Insidious and Ridiculous: The Terror and Absurdity of the Lipstick-Face Demon

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Insidious and Ridiculous: The Terror and Absurdity of the Lipstick-Face Demon

The marketing campaign for Insidious: The Red Door has taken an emotional toll on my closest loved ones. First, my mom texted me about her terror when she got an ad pushed to her phone (“WTF??? That new insidious mobile preview was terrifying!” *angry emoji*). Then, when the same ad played while my wife and I were watching something on Hulu, she looked cautiously through her fingers before the big stinger at the end of the trailer made her fall to the floor and scream out in fear. No, I’m not overdramatizing this. The reactions of both were in response to a particular character that seems to be coming back to the franchise, as the Patrick Wilson-directed Red Door continues the main continuity, in full swing. After acting as the primary source of horror for the perpetually haunted Lambert family in the series’ first entry from James Wan 13 years ago, and appearing in a cameo capacity in Chapter 3, the Lipstick-Face Demon makes his joyous, triumphant return.

In case you’re unaware, yes, Lipstick-Face Demon is the credited name for that big, lanky red-faced guy with hooves for feet and claws for fingers that’s trying to possess young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) in the first Insidious. If you pay a visit to his profile on Villains Wiki, you’ll see he has a number of other canonical monikers—The Man With Fire on His Face, The Visitor, Sixtass, or if you’re keeping it casual he’s apparently known simply as Him—but Lipstick-Face Demon has always struck the most satisfying chord as his name. It gets right to the heart of the matter: He has a red face. But it’s also indicative of the ridiculous and theatrical qualities that give him his own peculiar idiosyncrasy. He’s visually striking, which is certainly part of what makes him so memorable, but his specific use within the films and the stray suggestions toward his unique identity help make him an iconic horror movie monster in a world that no longer produces many of them.

Looking at the last 15 years or so, there are relatively few horror films that have spawned noteworthy villains. Part of the reason may have been the growing obsession with “elevated” horror throughout the 2010s, the dreary demeanors and bleak psychological dissections of which didn’t have much space for fun, scary monsters or supernatural creatures. Some of the closest contenders I can pull would be the Babadook, who’s managed to become a prominent fixture in the cultural consciousness despite that film’s independent roots and dour tone, and Art the Clown from Terrifier, whose distinct look and vicious killings have turned him into a prominent slasher villain for a new generation.

Other films with ostensible monsters either just weren’t memorable enough to catch on or operated in a more ambiguous realm that was at odds with the very idea of an iconic villain. A film like Lights Out has some haunting creature imagery, but isn’t good enough overall to sustain any lasting interest. Other movies like It Follows, Hereditary or the recent Smile are effective and had word-of-mouth popularity, but their monsters are enigmatic, often representative of a broader idea that steers away from the specific iconography of one single villain.

If anyone is consistently putting out successful modern horror villains, it’s Wan. He has a history of directing and producing films with enduring characters that feel like they have a genuine, earned place within the larger scope of horror villains. His roster is impressive: Billy from Saw is everlasting, and Annabelle and The Nun from the Conjuring films have each spun off into their own successful franchises. (I also think Gabriel from Malignant is sick as hell, though I don’t know if that carries over to general audiences.) The varying quality of the films notwithstanding, the characters themselves have proven to hold sustained popularity and are immediately recognizable, pop culture fixtures in studio films with the veneer of, or indulgence in, broad bump-in-the-night frights that audiences respond to.

