Look at the bottom of this post and you'll see the images of two teenage lead actresses in recent horror films: one is the star of Insidious 3; the other, the star of It Follows. Both have reason to fear.
That's just about everything these two films -- one a triumph, the other trash -- have in common.
Let's start by throwing out the trash.
What's most insidious about Insidious 3 is that a movie producer green-lit and expects audiences to pay to see one of the most boring and lazy horror movies in recent memory, especially when you consider the general high quality of the Insidious franchise. The story centers on a pretty girl who somehow gets herself haunted by a spirit who enjoys pushing, grabbing, dropping, pulling, dragging and all but drop-kicking her. Oh, and she's really, really dumb.
There's no point in saying much more than "Don't Go!", but don't hold it against Insidious 1 and Insidious 2, which were actually inventive, spooky flicks with solid narrative backbones. They were directed by the seasoned James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, who teamed up to bring us Saw.
Insidious 3 was helmed by Whannell alone -- in his directorial debut -- and the inexperience shows. In the only measurement that truly counts, I3 is about as scary as a Halloween candy commercial, but not nearly as entertaining.
Way on the other end of the quality spectrum -- though released last March, so you'll probably have to catch it on cable -- is It Follows, David Robert Mitchell's well-crafted and award-winning horror film about a demonic entity following a pack of teenagers one at a time, in the guise of various slow-moving but menacing strangers.
That description makes the film sound hopelessly cheesy -- especially considering the "curse" is transferred from teenager to teenager sexually. But the scares are patiently and expertly staged and, even more importantly, Mitchell manages to inject an extreme sense of spooky desperation and paranoia that makes the entire 100-minute experience creepy and compelling from beginning to end.
Basically, take that sinking feeling that a stranger is following you down a dark and isolated road, multiply it by a hundred, and buckle in. Extra points for cinematography and music that deliberately makes the film seem like a grungy thriller from the 1980s, and complex, realistic characters who aren't all either virtuous saints or wise-cracking jerks, as we've come to expect from this genre.
An ambiguous ending makes this movie all the more unpolished and un-Hollywood - which amps up the creepiness even more.
As a horror fan since I was a little boy, and a horror screenwriter myself, I can boil it down to this: Insidious 3, like so many films, fails because it sells horror as the cause of fear. It Follows succeeds because it presents fear -- not knowing what to expect, yet expecting it nonetheless -- as the cause of horror.
A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".