'Insidious Chapter 3:' A Set Visit As Scary As The Franchise Itself

Walking onto the set of Insidious Chapter 3 is almost exactly like walking into the Further. That's not just because, on day 25 of a 29 day shoot, they're shooting scenes in the Further. It's because first-time director Leigh Whannel likes a very quiet set and everything is kept incredibly dark. How dark is it? So dark, PAs walk around the stage with flashlight head attachments. So dark that even the dim monitors around which a small group of journalists huddles in far the corner are putting off too much light. A ceiling to floor curtain is dragged in front of us to just make sure things remain dark.

After writing and co-starring in the first two films, Whannel is doing both those jobs as well as directing Insidious Chapter 3. It's a prequel to the first two, set three years before the first movie, and is described as an origin story for Elise, Lin Shaye's character. She'll be called in to help the Lambert family (Stefanie Scott and Dermot Mulroney) deal with some issues in the Further, the alternate plane of existence that's home to some of the most terrible creatures imaginable. In Insidious Chapter 3, the main villain is described as "the physical manifestation of cancer" and he was the star of the brief, frightening scene we saw shot. It's August 12, 2014 at Delfino Stages, about 20 miles outside of Los Angeles and this is our Insidious 3 set visit.

Foggy Further

The scene we observed being shot is from near the end of the film. (In the latest trailer, it's at 2:19 as the title comes up.) According to Whannell, this is when things "start to get hectic" Elise (Shaye) is in The Further moving Quinn (Scott) out of a room and away from a demon. The hallway resembles an old, gothic hotel but really it's an apartment building. In fact, it's the Lambert's apartment building, just in the Further. Which means the aforementioned darkness, punctuated only by dim, almost tealish blue lights and a smoke/fog budget the likes of which you've never seen.

What I mean is for every single take, about two minutes is spent flooding the floor of hallway with fog. It rises to about waist height and then begins to settle. Once the Assistant Director thinks it's hit the right height, Whannell calls "Action." This happens for every single take we see over the course of the day.

Running From The Devil

After two tech rehearsals with stand-ins, the fog enters along with Shaye and Scott. We're told this first shot is the POV of the demon and, later, we'll get alternate angles. In this shot though, the camera chases Elise and Quinn down the hallway with a large orange elevator at the end. An assistant screams "Doors" to get someone to open the doors automatically and then "Doors" to close them. On the first take the automatic doors don't shut all the way. Take two nails it.

As the crew preps for the next shot, a small group including myself is brought onto the set. The room Elise and Quinn run out of is actually the apartment of the demon, played by Se7en's Michael Reid MacKay. He was cast because that look and performance was exactly what Whannell thought of when he thought of this character. "I actually said 'You know the guy 'Sloth from Se7en, that he tied to the bed and kept him there for a year?' That's who we got, the actual guy who was tied to the bed. He's a couple of years older now, but he's that guy. And he just is so great in the role."

However, before we see what Whannell means and what MacKay looks like, we tour his apartment. In the film, the Lambert family live directly below this apartment so it has the same floor plan. This works both for the story and logistically. Earlier in the shoot the set was dressed as their apartment in 2008. It took two days but the crew has now redecorated the entire two bedroom apartment into creepy, serial killer, 1970s garb.

Apartment Living

Empty Chinese food containers are scattered on the kitchen counter. Ashtrays full of cigarettes and peanuts shells are everywhere. Two tables have intricately placed houses of cards on them. Various newspapers are all over the floor and one couch has a super creepy baby doll on it. Pictures of that doll, or some other doll, are all over a near by pile of files and Wanted posters, which Whannell specifically points out to us as he comes by to say "Hi."

The bedroom that will be Dermot Mulroney's in 2008 doubles as a super upsetting study for MacKay's character. It's filled with jars of god-knows-what on the shelves and a single chair in the middle. The end of the hall is what most people would call a "master bedroom" because it's so much bigger. In 2008, this is Quinn's room and while the set itself feels like a master, the apartment was built to film specific specifcations. In reality, this is a bigger room, but in the movie, it won't feel like that. It was only built bigger than the study because more scenes take places in there.

The Demon Himself

On the way back out we're told this Seventies, serial killer set dressing is only being used for one scene, which is why it was pushed to the end of the shoot. As I hear that, I notice another creepy set decoration: a bunch of oxygen tanks. Just then Whannell screams, "Hey Mike!" Around the corner comes that personification of cancer. Imagine a man who hasn't exactly been burned, but looks like his his entire body is charred. He's bald on top with a thin, white mullet in back, a tattered, gross, hospital gown and an oxygen mask over his face. He moves like a curious, fast zombie and it's really scary.

"For me the guy in this film is the living embodiment of cancer," Whannell said. "If cancer was a person, it would be this guy. Once you have a concept like that, it's amazing how quickly the visuals occur to you."

As we (carefully) walk back to our seats, we see what's being shot next. It's the demon walking down the hallway in pursuit of Elise and Quinn. The reverse shot of what we saw before. As the demon walks down the hall, he takes violent, deep, disturbing breaths and Whannell laters tells us will be even grosser when the film comes out.

The Shoot Continues

Between takes, the smoke completely clears every time and Whannel walks up to his actor and gives notes. His mood is pretty jovial, being very complimentary and only telling MacKay to move faster in this case.

Next up, Shaye and Scott walk toward the camera with the demon chasing them from behind. You notice that Quinn has her eyes almost totally shut and her hand is black. We later ask the actress about the black hand, but she wouldn't say, suggesting it's something important from later in the film.

On the first take things go well, until the very end. As the elevator doors close with the demon just barely missing the girls, he was blocked in the shot because Shaye and Scott were standing too close together. Whannell gives the note to separate by just a foot once they get into the elevator and the result is a chilling reveal of a near miss. Or almost. The second take is seemingly perfect until the last second when the automatic elevator doors don't close all the way. "Ugh!!!!" Whannell screams when he realizes this perfect shot was ruined. They get it on the next take.

That Classic Horror Shot

Finally, to complete the scene, they do a POV from the girls' perspective of the demon walking down the hallway and the elevator closing just as he arrives. It's a great, potentially iconic horror image. Because of that, great care is taken with the execution. On the first shot, MacKay goes too slow. On the second, Whannell literally screams, "Charge Michael! Don't run, but walk as fast as you can." The third take is better, but the elevator doesn't work again. Finally, they get it on the fourth take.

All in all, over the course of about two and a half hours on set, 10 minutes of footage was shot which will likely be edited down to 10 seconds. Gotta love movies.

I've been on a few horror sets before and I have to say, this was the first one that was actually creepy. The details, the ideas, the implications, all of it just made someone think about and feel like death. If Insidious Chapter 3 can harness just a bit of that, it should be a worthy follow up to the popular series.

Insidious Chapter 3 opens June 5.