This weekend, another sequel to the ghost story Insidious opens in several thousand theaters across North America. Mainstream horror fans — the audiences who flock to almost any wide-release horror movie and often boo at the end — should be used to this; a whole generation of them have grown up in a world where a horror movie opens on the first weekend of January almost every year. It's become a more reliable date for horror releases than even Halloween.
It hasn't always been this way. Before 2005, the first weekend in January was decidedly barren, with only a handful of new releases going back 20 years. The game-changer here appears to have been the long-forgotten Michael Keaton vehicle White Noise, a modest ghost-movie hit in a year when the Saw series was about to peak.
Though no one would applaud its quality, White Noise does feel accidentally influential when looking at a dozen years' worth of early-January horrors. Though a few traffic in slashers (Texas Chainsaw 3D, 2013), vampires (Underworld: Blood Wars, 2017; Daybreakers, 2010), or the occasional spectacle of Nicolas Cage fighting a medieval witch (Season of the Witch, 2011), the majority, like Insidious: The Last Key, are ghost stories. They may not be very good, but there's still something satisfying about ducking out of chilly January weather into a screening that offers different kinds of shivers and chills. The blue-black color palettes of so many horror movies even resemble a cold winter's day.
So what about Insidious: The Last Key?
By the measure of early-year ghost pictures, it's pretty good. The Insidious series in general, begun by Saw duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell, is consistently well-crafted — at least technically. Whannell, who still writes and co-stars in the films, might not think much of his audience, constantly pushing his characters to spout inelegant explanations like "you abandoned me to a real monster — our father." But director Adam Robitel does wring suspense from much of The Last Key, and the film's headliner, Lin Shaye, who plays paranormal communicator Elise, has a warmth and commitment to the material that some genre actors lack.
It's also refreshing to see a mainstream movie with a septuagenarian actress as the unambiguous lead character. This is still rare, and it might have been made possible by the release date. As cynical as it sounds, studios might feel more likely to experiment with early January releases, since all they care about is the fact that the movie is ready to go as soon as the holidays clear.
Given that leeway, maybe January horror movies should be more adventurous. Insidious: The Last Key is very much a sequel; it can't match the surprise of the original, and when it does deploy a substantially clever twist, the filmmakers practically toss off what would be, in other horror movies, a lynchpin moment. Still, it works well enough; despite being set before the first movie and deepening the series' continuity, it can stand alone as a few-frills ghost story with an interesting lead character, a few good scares, some creepy creature designs, and a time-tripping spirit dimension that gives the whole thing a low-tech haunted-house vibe.
This movie also might feel a little better than it is because, counterintuitively, it follows a deluge of genuine good stuff. December and January see countless award hopefuls and high-quality, end-of-year releases. It can be refreshing to settle in for a modest, low-budget horror movie in the middle of all that prestige.
January is often derided as a big-studio garbage dump, and sometimes it earns that assumption. But as some studios ignore entire genres in order to focus on planting gigantic tentpoles, trashy January horror movies have become something more than simple financially motivated programming. Intentionally or not, they're planting a flag for release-schedule diversity.