Horror has long been a more progressive genre than it’s been given credit for. It’s the genre that gave birth to both scream queens and final girls, after all, and one of the rare spaces where monstrous, “unlikable” women have been allowed to let loose instead of being hemmed in. It should be no surprise, then, that the Insidious franchise, which has just debuted its fourth installment The Last Key, is forging into territory that you won’t see anywhere else.
Can you name any other franchise that stars a woman in her seventies, let alone one that posits her as, in the words of creator Leigh Whannell, “kind of [a] superhero?” The first Insidious movie featured Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as Josh and Renai Lambert, a couple plagued by the supernatural, but it was Lin Shaye, as psychic Elise Rainier, who ultimately emerged as the star.
When the Lamberts’ son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a coma, malicious supernatural phenomena begin occurring around their house. When they buck one of the biggest horror tropes—that of staying in a clearly haunted house—and move elsewhere, it turns out that it’s not the house that’s haunted: it’s Dalton himself, as a result of Josh’s (now suppressed) childhood sensitivity to the astral plane. In other words, the Lamberts aren’t the heroes of the story. They’re the monster of the week. And in case there was any doubt, the sequel essentially brings Elise back from the dead following her demise at the hands of the possessed Josh at the end of the first movie, and the third and fourth installments are prequels, with the Lamberts nowhere in sight and Elise front and center.
To that end, Elise is a superhero. The monsters she fights change from movie to movie, but she remains, revealing more and more about herself each time we get a glimpse into her world. She’s even got a pair of sidekicks (Specs and Tucker, played by Whannell and Angus Sampson), who are among the most endearing nerds ever committed to film. Despite how easy it would be for them to veer into parody, or otherwise self-righteous mansplaining territory, they’re unwaveringly loyal to Elise without trying to supersede her authority.
Maybe it’d be going too far to call the Insidious movies feminist insomuch as they don’t seem to be aiming for any specific sociopolitical message, but it’s difficult to overstate just how unique Elise is as a hero. Aside from her age, Elise is also remarkable as a female protagonist because she isn’t made to present outward signifiers of toughness, and she also doesn’t fall prey to what happens to so many other characters her age, i.e. having to prove that she’s rowdy in order to keep the audience’s attention. It’s enough that she is who she is. She can wear her pastel sweaters, cardigans, and scarves and still kick ass if she wants to—she’s no less of a force to be reckoned with.
Female characters are so often forced to conform to one mold or another in order to be considered “marketable” that Elise’s freedom to be herself is a breath of fresh air. Take Jennifer’s Body, for instance: it’s an outstanding film about female growth and friendship (and dismantling the patriarchy, literally) that was ultimately tanked by marketing that posited it as a racy comedy instead. Elise isn’t subject to any such masking: her face may not be on the posters, but she’s unquestionably the hero in each of the trailers. If you’re a fan of the Insidious movies, you’re a fan of Elise Rainier, too, because they’re one and the same. (Shaye has notably been dubbed the “Godmother of Horror.”)
What makes the franchise all the more remarkable is that we already know how Elise dies. Scary movies aren’t scary if we don’t care about the person we’re seeing onscreen, and there are arguably no stakes to the prequels since we know that Elise’s fate is sealed elsewhere. But it’s still impossible to look away from Shaye’s performance, and equally impossible not to cheer when she ultimately triumphs, even though you already know that she will.
Perhaps that’s why it’s taken four movies to get to an origin story: it just hasn’t felt necessary. Elise is strong enough of a presence on her own, and it’s not something that’s required to make a hero compelling. The series is an anomaly when it comes to the modern superhero movie in that sense, too: there almost isn’t a single superhero movie in recent memory that has forgone showcasing its hero’s origin story (Batman’s has been repeated so often it’s devolved into parody).
For anyone afraid that this might be the end of the road for Insidious after the literal unearthing of Elise’s childhood demons, fear not—there have already been rumblings of an Insidious/Sinister crossover. At any rate, it’d be a pity to say goodbye. Elise is a worthy hero, and a singular one, too.