'Insidious: The Last Key' Director Adam Robitel on Nightmares, Nihilism, and Taking the Reins of a New Franchise

When the Insidious franchise was primed to bring on a new visionary behind the camera, the franchise creators/producers James Wan and Leigh Whannell knew just who to hand the keys over to for the Elise Rainer original story Insidious: The Last Key: filmmaker Adam Robitel.

Hot off the successes of his films The Taking of Deborah Logan, which he directed and co-wrote, and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, which he co-wrote, Robitel was not only a rising star in the horror film world, but he was also a veteran of the Blumhouse Productions team and a personal friend of the filmmakers. And as Robitel tells ComicBook.com, it was an opportunity out of which he was determined to mine the most scares.

ComicBook.com: What was it about the franchise that you found creatively compelling and got you excited about getting your hands on it?

Adam Robitel: I saw an early screening of Insidious: Chapter One with James Wan at LA Film School. I knew James socially, and saw it, and I couldn't believe how well it played, and how on the edge of the seat people were, and was really, frankly, intimidated by it, because of the mastery of the way he put the movie together, and how he manipulated the audience and was his own sort of puppet master. I then went on to make my first film, The Taking of Deborah Logan, and James was very, very gracious about in the press and was supportive of the movie.

When Leigh Whannell decided he was not going to direct Chapter Four, my name was put into a short list. I got a call from Blumhouse, and I'm like, "Wait – Me? Why?" you know, because, like, only two people had seen The Taking of Deborah Logan. It was sort of a happy circumstance of knowing James, ultimately, and then getting on the list, and then really auditioning for it.

I really went in just kind of swinging for the fences, because I was going into debt making my first film, and it was like, "Either I'm going to go and get this job, or I'm going to go home and make hot dogs at Pink’s " You know, it was like it was that point in my life, and fortuitously, I got the gig.

What did you study from the original films that you wanted to retain, and what was the fresh take that you thought you could bring to it?

Look. James Wan is like the Michael Jordan of supernatural horror, and I quickly realized, probably a week into it…Look. I did a ton of research. I went back and watched movies that I know James was influenced by, whether it's The Changeling or Burnt Offerings. You study the sort of grammar and execution of scares, but I quickly realized I can't out-Wan the Wan. Like, nobody can out-Wan the Wan. I don't think James can out-Wan himself, so I didn't try to do that.

What I focused on with Chapter Four is the human drama and the relationship between Elise and her father, who doesn't quite understand what she is, and this idea of somebody having something that they were born with that they don't want to accept, that her father literally tries to beat it out of her. I thought that's really compelling, you know? If you take the scares out of it, it's still compelling, right? I always try to lean into the human drama first and then couch the scares around it, and that's what I did.

You got the origin story, which is kind of nice. Here's this character that's sort of become beloved in the horror world – what was fun for you to spell out how she became, who she became, and working with Lin Shaye to create that?

Yeah. It was super cool. Lin is sort of like the Wolverine or the Obi-Wan of the franchise, and you're always looking for excuses in sequels for kind of a raison d'être, to be pretentious, but the reason to be, and why does this movie need to be told? To go back in her childhood and to see the formative events that happened that caused this huge rift in her life.

The other thing was because she is a superhero, and it's like Superman needs a General Zod. Right? She needed a General Zod to fight against, and Elise needed something that would genuinely scare her. Well, this thing had killed her mother. It had used her as a conduit to open the first door to the further. The Big Bad, if you will, of Key Face had to be as commensurate with her power, so to speak.

It was great. I'm friends with Lin. I've known her for a long time, and she's having this great renaissance. She brings that sense of passion and joy and gratitude to everything she does, so it was a fantastic kind of alchemy.

In terms of your affinity for horror, what's your origin story?

My grandmother, who I was very close to, raised me with incredibly scary stories that she had experienced. She lived in New Hampshire in the woods, and during the winter, everybody shutters their houses. My cousin went running into her house, said, "There's some guy sitting on the front porch of the neighbor's house." [She said,] "Calm down. Calm down." She went and got a card. She gave him the card. She said, "Is that him?" "Yeah, that's him!" She said, "Turn it over." She turned it over. It was a memorial card. She's like, "Oh, that's Phil. He died there a few years ago. He likes to sit in that window." And stories like that where she had seen ghosts, and the house was possessed for seven years.

