Interview with INSIDOUS: THE LAST KEY director ADAM ROBITEL!
Adam Robitel’s debut feature, the found-footage horror, THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, was praised as an under-the-radar gem by fans for its dark (yet respectful) portrayal of Alzheimer’s and legitimately unnerving atmosphere. Hollywood clearly took notice, as for his next film Roitel was given the opportunity to helm the fourth instalment in wildly successful INSIDIOUS franchise, from horror colossus BLUMHOUSE.
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, perhaps the darkest film in the series thus far, extends Robitel’s strengths at bringing out the horror in the real world, and finding empathy and agency in older female characters.
Cult of Monster’s David Churack caught up with Adam to discuss working on an INSIDIOUS film, why supernatural ghouls have to be grounded in the real world horror and what we can expect from him further down the line!
You stepped into the director’s chair for the fourth instalment of the INSIDIOUS franchise (possibly the biggest contemporary horror franchise) – were you nervous about such a big task? And how did you balance bringing your own view to the table while giving audiences what they expect from an INSIDIOUS film?
I was nervous but also very excited. I was friends with James Wan and he was very supportive of my first film so I felt like I was believed in. And Leigh Whannel was so integral to the whole process: he was there during the writing phase and we developed a script together. So I was very mindful of stepping into a franchise and aesthetically having a look that was constant with the INSIDIOUS world.
For me, what was exciting was the darker material – the idea of this abusive relationship between Elise and her father. So I really just leaned into that. Early on I was trying to do a James Wan – ‘What would James do, what would James do?’ – and then I quickly realised I had to just refer back to the material. This particular story is much darker in many ways because it’s about childhood abuse and that’s scary on its own. So ultimately I think it was a balancing act. But I really leaned on Leigh – he was there during production and we had discussions about what was right, what wasn’t right, what’s part of the INSIDIOUS universe, what isn’t. So I had a great team around me to keep me on the line.
A lot of what I brought to the table was for the demon development. The idea of ‘Keyface’ in earlier drafts had the father element but not an actual entity. So I said ‘Look you guys, you really need this iconic – I think of “Lipstick Demon” when I think of Part I’. And there were lots of motifs coming out in the first draft I read of locks, prisons, keys and secrets. So I came up with this image – with my concept artist – a guy with a key-shaped gullet and then keys for fingers. And it was an early concept but it just evolved from there. So that was really my big contribution in terms of overall scope – the idea of this entity.
I was going to ask you about ‘Keyface’ because he does have this very distinctive creepy look that stays with you – or definitely stuck with me as a viewer.
Well that’s cool! As a filmmaker, I always second guess myself. Looking back, the things that scare me the most are really grounded and with ‘Keyface’ we went a little more fantastical. But the beauty of INSIDIOUS is that it doesn’t invoke the Judeo-Christain iconography. You’ve got this place called ‘The Further’ where you have all these unlimited demons, and they can come in all shapes and sizes. ‘Lipstick Demon’ was this garish thing with a red face and cloven hoofs. Then Leigh’s demon ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Breathe’ was much more grounded. So you have this carnivalesque environment you can populate with all these weird ‘creepy-crawlies’. I thought ‘why not do something different?’ with the iconography of the keys as fingers – they use that in the marketing a lot and I think it’s very striking. It cuts through the noise and grabs people’s attention. I always feel like horror’s best when it’s psychological – we all have these secrets inside us, and what if a demon could unlock them and use them against you? That’s what got me excited.
Your films – INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY and THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN – use the texture of real world horrors. DEBORAH LOGAN tackles Alzheimers and, as you’ve mentioned, THE LAST KEY deals with heavy themes like domestic violence and child abuse. Do you think the horror comes through stronger if it draws from this real place?
Yeah, I always feel like horror works best when you click it just to the right of real world stuff. Alzheimer’s and child abuse – those are compelling dramas in and of themselves. If you take the supernatural element out, is it still compelling? If you can say yes to that question, when you add the jump scares and supernatural elements it’s like firing on all cylinders. So I always try to look around and say – ‘What is it about the human condition that scares me?’ – and then prey on that. And in a weird way have a sort of catharsis for it, because ultimately these movies are all a way for us to look at our own mortality.
With DEBORAH LOGAN – the idea of Alzheimer’s terrified me. I had an uncle who would wander up the backyard into neighbours’ houses. As a kid that scared the hell out of me. And with INSIDIOUS: we want to believe that when a kid goes in and shoots up a school there’s a malevolent force behind it. It helps us explain the insanity that we as humans perpetrate on each other.
Speaking of the themes that come through in your work: both of these films are very unusual among horror films in that they both focus on female protagonists in their seventies. Is this deliberate?
I think it’s serendipitous: I was very close to my grandmother, who was like my mum. So a lot of DEBORAH LOGAN was influenced by her as a character – she had a switchboard answering service, she was very strong willed. And I just feel like they’re underrepresented in movies in general. You reach a certain age, particularly for women, and there’s an incredibly gross ‘You’re not worthy of screen time anymore’. It’s bullshit. For me, they are who give us life, they usually have more wisdom, and I think putting someone who (on face value) should be more vulnerable into a situation just makes it more scary. It’s probably a theme and I’ll probably gravitate towards that, but it wasn’t a conscious thing – Lin just happened to be the star of the franchise.
On Lin Shaye, she’s a great audience touchstone within the INSIDIOUS movies. Can you talk about working with her?
With horror, it’s usually nubile teens doing drugs and partying, and that’s so uninteresting to me. Lin was incredible, she went to hell and back for this movie. I’d known Lin for a long time, I was an actor in a couple movies with her, and she had such ownership over Leigh. I said to James Wan about Part 1: if Lin did not nail that beautiful monologue about ‘The Further’ these movies wouldn’t have worked. She just has such ownership and such commitment, such belief in what she’s doing, that we believe it.
We talked a lot about Elise – she filled in this whole backstory for her. Getting back to ‘Keyface’, because Elise is essentially this superhero, you need a General Zod to your Superman. We needed a demon that could really cripple her and use all the things she feared against her. That would be something that used her early on to open the first door to the Further and – oh by the way – killed her mother. So that’s a lot of buttons to be pushed.
You do a great job of balancing the vulnerability with the ‘scares’. But how do you translate the character’s fear to an audience?
I will say INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY was hard because, unlike Part I where you have Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson who are terrified of ghosts and don’t know what they’re dealing with, when you have a character walking around with an earpiece wanting to fight them, you’re not as scared because she’s not scared. This is her job. And because it’s a prequel you know she survives. So you have to work that much harder to build a scare. That’s why it was useful to have Melissa and Imogen as characters who are new to this world and don’t quite know what they’re doing. Because as soon as you have the confidence to ‘kung-fu a ghost’ the audience is inherently less scared.
What’s next from you Adam?
I’m finishing a thriller for Sony – I’m super excited for that and it’s going to hit pretty soon. I’ve also got a horror television series we’re about to go out on, and let’s just say it’s a much cooler, fresher version of a zombie show that involves medicine. That’s all I can say at this point.
INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is now available on Blu-ray & DVD at retailers across Australia.
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