Insidious: Chapter 2 Review (Film, 2013)

insidiouschapter2reviewposter Insidious: Chapter 2 Review (Film, 2013)Warning: this review contains spoilers. There’s a big issue I need to discuss and the only way to get at it and how it embodies the biggest flaw of Insidious: Chapter 2 is to discuss one of the major reveals of the film.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is a mess. It’s a scary mess that will have you jumping out of your seat, but it’s a mess nonetheless. James Wan and Leigh Whannell (writer/director and writer/star, respectively) left the door wide open for a sequel in Insidious. The story could continue and use a lot of the same scare techniques. The ideas are there to make it work in the sequel, but they really don’t add up in a believable or even enjoyable way.

The Lambert family is still being haunted after they recovered their son from “The Further”–a dark afterlife where trapped spirits wait for their chance to return to the world of the living. Now Josh, the father, isn’t acting like himself and Lorraine, his mother, reaches out to the experts who helped her 30 years before to save the family.

There are no sacred cows in true horror. You can write and direct whatever you want to so long as it services the story you’re telling and scares the audience. Insidious: Chapter 2 doesn’t clear either threshold with it’s worst, most offensive story element.

One of the major ghosts in the story (really, in the series so far) is revealed to be a trans woman. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. It’s the backstory Wan and Whannell attribute to the character that borderlines on the offensive. The character is dead because she attempted to castrate herself and died of complications in the hospital. That’s sad and could have been used as a way to develop anger toward the world in the afterlife if not specifically anger toward the Lambert clan. It could have made for some interesting story dynamics about identity.

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A terrible mother cliche in horror or a harmful transphobic stereotype? You decide. [click for full]

However, the Wan/Whannell script explicitly states the ghost is only transgender because her mother forced her to live as a girl. She beat her son if he refused to wear a wig and a dress and accept a new female name. Essentially, she tortured him until he was only able to function in the greater world as a woman in a black veil and dress.

Though there is an element of horror in this concept, it’s driven by harmful stereotypes about transgender identity. There are people who perpetuate the myth that something causes a person to choose to be transgender the same way there are people who argue that homosexuality is a choice. These people often cite trauma–things as banal as a boy playing with dolls or a girl playing with trucks–as the cause of not identifying as the sex you were born as. If you read a news story with comments on a transgender child facing problems in a school or extracurricular activity, you’ll see many comments from people claiming the parents must be forcing this alternate identity on the child and should be punished for child abuse.

When the creators of a film that will be seen by as many people as Insidious: Chapter 2 choose to hinge their story on harmful stereotypes, they’re reinforcing stereotypes that hurt the progress we as a society make towards being more tolerant. This is not a device like Norman Bates assuming the identity of his mother to commit his murders; this is a case of choosing to claim a ghost is evil because she was forced by her mother through child abuse to become a woman. It’s a disgusting narrative decision that is entirely laughable in the context of the film. The scenes are so overplayed and filled with such ridiculous melodramatic music stings that it comes across as unintended self-parody. With all the dropped plot threads and incoherent world building that undermines most of the goodwill from Insidious, the last thing Wan and Whannell should have concerned themselves with was explaining why being transgender makes a ghost the villain of a story.

This insensitivity toward a hotly debated sociomedical issue acts a microcosm of the flaws of Insidious: Chapter 2. The story’s focus is entirely misplaced. The investigation with Lorraine Lambert and the surviving partners of paranormal investigator/medium Elise is terrifying but only exists to set the groundwork for the absurd “she’s transgender because of childhood trauma and THAT’s why she’s evil” scene.

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Not even the poor characters have any idea what’s going on. [click for full]

Meanwhile, poor Renai Lambert and her three children are fighting a losing battle against the growing evil and insanity wrought by this spirit in their new home. Josh goes from zero to Jack Nicholson in The Shining at the drop of a hat with no explanation beyond “that ghost is evil because she became transgender due to childhood trauma.” Nothing relevant to the minimal story of Chapter 2 is explained in the context of Chapter 2 beyond why the transgender ghost is evil due to childhood trauma.

Instead, we get a rehash of Insidious, where Wan and Whannell prove how clever they are by recontextualizing all of the events of the first film through the lens of the second. That’s great for a featurette connecting films in a series on a promotional home video release. It doesn’t work when that’s the most compelling aspect of a new/continuing story with the same characters. It’s like warmed up leftovers that already started to turn. There was, at some point, a good reason to know why the alarm system went off in the first film; that time is not in the middle of a new story that doesn’t even use the same premise or cast of supernatural characters any longer.

Insidious: Chapter 2 has all of its priorities in the wrong place. Instead of focusing on the arguably offensive backstory of a minor villain in a haunted house story, Wan and Whannel should have focused on plot, character development, and the quality of dialogue/performances appearing onscreen. All of that is subpar. It’s all the more obvious when the powerful effect of the ghost design and existing mythology carries any and all horror gags. The only new ideas in Chapter 2 range from completely idiotic to totally offensive and no one walks away a winner from that.

