It’s been five years since the last Insidious film was released, so horror fans are understandably salivating in anticipation of the fifth entry, Insidious: The Red Door, coming to theaters July 7. But half a decade is a long time to keep all the lore and characters straight in this spooky film series, which began in 2010.
If you’re unfamiliar with these films and curious about what you might have missed, or if it’s been a while and you simply need a refresher, do not be afraid. We’ve got your back. (Or is that a demon standing behind you…?)
Below, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about each movie ahead of the release of Insidious: The Red Door.
Terrifying ‘Insidious: The Red Door’ trailer will scare the crap out of you
Everything you need to know about Insidious (2010)
What happens in Insidious?
Hot off the success of basically pioneering the torture porn subgenre with their Saw franchise, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell set out to demonstrate that they had subtler tricks up their creepy sleeves. So, they unleashed a master class in the “less is more” principle of horror filmmaking with Insidious, which relies more on atmosphere and things that go “Boo!” in the dark than the severed limbs and gutted victims of their first onscreen collaboration. As such, it’s the sort of PG-13 fright film that teens can take their dates to see and leave cuddling and chilled rather than nauseated and traumatized.
The first film in this franchise is basically a chamber drama. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, young parents whose son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) starts seeing various spectres wandering around the house — including a long-haired woman and a red-faced demon sometimes referred to as the Man with the Fire in His Face — right before slipping into an inexplicable coma. Soon, the rest of the family is seeing strange things. In response, Josh and Renai do what you wish more characters would do in haunted house films: They move out!
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No such luck. There are spirits in their new home as well, seemingly attached to the still-comatose Dalton. And so Josh’s mother Lorraine (played by the great Barbara Hershey, in a nod to her starring role in the R-rated supernatural film The Entity), calls in help from the expected paranormal experts: psychic Elise Rainier (played by Lin Shaye), and her sidekicks Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Whannell).
Once upon a time, Elise helped Lorraine save her young son from the spirits that have returned to bedevil the family. She explains that Dalton has been astrally projecting into the spirit realm, which she calls the Further, and the malevolent spirits trapped there are hoping to hitch a ride to our world. It’s up to Josh to go into the Further and bring his son back.
Is Insidious worth the watch?
Insidious is really a triumph of low-budget filmmaking. Shot in rented houses for about $1.5 million, using minimal CGI and gore, director Wan is able to wring maximum scares out of innocuous objects like baby monitors, strangers in the corner of a room, and our inability to see deeply into the background of a darkened frame or around a corner. It also contains the single most effective jump scare in the series thus far (you’ve likely seen it online(opens in a new tab)).
Despite its PG-13 rating, Insidious pulls no punches in its quest to make us shriek. Critics found the film to be a fairly standard haunting film with slightly better-than-average direction. But it is a very effective thrill ride, and since the film went on to make approximately $100 million worldwide(opens in a new tab), it was inevitable that the hauntings would continue.
How to watch: Insidious is now streaming on Max.(opens in a new tab)
Everything you need to know about Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
Credit: Blumhouse Prods/Entertainment One/Filmdistrict/Im Global/Kobal/Shutterstock
What happens in Insidious: Chapter 2?
Wan and Whannell returned for the inevitable sequel, which offered plenty of scares despite a slight dip in the shriek factor. The cast is also back, with the Lamberts hoping to move on and put the ghosts behind them. However, the last film ended with psychic Elise Rainier dead from fright and Josh clearly in a more-than-casual relationship with a ghost; relocating to Josh’s childhood home, where they all now live with Lorraine, is not helping. The police, meanwhile, suspect Josh of killing Elise, a subplot that is unfortunately dropped a little too quickly.
Before too long, radios are turning on mysteriously, Renai is playing a frightening game of hide-and-seek with a very angry woman in white, and, once again, Dalton and Lorraine are seeing and hearing strange things. Josh is surprisingly unwilling to take any of this seriously — if there’s any family that should take hauntings seriously by this point, it’s this one! — leading to domestic tensions with his wife.
It seems that he is slowly being taken over by the spirit of a dead serial killer named Parker Crane, whose mother (played by Danielle Bisutti) is even worse. Eventually, Josh goes full Jack Torrance in The Shining mode, menacing his wife, mother and children with a bat. Lorraine calls in the big guns: Tucker and Specs, and fellow medium Carl (Steve Coulter).
