Supernatural

Show Yourself

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An actor, Travis, is grieving the sudden loss of his friend. To honor him, Travis goes to their favorite childhood camping spot to scatter his ashes. As Travis works through his grief in the woods, strange things start to happen. It becomes clear that he definitely isn’t alone in these woods. Is it the ghost of his dearly departed friend? Or is it something much more sinister?

This film is not only an interesting character study, but it also offers a deep look into grief and guilt. Writer and director Billy Ray Brewton (Dead Ahead) really excels at giving the audience a compelling character that they care for, even with his flaws. The film weaves home videos throughout the plot in order to help build on the character development. What makes this aspect more successful than other films that may use the same tactic is that many of the things the audience sees in these home videos become relevant to what is happening in the present. There is a lot of time devoted to character development in this film. While some may argue it is too much time, and not enough on any really scary stuff, I think it works for the tone of the film. It’s by no means a very scary film. Instead, Brewton gives audiences an eerie and emotional film that shows how Travis works through his grief and personal guilt by incorporating supernatural elements. The resulting film ends up being something that even people who don’t like horror can enjoy.

Another successful piece of this film is how Brewton leaves just enough up to the imagination of the audience. There is really only one scene where the audience gets a clear view of whatever is in the woods. For the most part it is implied, left in the shadows, or just out of focus. This is actually brilliant for two reasons. The first is the budget. With a low budget indie film it makes sense to utilize these methods so they don’t have to blow the budget on crazy practical or CGI effects. And honestly, in an intimate film like this, it is entirely unnecessary. The second reason this is a smart idea is because it lets the audience decide what the entity is. It is mostly out of view, and never fully explained, so each individual can get something different from the film. Is it the ghost of the dead friend? Is it a demon? Is it a physical manifestation of Travis’s guilt? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but the great thing is that you can decide for yourself when you watch the film.

When it comes to the acting in this film, the clear highlight is Ben Hethcoat (The Babysitter Murders) as Travis. Losing a friend is difficult, and watching Travis go through his journey is quite compelling. Hethcoat does a great job of portraying Travis as he goes through the complicated emotions relating to grief. Travis reacts by pushing some people away while he tries to reconnect with others, he lashes out at people, he clearly feels some level of guilt, and he feels like scattering the ashes is his sole responsibility. Considering Travis is the only character on screen for almost the entire film it is important to have a strong actor in the role, and Hethcoat fills that role very well.

Show Yourself uses the supernatural to tell a tale about grief. Brewton shows that he is clearly a skilled storyteller who can write compelling characters. In a film like this that focuses so much on a single character, a compelling character is exceedingly important. Hethcoat also gives the audience a fantastic performance as the lead, Travis. While the film blends the supernatural elements well with the plot, for many horror fans it might not be enough. I can already hear the complaints saying it isn’t a horror film simply because it didn’t scare you. If you’re a person that often makes that complaint, then this film isn’t for you. Yet I highly encourage everyone else, even people who don’t typically enjoy horror films, to seek this film out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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The Heretics

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A young girl is kidnapped by a cult. They use her to perform a ritual under the locust moon, but then the entire cult commits suicide. Years later she struggles to cope with the trauma of that day. As a new locust moon approaches, the girl is kidnapped again by a lone survivor of the cult, but he claims to want to save her from an evil growing inside her. She must decide to believe him or escape, and time is running out.

The single strongest part of this film is the premise. Chad Archibald (Bite, The Drownsman) came up with the story and directed while Jayme Laforest (Bite, Gods of Accident) wrote the screenplay. The plot is interesting because it almost instantly subverts your expectations. When you see a young girl kidnapped by a cult, you expect her to be sacrificed for some demon or god. That isn’t what happens here. The cult actually sacrifices themselves, leaving the girl alone on the alter to find her way home. It isn’t until years later that the horror truly begins. The film flips back and forth between what is happening with the kidnapped girl and her captor, then showing the people who are searching for the girl. It allows the filmmakers to slowly reveal details as the plot progresses. There is also a really interesting level of surreal hallucinations as it gets closer to dawn. The idea behind the film is great, but the film leans more towards melodrama and camp in a film that otherwise has a very serious and sinister tone.