I heard these crazy, crazy stories when I was a kid, and she used to scare the shit out of me. I always loved them. Now, I've never had a personal experience, and she's since passed away – I'm waiting for her to visit me and provide a sign! – but that sort of childhood spine-tingling feeling has always been something that's stuck with me. That's not just the cheap thrills. I think horror really helps us deal with our own mortality. It's a way to kind of look death in the face and say, "We're not afraid of you.” And we need that, you know, for our own greater good.

The franchise has this baked-in sense of humor, but I thought you really took it to great advantage in this movie. You must have been really looking for opportunities to have fun here.

Yeah. Again, in answer to our cynical times, I really think you want entertainment. You don't want it to be as nihilistic. If somebody wants nihilism, they can watch True Detective, and there's a place for that. But these movies, I think, have a life because of their humor. It's the sort of Laurel and Hardy, kind of Scooby Doo quality, and in this movie Specs and Tucker, they're creating a new family unit with Elise, and so it's the growing pains of moving in. It's the growing pains of starting their fledgling business,

Leigh [Whannel] does a really good job with the math between scare sequence, decompression scene, scare sequence. There's a math to it, and in editing, we found if certain things lessened the scare or lessened the tension, we just took them out, but it's a fine line.

Anything in the film that came directly from your own nightmares? Was there any sort of horror vision that you had to make kind of come true on the screen?

When I came onto the job, there was not a demon yet. There was this, like, image system. There were images of locks, keys, and prisoners, and I said, "You guys need to have, like, a big iconic demon." I think of Lipstick Demon, I think of men who couldn't breathe. And so out of the draft, I worked with my concept artist to create Key Face.

I love the idea of maimed mouths, and so I had a Key Face with a gullet that had like a, almost like a shotgun blast, that if he had lived, and it looked like a keyhole. From there, my concept artist, Jacob Hare, ended up putting keys on fingers and playing with that idea. Again, it's like we've seen it with Freddy Krueger, and so it's not incredibly original, but what he does with these keys, thematically, is interesting.

If left to his own devices, he would have locked Elise in a perpetual psychodrama, over and over and over again, and that's creepy. You know? It's not pea soup. It's not a head spinning around. It's, "I'm going to take the thing that haunts you the most and make you live it for the rest of your eternity." Specific nightmare imagery? I mean, I think the 405 scares me more than a demon does.

If everything goes the way everyone on your team wants it to go with this movie, would you like to be the custodian of this franchise for a little bit longer?

You know, I never say never, but I know Leigh has designs on where he wants to go with it. I just shot another movie in Cape Town that I'm really excited about, a thriller, and so I don't know. You know, you never say never. I'm always open to where the universe brings me.

Are the horror and thriller genres where you see yourself staying, or do you have other genres that you're really into?

I'm writing an AI script right now. I mean, I just love storytelling. I would love to land in the sort of “Prisoners,” like the thriller “Sicario” – like, anything [Denis] Villeneuve's doing right now is where I want to be! I mean, he's the guy I'm watching. You know, big huge Marvel movies, there's a place for them, but it's not what I gravitate to. I would rather do a “Blade Runner” or a “Prisoners.”

Well, everybody thinks that that's the big job – to get your Marvel movie or get a Star Wars movie – but there are genres you know and connect to so well that they is really are the territory you should be mining.

Yeah, and those are such huge machines, and made by committee a lot of the time,. Again, not to decry superhero movies, but they're usually the same story, which is like reticent hero has to save the world. “Logan” blew my mind. I thought “Logan” was incredible, but it was a Western. It was a nihilistic Western, and a beautiful movie. It really depends on the subject matter. What does Wolverine fear the most? Love and intimacy, and so here's this little girl who has his gifts and maybe is his daughter. That really hit me.

We're in an age where you have comic book movies and then small horror films, and there's nothing in between anymore now, so maybe I'll make a comic horror film.

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Insidious: The Last Key opens in theaters January 5, 2018. The film is directed by Adam Robitel, written by Leigh Whannell, and stars Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Kirk Acevedo, Javier Botet, Bruce Davison, Spencer Locke, Tessa Ferrer, Ava Kolker, and Marcus Henderson.