Horror, the James Wan Way

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.

Insidious Chapter 2

Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson
Rated: PG-13
Studio: FilmDistrict
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-09-13 (General release)
UK date: 2013-09-13 (General release)

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.