Rating: 3/10

Thoughts? Share them below.

  • Weston James

    I’m trans and didn’t find this film offensive in the least, mainly because I related the material to other circumstances. Famous serial killer Jerry Brudos suffered a similar fate to Crane. There is also more than one documented case of a serial killer being forced to dress as a girl as a method of punishment.

    Firstly, the character is not a transgender woman. His mother forced him to play the role of a girl, yet he lived his adult life and identified as male, only using the feminine clothing as a disguise for his killings. That is cross dressing. Cross dressers do NOT identify as the opposite sex. The castration aspect I attribute to his mother’s presence in his life, even after her death. He was driven to insanity under the guise of her suffocating abuse, and her memory haunted him long after she passed.

    Secondly, did you even watch the film? Crane didn’t die from complications due to the attempted castration. He jumped to his death.

    Lastly, if someone is willing to rely on a horror movie to shape their opinion on particular social issues, that individual’s intelligence (or lack thereof) should be called into question.

    • Robert

      I appreciate your feedback. We read the film differently and that’s fine. Considering his ghost form is always a woman, never a man, I felt it was a fair reading.

      It is obnoxious to claim that I didn’t watch the film because I stated that the reason he was hospitalized leading to his death was an attempt to castrate himself. Further, when social issues are incorporated into a film, especially as haphazardly as it was in this film, it is perfectly valid to include them in a review. I have been reviewing horror films for over a decade for various online and print publications and have never shied away from including valid social context and commentary. Media criticism is all about establishing and evaluating a piece of entertainment media within valid contexts. I believe my reading of this horror film is valid for a number of reasons explained above.

      Horror films are capable of discussing serious issues in a serious way. I question the intelligence of someone who believes that horror films have never and will never comment on social issues, especially since the entire morality of the American horror system is built on the Production Code (aka Hays Moral Code). The Hays Moral Code was a conservative Christian reaction to a string of high profile crime cases involving Hollywood actors designed to sanitize the entire film system to proper Christian values to not alienate the American public just when film screenings were becoming ubiquitous. Hundreds of horror films (and other genres, as well) were rewritten or reedited by the studios to meet the Hays Moral Code. It’s why sexuality and drug use was always punished onscreen and the bad guy could never be the victor. Vilification of anyone who did something wrong became associated with vilification of current events and hot button topics, usually through stereotypes and approved talking points about controversial issues. You were not allowed to lead the poor confused children astray by suggesting something not typically wholesome was okay or acceptable.

      Even after the Production Code was no longer in play, organizations like the MPAA continued to exert those standards on film, resulting in a repression of anything related to topics of sex and sexuality through much higher ratings than equally violent films would receive.

      You might have the skills and perspective to dig deeper in a film like Insidious: Chapter 2 and understand that using the stereotypical “something must have happened in their childhood to make them think they’re different” argument doesn’t actually mean a character is actually transgender. That’s not the narrative presented in the story. The narrative in the story is that this man was forced to live as a woman from a very young age to satisfy his abusive mother, attempted to complete that cycle of abuse at the end of his life because of his mother’s influence, and now lives his vengeful afterlife as a woman at all times. The idea of gender identity is used as a source of horror and instant animosity because the villain is aggressively trying to get revenge for being forced to live his life this way.

      A cross-dresser, as you called this character, would typically not attempt to remove their genitalia because the interest stops at just wearing the clothing. Now, if we consider the murders committed in the film to be a performance for his mother until he’s passed on, the cross-dresser reading of the character could start to come into focus. There is no suggestion in the film that this is all a show for the mother. She is forcing him to live as a woman for unspecified reasons. There’s the mention of the father’s influence–his boy name was his father’s decision–but nothing is elaborated on that. All we see is the mother abusing and manipulating him to live as a woman for so long that his identity in the afterlife is the woman in the black veil. The character may be trying to break back into the world through a male form, but the two male characters are the only ones who are actually capable of crossing into The Further that we meet in the two films. It’s suggested at the end of the film that this murderous ghost, dressed and acting as a woman, has finally possessed a female character with the girl in the wheelchair and Elise’s shocked reaction–a visual parallel to her murder in the first film by this character.

      The great thing about film is that people can watch the same title and come away with very different perspectives on what the creative team set out to do. We have differing opinions on the film. The main difference between us, however, is that your defense of your opinion was to attack me for not sharing your views of the story and completely rejecting the premise of how I read film as text, while I actually took the time to actually lay out my arguments and then expand upon them when in a discussion about a film and film criticism. I’d love to have heard an actual argument for why this character is a cross-dresser based on the facts presented in the film and how that is somehow a perfectly inoffensive marginalization of a stigmatized sexual (or, in some cases, non-sexual) interest. You chose to attack my opinion, instead.