Out of all his little weirdos and freaks, though, Lipstick-Face has to be my favorite. Maybe it’s from a lack of overexposure—he’s only the main antagonist in the first Insidious and there’s no extended universe franchise devoted to him—but I think it’s actually because he’s the weirdest and freakiest of them all. His presence is suffocating during the first half of the film, and wildly bonkers during the final stretch. He’s the subject of one of the most unforgettable jump scares this century. You know the scene: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey are having a tense conversation about him at the dining room table in broad daylight when he decides to join the conversation:

It comes at the crux of the film and is the first real exposure the audience is given to his actual appearance. It’s a genuinely startling scare that acts as a stepping stone from the first half’s possession movie to the more fantastical back half. For the early stages, Lipstick-Face is concealed within the shadowy corners of the home or simply leaves stray markings for the family to find—his presence is felt, but left as a concern for later as the Lamberts deal with all the other makeup-caked spirits running around. His inevitable appearance feels legitimately foreboding.

Insidious gets a lot of flak for its weird second-half shenanigans, even though it’s this section that differentiates it from other films of its ilk. The core of the story is that it’s not actually the Lamberts’ house that is haunted (this is one of the few horror films where the central family actually does pack up and leave the scary house, to no avail), it’s their son Dalton. There’s a bunch of wacky lore involved that explains how Wilson’s character Josh passed down a genetic ability to astral project while sleeping and how he too was once the target of a ghostly possession. Now, Josh has to travel to The Further—a desolate plane of existence somewhere between life and death that’s full of damned souls and Spirit Halloween fog machines—to retrieve Dalton, who’s being held captive by Lipstick-Face. 

It’s wholly ludicrous, and the bulk of these scenes offer the sense of walking through a kitschy haunted house attraction, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in its brazen confidence. This is especially true when we catch back up with Lipstick-Face. Josh discovers Dalton chained up in the demon’s very red, very evil, very smoky, kind of gothic lair that’s adorned with elegant chandeliers and ominous candlelight. The two begin their escape but realize they’re not alone, as the camera pans around and pushes in on an upstairs room that seems to be Lipstick-Face’s…creative studio? Activity room? He seems less of a dread-inducing monster here and more of a cartoonishly evil member of a traveling theater troupe. He’s up there blasting Tiny Tim through a gramophone in his room full of drama masks and marionette dolls while he sharpens his nails. His décor compliments his intentions and technique, implying that he possesses humans the same way he would pull the strings on a puppet. He’s like the devil in an ornately baroque stage-play version of Hell. 

This is crucial to what makes him so memorable: He adapts to the morphing, uninhibited tone of the film. For as tense as things start, the turn into offbeat fantasy horror means Lipstick-Face is able to emerge out of the periphery of the frame onto center stage where we’re soon getting close-ups of his stomping hooves and cat-like eyes, and shots of him throwing people across the room and violently crawling across walls. Some may argue you simply see too much of him, to the point where any fear is lost, but the last act of Insidious isn’t reaching for that same kind of terror. It’s still scary, but it’s more deliberately outlandish. Lipstick-Face feels at one with the heightened production design, story, and especially the music: He’s portrayed by the film’s composer Joseph Bishara, and all the shrieking violins and crashing, atonal pianos of the score are a perfect accompaniment to the frenzy of the character.

If the question is why Lipstick-Face succeeds as a villain, the answer is that he’s in a movie that takes an active interest in the gleefully fun possibilities of such a character, from a director with a sharp proficiency for commercial horror filmmaking. Wan’s images are unsettling and zany in equal measure, and they meet in the middle to make Lipstick-Face the precise result of an inspired confluence of different tones. The film’s eccentricities can make him easy to mock (sure, I guess he kind of looks like Darth Maul), but that may just come with the territory of trying to do something bold.

Whether or not he’s effective as a prominent figure in a film not being led by Wan remains to be seen and, indeed, even Wan’s creative partner Leigh Whannel couldn’t quite conjure the same effect when he briefly used him for Chapter 3. But it would make sense that the success of such a singular character would be inexorably tied to his unconventional creator, one who continuously smuggles loads of weirdo, left-field ideas into high-profile studio releases. He’s a vivid transmission of Wan’s kooky brain, and there’s a sincerity there that translates to his demonic presence. Again, he’s literally called the Lipstick-Face Demon. You can’t ask for anything more terrifying—or absurd.

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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