Horror, the James Wan Way

[13 September 2013]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Ever since hitting the big time with his first film - the significantly more than torture porn treat Saw - James Wan has been slowly building a reputation as one of the premiere horror classicists working today. He’s more controlled that Eli Roth (who never met a boundary he couldn’t push, walk over, and then forget about instantly) and offers a more consistent set of scares than everyone’s favorite fright geek, Guillermo Del Toro (go back and look at his actual oeuvre and argue differently). From Dead Silence to Insidious, from this Summer’s smash The Conjuring to the next chapter in the Lambert family saga (opening today…Friday, September 13th), Wan has crafted a collection of fright films worthy of some of the genre maestros, and he’s done it in defiance of specific cyclical trends and industry desires.

When “gorno” was big, Wan and his collaborator Leigh Whannell were backing away from blood, reverting to the things that used to scare them as children back in their homeland of Australia. The result was Silence, a significant departure for the duo and a hint at the direction they would soon be taking. After a pass through effective revenge thriller territory (the underrated Kevin Bacon Death Wish riff, Death Sentence), the pair came up with the core idea for Insidious. With a desire to return to the days of innuendo and inference, to create a scary movie that didn’t rely on bile and body parts to sell its shivers, Wan and Whannell discovered an audience eager to experience same. Thus, the insanely entertaining Lambert family saga was born. On a meager budget of only $1.5 million, Insidious went on to make $97 million worldwide.

For a follow-up, Wan lucked into a gig directing an already established script about Ed and Lorraine Warren. These notorious paranormal investigators, perhaps best known for their work on the controversial Amityville case, had a wealth of previous supernatural experiences to draw from. Using their collection of suspect items, including one particularly troubling rag doll, producer Tony DeRosa-Grund crafted a script which would feature the husband and wife team as a kind of post-modern Ghostbusters, tapping into the now current craze over similarly styled reality TV shows. Eventually, The Warren Files was changed to The Conjuring, and Wan was brought on to direct. Using a rewrite from siblings Chad and Carey Hayes, the filmmaker went even further back (both logistically and creatively) to deliver the kind of shivers that only the famed films of the ‘60s and ‘70s could summon.

Now, with the intriguing Insidious sequel (offered with franchise promise subtitling “Chapter 2”) Wan is poised to have a second hit in as many months - and it’s no surprise why. Like Rob Zombie, another contemporary who makes movies based on the past, not the present, this is an artist working in a way few current macabre wannabes even understand. For we longtime fans, great horror is a carefully constructed skyscraper, a layer by layer understanding of all aspect of film without letting one or more element slip by, unexplored. In all three of his most recent movies, Wan shows that he “gets’ dread, understands how to construct creeps, and when necessary, frighten a viewer with a well timed shock or jump. It’s nothing new, but with fear veering closer and closer to actual autopsies captured on camera, the notion of revisiting the way fright used to function is both novel and much needed.

Take, for example, the opening sequence in Insidious: Chapter 2. A young boy (soon to grow up and become Patrick Wilson) is plagued by horrible nightmares and spectral visitations. His mother calls a pair of paranormal investigators (no, not the Warrens) and they try to decipher what is going on. As they videotape the child under hypnosis, sounds reverberate from the darkened hallways on the second floor. One of the researchers heads off to take a look. The other watches as the boy responds to an unseen presence in the room. Cue the music. Amplify the fear. Prepare for the payoff. Indeed, almost every scare in Insidious: Chapter 2 comes after a careful collaboration between setting, situation, script, casting, acting, art direction, sound design, musical scores, and editorial control. Because we are invested in these characters (even more so, this second time around) we share their sense of foreboding. Even worse, Wan works in a way that decries the recent gimmicks. He doesn’t dwell in handheld POV pranks. Instead, he lets the edges of every frame fill with potential dangers.

He’s also enamored of the feminization of fear, meaning, he doesn’t shy away from making women the heavies in his films. In Dead Silence, a crazy old female ventriloquist is the main culprit. In The Conjuring, it was an angry witch and a curse from beyond the grave. For those who’ve yet to see Insidious: Chapter 2, a SPOILER ALERT is needed. Indeed, beyond the basic concept of the spirit-laden afterworld known as The Further, we discover that the iconic “Bride in Black” may not be what she appears to be, and that someone “maternal” may be behind the sudden desire to step into the human plane. For a long time, women weren’t seen as a horror movie menace. Instead, they were exploited by producers for their added (usually naked) eye candy value. Here, Wan and Whannell allow the ladies to unleash their own brand of (un)holy Hell, and it works. Spectacularly.

On the other hand, one cannot emphasize the concept of craft enough. The reason movies like Insidious, The Conjuring, and now Insidious: Chapter 2 function as effective frightmares is because Wan understands what gets under our skin. Unlike a franchise like Paranormal Activity which believes in the power of sound over everything else, this director demands we pay attention to all that is going on - the acting, the lighting, the set-up, the cinematic salesmanship. He’s not afraid of venturing beyond the basics to deliver his fear, but he also knows that going back to same secures a crowd’s complete commitment. When it’s realistic, we relate to it. As long as he’s considered in his constructions, Wan continues to build horror edifices that will stand the test of time. In fact, it’s safe to say that the more the medium changes, the more this filmmaker will try and stay the same. For this fact alone, horror fans should rejoice. 

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