The performances in this film are a bit of a mixed bag. Nina Kiri (The Handmaid’s Tale, Let Her Out) plays Gloria, the victim of two kidnappings. For the most part Kiri’s portrayal of Gloria keeps the audience interested and empathetic, especially as we learn the PTSD she experiences in the wake of the first kidnapping. There are times in her performance later on where she comes off as a bit breathy (I know that may sound odd, but it is the word that comes to mind). She sometimes speaks softly and with the breathiness of someone trying to talk after going for a long run. While this technically works for the circumstances she is in, it comes across as more of an acting tool rather than a genuine reaction to the circumstances. Ry Barrett (The Demolisher, Inspiration) plays kidnapper Thomas. This is likely the most complex character. He was a member of the cult and, in an act of regret and cowardice, he does not sacrifice himself with the others. Now he kidnaps Gloria again in order to redeem himself. Barrett does a good job of conveying the complicated emotions Thomas goes through as he tries to overcome his guilt. Jorja Cadence (Helltown, Y2K) plays Gloria’s girlfriend, Joan. Cadence’s performance starts out fine, but as she goes into hysterics after Gloria is kidnapped her performance becomes a bit over the top. There is a lot of yelling and screaming that is exaggerated to the point of being almost humorous.

One of the stronger points of the film is the practical effects. The longer Gloria is locked away in the secluded cabin, the more she begins to transform. The filmmakers take their time with the transformation, allowing there to be subtle changes as the plot progresses. These changes eventually get fairly grotesque. The grotesque features altering such a beautiful young woman make the changes even more disturbing. The final transformation moves away from practical effects and turns to CGI, which unfortunately takes away from the shocking imagery and cheapens the overall look.

The Heretics is a film with the makings of a great plot that just wasn’t executed as well as it could have been. The idea behind it is great and the plot has some surprising points to keep audiences interested. For the most part it has compelling performances as well, but again there are times when the acting goes over the top into the realm of campy B-movies. The special effects stand out as a high point, until the end when the filmmakers make the choice to move from practical to CGI effects. It is obvious that the film is split down the middle when it comes to high and low points, making it just an okay film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Hereditary

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Annie’s estranged mother has passed away. In the wake of the death, Annie and the rest of her family feel the effects of the loss. It leads to Annie’s mental state spiraling out of control as she experiences blow after blow. While learning new and bizarre things about her mother, it becomes clear that the death of the family matriarch caused a ripple effect that will change their lives forever.

Writer and director Ari Aster takes audiences on a strange and unexpected journey in his feature film debut. One of the most compelling aspects of the plot for Hereditary is that the story continues to surprise and go in unique directions. I made an effort to avoid all advertising for the film after the release of the initial trailer. With only this very limited exposure, I still had an idea of what I thought the film would be about. However, as soon as the film begins, all preconceived notions are thrown out the window. At regular intervals audiences will be shocked by events in the film that completely take the plot in new and thrilling directions. There are times when the film feels like a psychological film and other times it feels like a supernatural film; yet, every moment is filled with anxiety and paranoia. Each revelation gives new details into the horrifying events taking place, driving the plot forward as it zigs and zags in ways you never see coming. It is the kind of film that is difficult to truly explain without dissecting the plot, but that would lead to spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it yet.

This may not be what audiences and critics traditionally call “scary”; however, Hereditary is truly disturbing and terrifying to watch. Aster brilliantly chose to incorporate incredibly subtle details from start to finish. These details immediately put the audience on edge by letting them know something isn’t quite right, they just aren’t sure how yet. These details are also often downright frightening. The wrongness of what Aster puts on the silver screen is something that audiences are able to feel just as much as see. There is maybe only one genuine jump scare in the entire film, but regardless, the entire film overflows with images that make viewers feel the anxiety and fear right along with the characters. The film is filled with a genuine sense of dread, leaving you deeply unsettled in both a visceral and disturbing way, more so than any jump scare ever could.

