Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Lin Shaye’s work as Elise Rainier across the Insidious franchise.
The final girl trope is at the bedrock of horror cinema, from Halloween’s Laurie Strode to Alien’s Ellen Ripley. But the trope has also become oversaturated in the genre. It’s led to an inclination to describe every female lead in a horror film as a final girl. But not every badass woman who plays a horror heroine should be slapped with that label.
Case in point: Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainier in the Insidious franchise. Shaye’s character is far and away the hero of the series. But she also offers a refreshing take on a horror heroine that steers clear of any final girl tropes. Her friends aren’t being picked off one by one. She’s not running for her life from a masked psycho. But there is one thing that tethers her character to the trope. There’s a natural kindness in Elise that gives her an air of innocence, a central element of the final girl. But it’s an innocence that we quickly discover is just one layer of this demon-busting super psychic.
In Insidious, when we first learn a psychic is coming to save Dalton (Ty Simpkins), our first instinct is to think this medium is going to be either kooky or spooky. This is thanks in part to our impression of Elise’s goofy bickering sidekicks, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannel).
However, once Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) opens his door and we’re greeted by Elise, she’s anything but weird. We first hear Shaye’s infectious laugh and then see her beaming smile as Elise awkwardly steps into the home. There’s a sweet, innocent quality at play here that we didn’t anticipate. She doesn’t seem like some kooky super-psychic. This lady could be our grandmother. We just didn’t expect a powerful clairvoyant to look so, well, normal.
Shaye’s outward appearance makes Elise seem unassuming, meek even. But this feels by design. She fills the screen with her distinct warmth, subtly conveying genuine compassion that feels radical for a horror movie. It’s not every day that someone who could be your grandmother goes toe-to-toe with hell-raising ghosts and demons. Instantly, Shaye (along with director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell) has subverted our expectations of the horror heroine. It makes us excited to find out how someone like her can strike fear into the heart of the netherworld.
While Elise is only a supporting character in the first Insidious, the subsequent sequels smartly focus on her story. We witness the hardships and struggles she has faced, from enduring her husband’s suicide to surviving her father’s abuse. As we learn about Elise’s life, Shaye conveys strength and vulnerability in a way that doesn’t feel forced or unearned. She doesn’t allow the baggage of Elise’s personal history to turn into bitterness either. Instead, Shaye makes the bold choice of playing into the warmth and light that naturally radiates from her character. This sensibility has two effects. It gives a sense of relief to the characters Elise helps, but it also makes the audience feel relieved too. In a white-knuckled horror film, Shaye’s energy becomes a balm to soothe us through the movie’s spookier beats.
But this is still just one layer of Shaye’s portrayal of Elise. As the series progresses, Shaye gets moments to show Elise being just as tough and resilient as any final girl. Take a scene in Insidious: Chapter 2 for example. During the climax, Elise doesn’t just offer guidance to protect Josh from a demon. She quite literally beats the living crap out of it with a kid’s rocking horse. This is one of the many cheer-worthy scenes Shaye gets to have throughout the franchise.
Her badassery reaches a high point with Elise’s “Ellen Ripley Moment” in Insidious: Chapter 3. After being attacked by a vengeful ghost, she remembers her greatest strength is that she’s alive, and they are not. Boosted with power, Elise Judo throws the wraith across a room before squaring up and uttering the line “C’mon, bitch!”. Sure, she may not be facing a gigantic alien queen. But her delivery is just as fist-pump-inducing as Ripley’s famous line, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
As much as Elise truly kicks ass, the beauty of Shaye’s performance really lies in her authenticity. It never seems like Shaye is acting. Her performance just feels like a natural extension of herself. Her own joy for life channeled into this inherently kind character. But that kindness is never one-dimensional. Shaye keeps a steady hand on Elise’s self-awareness of her psychic abilities. After being dismissed in Insidious, there is a quality to Shaye’s voice as she trudges out of the Lamberts’ house. She ruefully and painfully recognizes the skepticism she has faced all her life. All she can do is lead people to the threshold of the great beyond. She knows they must take the next step alone. That pain hangs as comfortably on Shaye as Elise’s joy. That she can play both so beautifully is one of the main reasons her performance is so memorable.
Lin Shaye has been a character actress in Hollywood for years. She’s appeared in everything from Brewster’s Millions to A Nightmare on Elm Street. With Insidious, she finally got the opportunity to take center stage with a pivotal character in a celebrated blockbuster franchise. Shaye has turned herself into a modern-day horror movie icon by making an indelible mark on the genre through her nuanced performance as the compassionate and formidable demon-buster Elise.