades the young woman to a quirky and generic sidekick, one that follows an increasingly distraught Dalton around, no questions asked. (You’d think someone as smart and witty as Chris would get a little skeptical when a guy she barely knows repeatedly suffers from nightmares and hallucinations.) Elsewhere, Teems and Whannell do much better with the dramatic beats of the father and son story. In that regard, it’s genuinely touching when Josh realizes a picture of him didn’t make it to Dalton’s dorm room wall amid other familial portraits. Scenes through which Dalton tries to find his voice as an artist also leave a sufficiently alarming mark, while the young painter dips into the furthest corners of his memory to create work that comes from within. (As Dalton’s art teacher, the great Hiam Abbass gets a small yet fun part.)
It’s thanks to Dalton’s pursuit of deeply personal art that he finds himself back in The Further again, remembering little by little what went down during the year he was told to be in a coma. In fairness, Wilson does well with playing with our sights and illusions in elegant set-pieces, splitting the difference between sneaky apparitions and jump scares efficiently, showing his directorial skills during a fantastic MRI sequence in particular. (Those who already have trouble with this very claustrophobic machine: beware.)
But despite a worthy message about the importance of embracing one’s past—blocking your trauma is no fruitful way to deal with it—“Insidious: The Red Door” still fizzles in its final stretch, becoming an over-plotted labyrinth of loose ends that drags more than it entertains. In the aftermath, what we’re left with is a mild echo of the better “Insidious” movies of the former decade. Those are the ones we will turn to in the future whenever we feel like reuniting with the Lamberts, with Wilson’s craftily fiendish smile on the verge of delicious cruelty. As for “The Red Door,” it might as well stay put in the further.