‘Insidious: The Red Door’ Review: The Ghost of Jump Scares Past

“Insidious,” whose fifth installment opened Friday, is a second-tier horror franchise — it’s not even the best James Wan franchise starring Patrick Wilson, which would be “The Conjuring” — with a few elite jump scares, including one of the best in the genre. In the original in 2010, Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey) is telling her son, Josh (Wilson), about a horrible dream when a red-faced demon suddenly appears behind his head. It’s a magnificent shock because of the askew blocking, the patient misdirection of the editing and Hershey’s committed performance.

In “Insidious: The Red Door,” a grim, workmanlike effort that collapses into woo-woo nonsense, Wilson makes his directorial debut, and demonstrates he grasps the importance of that jump scare, which is sketched in charcoal on paper next to his name in the opening credits. But that reference is also a reminder of what’s missing.

The movie begins nine years after the second “Insidious” at the funeral of Lorraine, and its first scare, a nicely oblique if relatively simple one, once again takes place above her son’s head. Josh’s memory has been scrubbed in the previous film but nags at him, and Wilson doesn’t move the camera from his own face inside a car as he goes through an array of emotions while texting his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins). This prickly relationship is at the center of the movie, as dad drives his son to college. They share the family curse, a habit of being visited by evil figures from another realm called the Further (think the Upside Down from “Stranger Things”).

As has become cliché, trauma takes center stage, with characters mouthing lines like, “We need to remember even the things that hurt” — which is at least better than pretentious small talk like “Death floods the mind with memory.”

The leaden screenplay would be easier to overlook if there were more spooky sequences. Wilson stages one nicely claustrophobic scene inside an M.R.I. machine, but his peekaboo shocks can be a little telegraphed. And while his placid, android handsomeness can hint at the uncanny, making him a magnetic horror actor, there are fewer standout performances than in previous installments of the series, which has been notable for turns by Rose Byrne and Lin Shaye (both of whom show up again, too briefly). “The Red Door” loses energy when it focuses on Simpkins’s Dalton, a blandly brooding artist type who cries while painting, and the grim doings in the Further, whose aesthetic evokes a homemade haunted house in the family garage.

“Insidious” is essentially a ghost story, so ending it presents a typical challenge. Unlike with vampires and serial killers, it’s not clear how the apparition threatens to end the chase. The abrupt resolution of this chapter is a letdown, but not as much of one as the return of the red-faced demon, who pops up, unobscured, center frame. The result is not a jump scare so much as a bunny hop.

Insidious: The Red Door
Rated PG-13 for explicit violins and implicit violence. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.

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