Much of these subtle details and terrifying images come from the beautiful way in which the film is shot. There are numerous stunning transitions and ways in which various scenes are framed that both add beauty to the film while also emphasizing the more disturbing parts. Aster also perfectly utilizes miniatures, made by Annie in the film, seamlessly weaving between the real world and the miniature models of the real world. The sets and locations add to this as well. The house where the Graham family lives is gorgeous and dark, giving it an eerie feel even before anything weird happens. There is a very neutral, dark color pallet in the film casting a shadow over the entire family. Every location gives a sense of isolation, from the houses to the art supply store. Even the sparingly used practical effects are subtle and dark as they are meant to heighten the paranoia rather than startle or scare audiences. These elements truly make the film just as stunning as it is disturbing.

The plot is carried by some absolutely superb performances. Toni Collette (Krampus, The Sixth Sense) gives what could be the performance of her career as Annie. Annie has lived a difficult life filled with tragedy, thanks in large part to her bizarre mother. Collette does an amazing job of conveying Annie as a woman who inwardly is strong, but on the outside she appears to others as unstable. She plays with the audience, making us wonder if Annie is sane, or if she is just as disturbed as her mother was. In many of the more intense scenes, Collette is simply perfect in the way she displays emotion and terror and helplessness. It is as if the role was made for her. One of the most surprising performances came from Alex Wolff (My Friend Dahmer, Patriots Day) as Annie’s son, Peter. Watching how Peter reacts as his family slowly falls apart, as well as how he reacts to the increasingly strange happenings, is absolutely mesmerizing. This was an unexpected performance from Wolff, and it makes me look forward to seeing him in more films. Finally, there is Milly Shapiro, in her film debut as Charlie. Shapiro somehow makes Charlie come across as both innocent and eerie, which is no easy feat. It is never clear how much or how little Charlie knows about what is going on around her, and it only adds to the anxiousness of the plot. The entire cast gives the film a haunting and emotional edge.

Hereditary is a disturbing descent into madness that highlights all the best parts of the horror genre. It takes you in directions you never imagined, and it fills you with a deep sense of anxiety, all the while giving audiences a completely unique plot. Combined with fantastic performances and gorgeously dark visuals, it delivers the perfect horror film. I’m confident this film will reveal new revelations and insights each time it is watched, due to how perfectly Aster incorporated minute details that may be missed on the first (or even second) viewing. With how minimal Aster kept many aspects the film, it is hard to believe how truly effective and terrifying every moment is. There is not a single thing I would change about this film, and I honestly can’t wait to see it again. My biggest piece of advice for fans going into this film for the first time: try your hardest to absorb every precise detail on the screen. You never know what might be important later on.

OVERALL RATING: 10/10

Veronica

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In Madrid, Spain in 1991 a teenage girl helps her mother raise her brother and sisters after her dad died. One day she experiments with a Ouija board with two school friends. From that moment on, she is plagued by an evil presence. Things only get worse when that evil starts to go after her younger siblings. She has to find a way to stop the malevolent presence, before it kills the ones she loves.

Director Paco Plaza has been known as a filmmaking force in the horror genre with his [REC] film franchise. Veronica was an obvious choice for him after finishing that franchise, as there are similar themes between the films. The biggest similarities are the common themes of demons, the devil, and possession. Plaza always does a somewhat unique spin with these themes, which are fairly common in the horror genre, keeping things interesting and exciting for fans. Another similarity is the focus on a female protagonist. In this film, that is the title character, Veronica.

The combination of jump scares and more subtle atmospheric scares allows audiences to experience near-constant fright. What makes this film uniquely scary from Plaza’s previous work is that it is based on a true story. Not only are many of the details of the film based on truth, but they come from a police report that is the only one in Spain’s history to note witnessing paranormal activity on an official report. Knowing the background for the film makes the events all the more terrifying. That being said, this is one of many recent films that was advertised as being the scariest film ever. The film has many frightening moments, but I would not go into the film expecting to experience the most intense fear of your life.

Considering all the leads in this film are children, every single one of them give great performances. Sandra Escacena plays Veronica in her very first acting role. Being in the titular role means Escacena has to give the character her all. Considering this is her first acting job, and as the lead character, Escacena truly shines and commands your attention. Her performances is not only haunting, but she plays the balance between being the unofficial parent to her siblings and being a normal teenage girl very well. I hope to see her in many more films in the future. The younger siblings, played by Bruna González, Claudia Placer, and Iván Chavero, also prove they are young new talents who will likely continue to do great things.

