(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: A critical scare Insidious: Chapter 3 is as frightening as it is vital to the narrative.)
Patrick Wilson is set to return to The Further, both in the director’s seat and as original protagonist Josh Lambert in the upcoming latest installment of the Insidious franchise. The plot will return to the Lambert family, or at least some of them, with Dalton (Ty Simpkins) heading to college. That effectively will pass the series’ baton from psychic medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) back to the Lamberts, picking up from the events of Insidious: Chapter 2. One notable departure for the franchise is Leigh Whannell, who penned all four previous installments. This time Whannell will be getting a story credit while Scott Teems is tackling the script.
Whannell’s long amassed a solid reputation for crafting scares with his screenwriting, but he’s quickly proving his horror mettle as a director too. That started with Insidious: Chapter 3, his directorial feature debut. More than just a smart prequel that marked Elise as the series’ heroine, Whannell honed his ability to scare the pants off viewers with no shortage of terrifying moments. The most potent of which utilized great direction, a horrifying new villain, and foreboding footsteps to guide audiences’ eyeline straight to the terror.
Set a few years before Elise’s fateful encounter with the Lambert family, the gifted psychic has retired her work and lives a reclusive life in mourning of the recent loss of her husband. When teen Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) shows up at her door for help in contacting her deceased mother, Elise reluctantly agrees though halts her contact when she senses the presence of a malevolent entity. That entity haunts Quinn with increasingly disturbing regularity and force, putting Quinn and her family in dire danger. Elise will have to leave retirement behind and enter The Further once more to save them.
The Story So Far
After being warned by Elise not to reach out to the dead on her own any further, Quinn returns her focus to family and school. A year after her mother’s death, Quinn assumes many of the household duties to help her dad, Sean (Dermot Mulroney), which includes helping to care for younger brother Alex (Tate Berney). That changes when she spies a strange figure waving at her in the street after an acting audition for school, leading to a shocking car accident that leaves her with two broken legs.
Bedridden, she’s tormented by that same figure, a dark spirit wearing an oxygen mask known as the “The Man Who Can’t Breathe” (Michael Reid MacKay). The entity is hellbent on causing her harm and claiming her as his new pet. So much so that it even invades Elise’s home, using tarry footprints to guide her down into her locked séance room to frighten her as an ominous warning not to interfere with his new prey. His power and control grow with every encounter.
Quinn tries to fall asleep on the couch, but cracks forming in the ceiling sprinkles debris. She pulls her blanket up over her face to protect it. Sensing a shift, she pulls the blanket back down to discover she’s no longer in her apartment living room but the corridor of the floor above. It’s rendered creepier by the fact that this floor is supposed to be uninhabited and empty. She tries to wheel herself to the elevator to escape, but The Man Who Can’t Breathe traps her in his room, terrorizing her with a featureless doppelganger. Quinn’s screams and pounding on the floor, too immobile to run, wakes Sean.
He runs up to the floor, sees the same tar-like footprints Elise spotted in her home, and follows them straight past Quinn to the room’s window. He looks out and sees the man splayed out on the concrete below, relieved that Quinn’s captor is no longer a threat. He ducks his head back in the room, letting Quinn see for herself that her nightmare is over. When she does, The Man Who Can’t Breathe pops up and grabs ahold of her, attempting to pull her out of the window to her doom and making for one significant jump scare in the process.
While Whannell crafts no shortage of visceral jump scares and spine-tingling moments in his debut, this scene stands out for several reasons. In terms of narrative, it’s the first time Sean sees The Man Who Can’t Breathe; before the footprints, he was blissfully unaware that a supernatural presence lurked within the building, targeting his daughter. That makes this a significant turning point, transitioning the story into the third act as Sean immediately seeks outside help after this encounter.
It’s also an excellent use of misdirection. Whannell first established the eerie footprints in Elise’s home, guiding her through her house and into the darkened basement. There, the footprints trail up the wall onto the ceiling, triggering a jump scare as Elise looks up, and the demonic man pops out at her from above. It conditions the viewer on what to expect when the tarry footpath appears. When Sean sees them in that empty hallway, it immediately puts the viewer on edge because it signals a scare is imminent. It’s only a matter of when. Sean’s sigh of relief at the body laid out on the sidewalk floors below lowers our guard just enough for The Man Who Can’t Breathe to jolt us out of complacency as he attempts to harm Quinn once more.
However, those footprints don’t just instill expectations but doubles as a call to action for our heroine, Elise. The demonic entity may have meant to scare her away from aiding Quinn, but it underestimated the plucky psychic and her fighting spirit. That the footprints appear again to herald in a critical scare works to dovetail Elise’s arc with Quinn’s.
Jump scares tend to get a bad reputation, mainly when employed as a cheap gimmick without any real payoff. A good scare is never easy to execute. They’re essential to horror, though, because they work as a pressure release valve. A quick scare will puncture the palpable tension in a scene, alleviating that tension and giving the viewer a moment to catch their breath. This scene encapsulates that perfectly, but Whannell takes it to another level by giving this scare narrative purpose.
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