Warning: This review contains the mildest of spoilers, probably nothing you couldn’t guess for yourself.
films take place in an America haunted by faded dreams of a prosperity provided
by a loved and respected father. In
James Wan’s vision this patriarchal figure has been replaced by a maniacal
presence brooding in the dark corners of a house where women are the strongest
presence and men have become peripheral. Wan’s latest film (his second this
summer) is too filled with tiresome exposition and brazen shock tactics to be
haunting, but like many horror films, good, bad, or indifferent, it is
certainly haunted. Set in starkly
isolated locations, where it is always dusk or nighttime, with characters
slouching towards doom at dream-like pace, horror films speak as much through
their conventions as through the stories they tell. Like its predecessor, this second chapter of
the Insidious franchise tells the
story of a father and son who have the ability to project their sleeping selves
into a ghostly realm called “The Further.”
While this imaginatively-realized plane of the undead has its
fascinations, the world in which the Dalton family leads its waking life seems
no less lifeless and every bit as haunted as the spirit world they fear.
Like many American popular discourses, the film is
preoccupied with anxieties about masculinity.
The story is haunted by the rise of women as chief breadwinners in the
household, a demographic shift that has somehow surprised and disturbed cable
news pundits from across the political spectrum. At times male anxieties seem so pronounced in
the film as to suggest a horror film adaptation of Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male,
which addresses the rise of “Angry White Male” politics in the face of rising
unemployment and perceived male disenfranchisement. James Patrick Wilson turns out to be an ideal
actor to convey this brooding male anger, barely hidden behind his unnaturally
frozen, deceptively boyish good looks.
One of the chief pleasures in watching the first Insidious film was trying to decide whether Josh Lambert’s behavior
was the result of unknown forces or simply run-of-the-mill dickishness. As he grows increasingly unconcerned about
the plight of his family, he spends more and more time at work; it is only
later in that film that we discover he is haunted by a secret.
Chapter 2 begins
by delving further into the secret of Josh’s behavior, as we revisit his
haunted childhood. In one especially
striking scene, an old videotape filmed by a paranormal investigator when Josh
was a child shows a brooding presence hovering over the boy’s shoulder, a
presence which turns out, on closer scrutiny, to be his adult self. The therapeutic solution to his disturbed
childhood is a novel one for a culture otherwise obsessed with recovering and
publicly airing repressed traumas: Josh is hypnotized into forgetting. While repression is not generally encouraged
by therapists, it is certainly a common way of dealing with complex emotional
problems, particularly among men.
Not surprisingly, Josh’s repressed trauma does what every
psychologist from Freud onward has warned us it would do: it returns, and with
a vengeance. While the previous film
focused primarily on Josh’s son Dalton, who shares his father’s ability to
travel between the lands of the living and the dead, Chapter 2 centers on the father, a figure who has become a haunted
simulacrum of the American male. We soon
learn that Josh is haunted, not just by his past traumas, but also by a
maniacal, sexually ambiguous presence.
While the plot of the film centers on the problem of how to get the real
Dad back, the most frightening scenes, and those that linger longest in the
mind, are those where Josh is both frightening and fatherly, paternal and
possessed. The story becomes a kind of male
version of The Stepford Wives, in
which lifeless replacements can be substituted for actual people because their
behavior is only a slight but disturbing exaggeration of the gender characteristics
of their originals. Like many American
fathers, Josh doesn’t listen to his wife, gives meaningless orders he expects
everyone to follow, and stares blankly at his children. He hides his lack of
feeling behind a fixed grin. It seems a
surprisingly short step from this sadly familiar behavior to the more
disturbing mayhem of the film’s latter half.
So what’s wrong with Dad, exactly? In a revealing moment, the film cuts suddenly
from the story of the attempted self-castration and suicide of a patient
overseen by Josh’s mother to a shot of Josh pulling a healthy tooth out of the
back of his own mouth, itself a kind of symbolic self-castration. Masculinity is deeply suspect in Wan’s world,
as men become increasingly peripheral, fading away before the stronger presence
of women. In the first film, Dalton is
saved as much through the efforts of medium Elise Rainier (Lyn Shae) as by his
devoted father. That film ended with her
mysterious death, possibly at the hands of Josh himself. In Chapter
2 he is under suspicion for the crime, the motive for which is obscure, but
which seems related to his increasingly misogynistic behavior, suggesting
resentment over a woman taking control.
In both films the other psychic investigators are a pair of inept male
nerds, whose uncertain masculinity is marked by a rather tasteless moment of
homophobia in the sequel. An older
psychic investigator misreads the signs he receives from the beyond, completing
the picture of a world where men are largely at the periphery.
Taking up the slack are Josh’s wife and mother. As in the first film, Rose Byrne’s
performance as suspicious and frightened wife Renai is utterly persuasive. While
she is often made to succumb to stereotypically female screaming fits, her best
moments occur when she scrutinizes her husband’s appearance and behavior,
trying to figure out what’s happened to the man she thought she knew. Barbara
Hershey transforms the taciturn mother-figure she played in the first film into
a more confident and assured character who helps her daughter-in-law reclaim
her family. When the male psychic
investigators prove too weak for the challenges thrown out by “The Further,”
the ghostly presence of Elise Rainier emerges to save their skins. This is a woman’s world in which the presence
of men is annoying at best, insidious at worst.
The least believable yet most compelling quality in Wan’s
films is a sense of haunted isolation from the living world. The characters live in impossibly large
houses that are completely detached, both socially and physically, from their
communities. The characters are rarely seen engaging in conventional domestic
activities, like eating together or playing board games. They just wander around their sumptuous homes,
waiting for the next intrusion from the beyond.
Their world is a ghostly remnant of the American dream, one grown
insubstantial as much through economic recession as through demographic
shift. Insidious, Chapter 2 ends like its predecessor, with a hypnosis
session in which Josh is made to forget the horrors he experienced, ensuring
that there will be another sequel, and that Dad will remain as cold and empty
as his enormous house.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.