Is Insidious: Chapter 2 worth the watch?
Credit: Blumhouse Prods/Entertainment One/Filmdistrict/Im Global/Kobal/Shutterstock
Children in peril is a sort of recurring theme in the films, and child abuse recurs unnervingly often. In this case, Parker’s mother made him live as a girl, and the malicious misgendering led to him becoming a serial killer whose evil exists beyond the grave. This is a fairly iffy story choice, even for the time; by 2013, we knew better than dredging up old Silence of the Lambs-style cliches. Moreover, one wonders how much backstory these ghosts really need. Certainly, slasher franchises have taught us that the less explained the better with boogeymen. Later Insidious films have tended to cut out much of the ghostly exposition, and their central ghouls have been more frightening as a result.
Insidious: Chapter 2 ultimately suffers from the problem afflicting many horror sequels — fear comes from the unknown and unexpected, and there are simply fewer surprises the second time around.
Nevertheless, Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti are masters at pulling dread from dimly lit spaces, including a creepy abandoned hospital. There are plenty of nice details, like the TV set playing Carnival of Souls and the Panasonic VCR whose rubbed-out letters spell “Pa-nic.” And, to be fair, there are a decent number of scares, with a particular standout being a room full of dead bodies seated in chairs and covered with sheets. The film is a slight step down from its predecessor, while still worth watching. Keep your eyes peeled for a tiny Jenna Ortega at the end in one of her earlier onscreen appearances.
How to watch: Insidious: Chapter 2 is now streaming on Max. (opens in a new tab)
Everything you need to know about Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015)
What happens in Insidious: Chapter 3?
The series shifts gears a bit with Chapter 3. This second sequel is actually a prequel, set three years before the Lambert haunting, which allows the series to overcome a problem they created for themselves by killing off Lin Shaye’s Elise in the first film.
Elise is now the supporting hero in this standalone story of a teenage girl named Quinn (Stefanie Scott), who tries to contact her recently deceased mother but calls up something much worse in the process. While not quite the focus of the story, Shaye comes into her own as an ass-kicking scream queen in this entry.
The film — which is Whannell’s directorial debut — is much more of a slow burn than previous entries, but when the scares finally come, they’re more visceral.
Quinn, her brother, and her widower father (Dermot Mulroney) live in an apartment building with many spirits. One, in particular, has taken a shine to the teen girl, who just wants to head off to acting school. The big bad ghost here is The Man Who Can’t Breathe, a spirit who hopes to take possession of Quinn and, despite his ever-present breathing apparatus, has the strength to throw her around the room. He doesn’t say anything, and this time there’s very little backstory. But he’s even rougher than the bad ghost mother from the last movie, luring Quinn into the path of a car, pulling her around by the hair, throwing her to the floor, and generally doling out wince-inducing abuse with more frequency.
Is Insidious: Chapter 3 worth the watch?
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The problem with Chapter 3 is the visuals seem flatter and less ominous this time. Worse yet, jump scares have gotten so rote they hardly scare us. The most effective chill, for my money, comes early in the film. Quinn is trying out for an acting school and sees a shadow waving from the rafters — sure, it’s no Lipstick-Face Demon, but it works. Alas, by the time the film reaches its third act, we have a good idea what to expect. At the least we know that Elise, and the two aspiring young ghost-hunters slash bloggers who have tagged along, Tucker and Specs, will survive for future adventures
What really saves the film is Lin Shaye, whose performance has come to anchor the whole series. A long-time theatre and film actress who studied with Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, and Stella Adler, Shaye’s credits include a number of Farrelly brothers comedies, as well as horror films like Alone in the Dark, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Critters. Shaye is immensely watchable and pulls off some serious action chops here as she goes back into the Further to save Quinn. (Her brother, Robert Shaye, founded New Line Cinema, the studio that birthed Freddy Krueger.)
Shaye is able to switch with ease from the nurturing caregiver to the enraged protector role, landing a few punches and insults that would make Arnold blush. By the end, she’s become the Lt. Ripley of the film, an action star in her sixties. She is now 79 and a legitimate legend.
Aside from Shaye’s performance and a few creepy moments, however, the film is a little disposable. So, if you need to skip one of the chapters in the series, make it this one.
How to watch: Insidious: Chapter 3 is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video.(opens in a new tab)
Everything you need to know about Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
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What happens in Insidious: The Last Key?
