Warning: This review contains the mildest of spoilers, probably nothing you couldn't guess for yourself.
The Insidious 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 In James Wan’s vision this patriarchal figure has been replaced by a maniacal presence brooding in the dark corners of a house where women are the strongest presence and men have become peripheral.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.