The filmmakers use primarily more subtle scares throughout the film. This means the effects are also very subtle. Many of them are small practical effects. When it comes to the climax of the film, there is a combination of practical effects and CGI. While much of it is well done, and the climax is intense and terrifying, this is also where the film loses me a bit. The climax suffers from a common horror-genre issue where the filmmakers show too much of the evil presence that is after the protagonist. In some cases it works, but in this film it seems like showing less would have been more effective and eerie.

Veronica brings strong scares to this film based on a true story. The plot isn’t entirely original, including common horror tropes such as a Ouija board leading to demonic happenings, but the fact that it is based on a true story makes it more interesting. The filmmakers opted to use a lot of young actors who had never been in a film before. This ended up being the strongest aspect of the film, especially when it comes to Escacena’s performance. Plaza made a lot of smart decisions with this film, especially when it comes to how he crafted the scares. Most of the scares are very effective, but there is a bit too much of the evil entity shown in the climax of the film, which takes away some of the terror. The key to enjoying this film will be avoiding a lot of the hype. No film can ever live up to that amount of hype, but if audiences can ignore it, then this film will be all the more thrilling to watch.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

Before I Wake

before i wake

A young couple lost their son in a tragic accident. As a way to cope with their loss they decide to adopt an orphaned young boy. Little does the couple know that this is no ordinary child. Everything he dreams becomes real while he sleeps. It can be beautiful, but his nightmares become just as real as his dreams. The couple must discover the boy’s mysterious past in order to save his life, and their own.

This film built a lot of anticipation for horror fans. It was meant to be released back in 2015, and there were even trailers out as far back as four years ago. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had troubles with the distribution company, and this led to the film being held in legal red tape for far too long. Finally, Netflix was able to get their hands on the film and release it for streaming this year. Between the years of delays and writer/director Mike Flanagan’s previous success with Occulus, people were understandably excited to finally see Before I Wake.

Flanagan created a very interesting and unique story with this film. So many people wish their dreams could come true, but this is a very unique take. The boy doesn’t get to reap the benefits of his dreams coming true, as they only come true while he sleeps. Also, many people don’t take into consideration that, by having their dreams come true, this likely means their nightmares will come true as well. While this is a very interesting, and often frightening concept, what brings the plot to another level is how the couple reacts to the boy’s ability. Losing a child is difficult. When the boy dreams of their son and they are able to hold him again, it’s only natural that the mother would want the boy to dream more about her deceased child. It isn’t until they finally see what happens during the nightmares that the mother realizes she needs to find out how or why this is happening. It makes for a frightening and emotional film. While the emotional side of the film makes the story quite compelling, there are times where it comes across as overly sentimental. That sentimentality also leaves a few loose ends by the time the film ends.

With this being such an emotionally driven film, it is important for it to be well cast with strong actors. Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush, Straw Dogs) plays Jessie. What makes her performance so powerful is how Bosworth shows the struggle a mother goes through after losing a child. She clearly wants to be a good mother to her adoptive son, but the pull to see her dead child in the boy’s dreams is too seductive to ignore. Initially it makes you dislike Jessie, but Bosworth manages to make her a sympathetic character as the plot progresses. Another equally strong performance comes from Jacob Tremblay (Room, Wonder) as the adopted son, Cody. Tremblay yet again proves he is a fantastic actor, despite his very young age. He portrays a very complex character who knows the effects of his own dreams and fears what his strange ability will do to others. These two actors together make for some exceptional and emotional scenes.

A film like this would be nearly impossible to create without the use of CGI. For the most part, the CGI is beautifully done. There is one specific scene where the butterflies that Cody typically dreams about combine with Christmas lights to create fantastical and stunningly gorgeous imagery. It is when the nightmares come out that the CGI doesn’t hold up quite as well. Cody’s main nightmare is a terrifying creature who eats people. For this, the filmmakers layered CGI over an actor. While in the dark this figure is frightening, in the light it doesn’t have quite the same impact. It is the kind of creature that would be more frightening left in the shadows. However, when the origin of this creature is discovered it ends up making sense why the filmmakers chose to show it in the light.

