Despite glimpses of something new, this installment in the Insidious film series is preoccupied with conventionality.
"I got out of this business," Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) insists. She's doing her best to keep Quinn (Stefanie Scott) were she is, namely, on the porch, but the high schooler looks so bereft and Insidious: Chapter 3 is so in need of a haunting that Elise lets her inside. Just for a minute, she says, reasoning that a little talk can't hurt anything.
You know otherwise. In the Insidious movies, talking to dead people tends to be the start of something bad. Here again, in the first prequel, Elise -- dressed in a bathrobe and obviously not inclined to go out much -- runs into dead people she'd rather not engage. But Quinn earnestly, desperately, really, really misses her dead mom ("I really need to ask her some questions!") and so Elise acquiesces. She turns off the lamp and closes her eyes and calls out to Dead Mom (Lily). And just as you and Elise expect, she runs into someone else, not-quite namely, the Man Who Can't Breathe (Michael Reid MacKay).
Like the franchise's other bad dead people who don't have names (say, the Bride in Black, played by Tom Fitzpatrick, who's back to bother Elise), the Man Who Can't Breathe is designated for what's weird about him. He wears an oxygen masks and a hospital gown, and makes creepy heavy breathing sounds. He also leaves behind gooey black footprints on floors and walls (the movie doesn't explain how these might be related to the not breathing), which suggest that he's especially mobile, unlike Quinn, for whom he arranges an accident that leaves her in two full leg casts.
This situation ordains Quinn's plot, poor thing that she is. Unable to walk or quite maneuver herself into her wheelchair, she's reliant on her fretful dad Sean (Dermot Mulroney) even to get to the bathroom. She spends lots of time in bed, listening to the Man Who Can't Breathe's heavy breathing or watching cracks form as he clomps across the floor in the apartment upstairs. Quinn's immobility is set against the Man Who Can't Breathe's excessive mobility. Like most ghosts in the movies, he can make his way through walls and ceilings, popping up for repeated jump scares, appearing behind shoulders or in windows, unconstrained by time and space.
The monster's super mobility also sets up for Elise's plot, which is to get out of her house and into the franchise to follow. Here you see the start of Elise's pattern, which is to arrive at a home looking pert and composed, then finding it in herself to commit to serious action scenes, running down long hallways and assaulting formidable entities, kicking and shoving ghosts who otherwise have all kinds of eerie shape-shifting powers through windows, breaking glass. You also see her first meeting with Specs (director Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), as she undertakes to instruct them to become her helpers in films to come, essentially how to record her experience and hold hands with terrified victims. (In other words, they're not so mobile, either.)
The might-have-been helper who isn't set up for a return is the black lady who knows what the white folks cannot. Grace (Phyllis Applegate) is Quinn and Sean's neighbor, and she confirms Quinn's experience before anyone else can imagine it, saying she's heard the Man Who Can't Breathe in Quinn's bedroom. Here Quinn's face shows utter horror. But still, Grace's confirmation doesn't translate to Sean or anyone else who might be remotely useful in defending Quinn, because Grace apparently suffers from an addled mind, tended to by her doting husband (Jeris Poindexter) but not appreciated for the truth she embodies.
You might hope for a second here, that Elise and Grace might find one another, and in an alternative universe, might have formed their own ghost-busting business. And as the movie trails off into repeated ideas and images -- Elise pressing forward with a flashlight in a dark hallway, Quinn slumped over as she waits to be recovered, Specs and Tucker setting up their gear, Sean looking so very worried while he sits in the séance circle -- you might begin to imagine other versions of the Further, versions where you don't know exactly what's going to happen.
Per the very notion of the prequel, Elise explains the basic concept of the Further, which you already know she'll revisit in sequels, "Two worlds that exist beyond ours. Think of them as light and dark." You can think of them that way, but you can also think of them as they interact and overlap, as they most certainly do in the Insidious movies, that in this overlapping, engagements between the worlds might be less predictable, more imaginative, more unfamiliar.
Elise, you know, is the ticket to such originality. As much as she might evoke memories of Poltergeist's Tangina, in her plot and in small-lady-ness, Elise is the chance for these movies to be different, to change up conventions or refresh the franchise. Instead, she's dropped into the same old business.