The Insidious Trilogy: How a 70-Year-Old Character Actor Became a Franchise Star

Lin Shaye Insidious

The online horror community has been flooded with posts about the Insidious franchise in the past couple weeks, brought on by the release of the third installment. Reviews and retrospectives have mostly been the name of the game – in fact, I wrote about both Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 right here on HL – but I’ve yet to see anyone put the focus on the most remarkable thing about the series.

And the most remarkable thing about the Insidious franchise, when you really think about it, is the fact that it has been entirely built around the character of Elise Rainier – a wacky psychic portrayed by 71-year-old character actor/horror icon Lin Shaye. In a Hollywood landscape that is mostly filled out by fresh-faced young stars, this is an incredibly noteworthy fact that commands both respect and applause.

The sister of New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye, Lin Shaye has had small roles in countless horror films over the years. She popped up in movies such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, Alone in the Dark, Amityville: A New Generation and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, though her appearances were always so short-and-sweet that you may not have even noticed she was there.

In all of those movies, Shaye played nameless characters who were completely defined by their profession, and the actress was often credited as simply ‘Nurse,’ ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Receptionist.’ For the most part, Shaye built a career on being a recognizable face in the crowd, but that all changed when Leigh Whannell and James Wan decided to give her top billing in Insidious.

Presumably inspired by Poltergeist‘s Tangina, Shaye was cast as Elise Rainier in the film, who heads a small team of paranormal researchers – comprised of bumbling buffoons Specs and Tucker. Shaye’s performance turned what easily could’ve been a bit-part into unarguably the most memorable character in the entire movie, proving that she’s capable of being much more than a nameless extra.

Elise was killed off at the end of Insidious, but that didn’t stop Whannell and Wan from bringing her back in Insidious: Chapter 2. In fact, the character’s role was only increased in the wake of her death, given a backstory that tied her directly into the overall mythology of the series. And Shaye shined once again in the role, encouraging cheers from the audience when Elise returned to save the day from the other side.

And then came Insidious: Chapter 3, which is quite frankly the ‘Lin Shaye Show.’ Though the main storyline in the second sequel seemed to center on a young girl and her family, the movie actually turned out to be much more of an Elise Rainier origin story, showing us what the character was up to in the years prior to the Lambert family haunting – as well as how she first met Specs and Tucker.

Insidious: Chapter 3 almost treats all other characters in the film as an afterthought, and you get the sense that if writer/director Leigh Whannell had his way, the movie would’ve been entirely about Elise. Lin Shaye is hands down the best thing about the film, and her character’s trials and tribulations infuse the otherwise dull spook-show with a whole lot of heart as well as a surprising level of emotion.

Emotions aside, Lin Shaye just plain kicks ass in Insidious: Chapter 3. She’s got one-liners and is the most empowered character in the movie, which is pretty awesome given both her age and gender. It’s no secret that Hollywood doesn’t often make movies that star elderly actors, and the system is frequently criticized for not providing actresses of any age with the best of roles, so Shaye’s Insidious tenure is kind of a beautiful thing.

But most beautiful of all is the fact that this little movie about an elderly woman performed pretty damn well at the box office. Though it made far less than Insidious: Chapter 2, it still managed to gross more than double its budget in the first three days of release, and it even out-grossed the recent remake of Poltergeist – not by much, but it nevertheless has to be considered a victory for this low-budget franchise that could.

A franchise that, I simply must remind you one more time so as to hammer home the point of this post, is led by a 70-year-old woman. Suck on that, Hollywood.

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