Insidious: The Last Key

Ghosts are TERRIFIED of lanterns.

First of all, the number of sequels with “Last” or “Final” in the title that have actually turned out to be the last one is vanishingly small, so don’t take “Insidious: The Last Key” at its word. Franchise writer Leigh Whannell has configured things to allow for infinite additional stories (audiences willing), though this barely recommended effort doesn’t offer much hope for the series’ creative energy.

The fourth entry in the haunted-house franchise is another prequel, like 3 was, set after 3 but before 1 and 2, and focused on Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), the sixty-something psychic ghost-hunter who has emerged as the series’ unlikely protagonist. Aided by her comic-relief technical assistants, doofuses Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), Elise is the one that the main characters in previous films have called for help with their house-demons, but now we learn Elise’s own backstory.

A prologue depicting Elise’s childhood in New Mexico shows she’s always had “the gift” for communicating with spirits, which her mother (Tessa Ferrer) tried to foster and her prison-guard father (Josh Stewart) tried to beat out of her. In the present (well, 2010), Elise is rattled when she’s contacted by someone seeking her services who now lives in the very house she grew up in, still haunted after all these years. The current resident, Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), reports the standard creepy noises, weird sightings, and so forth, and Elise, still bearing the physical and emotional scars of what happened to her and her family there, determines to get to the bottom of it once and for all.

Tropes familiar to “Insidious” fans appear again, including the mysterious coma that is actually an astral projection into a realm called the Further. This installment also has an undercurrent of feminine outrage, with women standing up to the men (living and dead) who mistreat them, though this never quite gels into a fully developed theme. The plot doesn’t have any twists that you haven’t seen elsewhere, but it’s just unpredictable enough to keep things mildly interesting, and director Adam Robitel (“The Taking of Deborah Logan”) achieves two or three good, quick scares without any cheap tricks.

You’ll notice my endorsement is not terribly enthusiastic. If one’s feelings about a movie could be chemically analyzed, mine on “The Last Key” would come in at just a few percentage points above “meh.” What tips the scales ever so slightly is Lin Shaye, a veteran actress with more than 125 film credits spanning 43 years finally playing the top-billed main character. And she earns it! She’s deeply committed to portraying Elise’s pain, remorse, and strength with sincerity, and her performance is more tragic heroine than B-movie scream queen. She seem to be enjoying herself, which is good, since she’ll be playing this role indefinitely.

B- (1 hr., 43 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a little violence and scariness.)