Before I Wake is a victim of circumstance. It had a lot of buzz when the trailers were first released, but the continued delays likely made fans forget about the film over time. The film has a unique premise with beautiful imagery and strong performances. The plot can be a bit over-sentimental, leading to a few glaring plot holes in the final act, but it is still fascinating to watch. It would be interesting to see if the film would have been received differently if it had been released as planned back in 2015. While it isn’t Flanagan’s strongest work, it is definitely worth a watch.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

The Ritual

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A group of four friends reunite to remember their friend who was killed. They hike into the mountains of Sweden, doing something they know he would have loved. On the way back they decide to take a shortcut through the woods. A storm leaves them stranded overnight in a strange abandoned cabin where they find something that shakes them to the core. The men soon realize they are not alone in these woods.

The Ritual stands out as a fantastic horror film because, despite it being absolutely chilling, it is primarily a character driven film. The inciting incident is the tragic death of a friend. One man blames himself for his friend’s death, and he feels that the others in their group blame him too. The relationships between the four surviving friends are truly fantastic. They all have amazing chemistry, while also maintaining a heightened tension when it comes to who is to blame for the death. As things get worse for them in the woods those tensions only continue to grow. The sometimes volatile relationships between the friends makes for some dramatic and fascinating events when they have to rely on each other in order to survive.

The mythology in this film is dark, mysterious, and very original. Much of it is taken from ancient Norse mythology, and quite a bit the filmmakers created on their own. While some of this mythology will be familiar, the strange altar the friends come across and the entity they encounter in the climax is something entirely new. The filmmakers manage to give audiences something fresh, which is desperately needed on the more mainstream side of horror. The newness of the evil also makes the scares that much more intense as the audience doesn’t know what to expect. The gorgeous cinematography and fantastic score only add to the feeling of dread and fear throughout the film. Watching it somehow makes you feel the unnerving isolation of being lost in the forest, while also making sure you know there is something out there you do not want to meet. The filmmakers also go for the more subtle, buildable scares rather than jump scares. It lends perfectly to the eerie ambience of the film. While this is only the second feature length film directed by David Bruckner, with a few short segments from horror anthologies, he clearly has mastered his craft.

There are several familiar faces in The Ritual, and all of them give outstanding performances. Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz, Prometheus) has arguably the most powerful performance as the troubled Luke. He clearly blames himself for not coming to the rescue and saving his fallen friend. Spall perfectly conveys Luke’s inner turmoil and why he is even more determined to save his friends in the woods. Asher Ali (The Missing, Doctor Who) plays Phil, who seems to be one of the worst effected when the group stays overnight in the cabin. He feels fear, or at least shows it the most, more than anyone else. Ali does an amazing job of making the audience feel his terror. Hutch is played by Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey, The Level). Hutch establishes himself early as the leader of the group, and he also often acts as the peacekeeper. James-Collier exudes confidence and determination, even when his character is faced with the worst. Finally, there is Sam Troughton (AVP: Alien vs. Predator, Robin Hood) as Dom. Troughton portrays Dom as a bit of a jerk. He is the most outspoken about blaming Luke for their friend’s death, and he is the most outspoken when it comes to complaining as they all try to find their way out of the woods. Together these four actors create compelling characters who have complicated relationships.

This film has some of the most striking, yet simple, imagery I have seen in a long time. The filmmakers opted for a combination of practical and CGI effects, depending on the scene and the focus. The practical effects are very well done, and they create some of the more subtly disturbing images. The CGI, surprisingly, is what shines in this film. I won’t go into too much detail, because you should truly see it for yourself, but the creature design in this film is absolutely stunning and horrifying all at once. It stands out in my mind as one of the most original and beautiful things I have seen in a horror movie in recent memory. It is the kind of design where every time you see it you notice something new and terrible that you hadn’t noticed before. It is so spectacular it is easy to forget it is CGI. What makes the creature even more powerful is what it represents in the film which is, similar to the creature in The Babadook, guilt and how a person deals with that guilt.