Despite its somewhat vague title, this is both the fourth film in the series and the second prequel, fitting chronologically between the third and first movies. Darker and with a more somber tone than previous outings, it’s also an underappreciated return to form, creepier than the prior film and diving deeper into the story of Elise Rainier. Director Adam Robitel (who made his debut with the found-footage possession chiller The Taking of Deborah Logan) brings a fresh perspective and gravitas to the proceedings.
A highly effective prologue, set in the 1950s, reveals that Elise grew up in the shadow of a prison where her abusive father worked as a guard. The ghosts of the recently executed came to commune with her as a little girl, much to her father’s anger. One night, when she’s locked in the basement as punishment, she hears a voice whispering to her, asking her to unlock a door in the wall. Unfortunately, the thing on the other side is not a fresh ghost looking for tips on the afterlife; it’s an unwanted demon with keys for fingers (!) who kills Elise’s mother while Elise is in a trance. The film then jumps to 2011, mere weeks before the Lambert haunting of the first film.
Naturally, when she receives a call for help from a man living in the same house where she once grew up, Elise is reluctant to respond. Though eager to save others from the evils she once unleashed, she is terrified to face her own literal demons. Alas, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the group stayed home. Besides, as Elise reminds us, “This is what we do.”
As the protagonist of this film, Elise goes beyond the Final Girl who survives a ghost or slasher. Elise’s “gifts,” which include psychic abilities and communion with the spirit realm, allow her to come in and save everyone else too. She transcends to a sort of superhero — Our Lady of Perpetual Hauntings, perhaps. Elise is coming to terms with her own childhood trauma and learning her father was perhaps more of a monster than she had suspected. Or, maybe he was another puppet in the hands of an entity; the main baddie this time is a noseless ghoul named The Man With the Keys or Key Face, who uses the men who live in this house to do his evil bidding.
The young Elise almost uncovered this but was misled when she mistook a kidnapping victim for a ghost. The Insidious films often posit an intriguing idea or two and leave them slightly undeveloped. In this case, it’s the possibility that Elise might also sometimes mistake the living for the dead.
Is Insidious: The Last Key worth the watch?
Credit: Photo by Universal Pictures/Moviestore/Shutterstock
With the darker tone, the comic relief of Tucker and Specs — always a contentious issue with fans — becomes more necessary here. Whannell even gets an onscreen kiss! It’s also nice to see Elise reconcile with her estranged brother Christian (Bruce Davison) and his daughters — one of whom, Imogen (Caitlin Gerard), might share her gift.
The Last Key delivers plenty of scares in its second half, with the most effective being a screaming ghost lady who pops up inconveniently during a police interrogation. Overall, the film works best by leaning into the two secret strengths of this series: a grounding in intimate family dynamics, and the ever-watchable Lin Shaye. This one is a gem.
How to watch: Insidious: The Last Key is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video.(opens in a new tab)
Everything you need to know about Insidious: The Red Door (2023)
Credit: Sony Pictures
Here’s what we know: The fifth film in the series will be a direct sequel to the second chapter. Meaning the franchise’s timeline now runs: Insidious: Chapter 3, Insidious: The Last Key, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, and Insidious: The Red Door.
Sony has announced(opens in a new tab) that Insidious: The Red Door will be the “final chapter of the Lambert family’s terrifying saga.” This might imply the conclusion of the franchise, but horror fans know to take those types of rumors with a grain of salt, especially given The Fifth Key‘s reveal of Elise’s psychic niece. Frightening franchises can always come back — just look at Scream, Halloween, and Evil Dead.
Insidious: The Red Door has the Lamberts all returning, with Patrick Wilson not only reprising his role as Josh but also taking over as director. Son Dalton (played again by Ty Simpkins, now a handsome young man) is heading off for college, seemingly majoring in art and pouring what disturbing details he can remember from his childhood into his paintings.
Judging by the trailer and IMDb cast list, it doesn’t appear that Tucker and Specs will be back and, while Lin Shaye is returning, Elise’s role will likely be rather limited given that she’s been dead for 10 years in the chronology.
Nevertheless, if there’s one thing this series has taught us, it’s that there’s still a lot of living to do after you die!
How to watch: Insidious: The Red Door opens in theaters July 7. (opens in a new tab)