For those still keeping track, this fourth Insidious movie is a sequel to the last Insidious movie, which was itself a prequel to the first Insidious movie, which was followed by its own sequel and then the aforementioned prequel and…so on. Horror-wise, not a lot has changed in this world over the past seven years. These are haunted-house movies with no hesitation about deploying the most timeworn components of genre spookery (door-creak! demon!), and there's an almost snuggly comfort in seeing them trotted out once again.
The movie's most interesting element is its star, 74-year-old Lin Shaye, a horror veteran whose credits stretch all the way back to A Nightmare on Elm Street. Shaye has an old pro's skill for creating emotional dimension, and it adds gratifying depth to her character, the sweet-old-lady demonologist Elise Rainier. Elise has been a part of the Insidious narrative from the beginning, but now she takes center stage. In a long introductory segment set in New Mexico in 1953, we pay a visit to her childhood home, which is situated next door to a grim penitentiary where her father (Josh Stewart) is employed. He is a sour, abusive man, and his wife (Tessa Ferrer) does her best to shield their kids, little Elise (Ava Kolker) and her brother Christian (Pierce Pope), from her husband's rages. He's especially infuriated by the connection Elise insists that she has with a purgatorial spirit world called The Further – a psychic link she's inherited from her mother.
After Elise runs away from home to escape her father's brutal canings, the story jumps ahead 50 years, and we find her living in Southern California, where she runs an occult investigating service with the help of two comic-relief assistants, series regulars Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who has scripted all the Insidious films). Their latest case is launched by a call from a man named Garza (Kirk Acevedo), who currently lives in the New Mexico house where Elise grew up. Garza says he's having demon problems, and Elise recognizes them as the same ones that plagued her childhood.
You can fill in the rest. Elise and her two helpers decamp for her old home in a truck stocked with standard-issue demon-busting equipment. Soon they're flushing out the usual array of disturbing creatures: the Spectral Woman, the Thing That Crouches in a Corner. There's a dark cellar, an eerie red door, an icky dead hand holding a key, and an all-access pass to the shadowy world of The Further. There aren't many dull moments: Creepy beings streak by in the background of scenes, or loom up out of nowhere, solely because it's time for another boo! (Unfortunately, we also encounter a young woman in chains whose plight strongly suggests that of a kidnapped sex slave – an ill-advised intrusion of real-world horror.)
The movie never surprises us, of course—it owes too much to other pictures, especially the flash-lit meanderings of the Paranormal Activity films. (Director Adam Robitel and producers Jason Blum and Oren Peli have creative connections to that franchise.) The filmmakers have no interest in innovation, and really no need for it. This is a picture that traffics in the cheapest of thrills, and they do their job in the ancient way. You will jump back in your seat. Well, once or twice, anyway…