The Ritual is a character-driven film that takes four friends down a sinister and unearthly path. The way the characters are written, and how they are acted, grounds the story as it spirals further away from what we know as real. It has beautiful cinematography and music that only adds to the eerie nature of the film. Then, of course, there is the creature design that is sure to be a highlight for horror fans. Between the acting and the CGI creature, it is difficult to determine what the best aspect of this film is. Whichever you choose, this film is likely to be a favorite horror film this year and beyond.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10

Insidious: The Last Key

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Parapsychologist Elise Rainier is back, and this time her newest case will take her to where it all began. A man calls asking for Elise’s help. It turns out the man lives in her childhood house. Elise is forced to remember her tragic past and the horrifying events that lead up to her returning to her hometown. She must solve this case in order to save her family from the demon that ruined their lives.

I want to start by giving some context to the film as it is technically another prequel to the first two installments. This film takes place after Elise has helped Quinn, and before she helps Dalton. The timeline for the Insidious films is as follows: Insidious: Chapter 3, Insidious: The Last Key, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2. That being said, there is a lot of timeline overlap between the films thanks to the Further breaking the rules of time and flashbacks. The best part of this installment is that it finally gives me what I wanted; more of Elise’s backstory. Through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences the audience finally gets to learn about Elise’s childhood and the events that lead her becoming a parapsychologist. It is the strongest aspect of the film, and I wish there was much more of it.

Much of the downside to this film is when we get to the present. The first half of the film deals with more of Elise’s past, but when we see the investigation at her childhood house things begin to spiral downward. The main issue is that the filmmakers attempt to cram too many subplots into one story. There is Elise’s origin, the investigation at her old house, and what happens when she once again enters the Further. While any two of these would work well together, having all three storylines together in a single film is a bit much. As a result, while Elise’s backstory feels more complete, the other two subplots are underdeveloped. It gives the impression that the resolutions come too quickly and too easily. Especially when looking at what happens in the Further, there is virtually no explanation for much of what is shown. What’s even worse is that we never get a true sense of what the ultimate villain is trying to achieve or why. Many of his actions have no purpose, or at least not one that is apparent to audiences. If you look back at the early trailers and some of the promotional stills from the film there are several scenes that were not in the final cut of the film. It makes me wonder what this film could have been and if there was more explanation before the studio got their hands on it.

Along with Elise’s backstory being a strong point for The Last Key, Elise herself is likely the strongest aspect of the entire Insidious franchise. Lin Shaye (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) has been the one constant as Elise throughout the films. She always delivers a strong performance, and the fact that a horror film franchise focuses on a strong elderly woman is absolutely fantastic. Shaye makes the most of this film, despite some of the clunky dialogue, and makes audiences fall in love with her all over again. No matter what, Shaye shines through and commands the screen. As always, Elise has her trusty sidekicks by her side in this installment. There is Leigh Whannell (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Specs and Angus Sampson (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) as Tucker. They bring some heart and comedic relief to the thrills and chills of the film.

The Insidious films are known for having iconic and stylistic demons. The Last Key is no different. The villain, known only as KeyFace, has some disturbing creature design created with prosthetics, which are worn by none other than Javier Botet (Mama, REC). Unfortunately the amazing character design gets lost in the lack of character development. It is unfortunate that Botet’s talent is somewhat wasted in this fantastic design simply because the character is weakly written. Despite that, he is still frightening and he is the focal point for several scares throughout the film. Much like in Chapter 3, The Last Key relies heavily on jump scares and lacks some of the more subtle scares of the first two films. This film succeeds the most in building the anticipation for the jump scares. The filmmakers make you wait and wait, knowing that jump scare is coming, before the scare is finally delivered. Unfortunately, in many cases, the anticipation is more thrilling than the actual scare, but there are still plenty of frightening moments.

Insidious: The Last Key fulfills my wish of learning more about Elise, but it is still probably the weakest installment of the franchise. There are simply too many subplots, not enough development of those subplots and characters, and there are several weak points in the dialogue. Despite that, there are still some positives of the film. Elise has a fascinating backstory that audiences finally get to learn, and Shaye does a fantastic job reprising the role of Elise. While we don’t get enough information about him, the design for KeyFace is still quite iconic and disturbing. I only wish there had been more focus on him as a villain and his motivation. The Last Key completes the story of Elise in the Insidious franchise. It is an important piece of the puzzle worth watching, but I can only hope there is a director’s cut in the future that will give fans something more polished.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10