From Inspirational to ‘Insidious’: James Wan 101

He had only made four films at this point. One gave birth to a genuine cinematic phenomenon. His most recent promises to be an audience friendly frightmare freak out, destined to save Spring 2011. In between, Malaysian-born director James Wan tried his hand at normal moviemaking and further fear factors, but none made him as popular or important as the Sundance splash known as Saw.

Ever since his days as a youth in Australia, he wanted to make movies. He attended the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology where he met friend and future film/creative co-conspirator, Leigh Whannell. Together, they came up with an idea revolving around a specialized serial killer who made his victims choose the path of their often fatal fate. Cobbling together a short film to argue for the script’s viability, the results won over investors, who turned the experiment into Saw. The rest, as they say, is seven films (and counting) in a successful series history.

Of course, as far removed executive producer, Wan and Whannell have had little to do with the recent turns in the tale of John Kramer and his ever widening vendetta against the general human populace. Instead, the incredibly young movie mogul (he was only 26 when Saw hit big) has been trying to broaden his career prospects, working behind the scenes and on his own pet projects.

Yet those who have followed his arc realize that Wan is more than just Billy the Bicycle-riding puppet who requests to “play a game”. With Insidious hitting theaters tomorrow (1 April), here’s a chance to play catch-up with the Wan’s often impressive oeuvre. Sure, he’s settled into scary movie biz rather well, but all throughout his canon you can see where his effectiveness can (and will) transcend the shivers.

Saw (2004)

There are many misconceptions about Saw, most revolving around the horror subgenre it supposedly inspired. In reality, it was Darren Lynn Bousman who was most responsible for the whole “torture porn/gorno” movement. Just look at his installments in the franchise (Parts 2, 3 and 4) and then argue for Wan as the inventor of wanton violence for the sake of a psychopath’s twisted games.

True, the original Saw came up with the premise, but it was more of a resume reel, a collection of terrific terror beats measured out in both suspenseful and over-stylized ways. As with many first time filmmakers, Wan went all out, adding MTV like moments of music video shoot silliness as well as expertly crafted sequences of serious scares.

But it was the corkscrew turning storyline crafted along with partner Whannell that ultimately won the day. Again, it was Bousman who made the movies all about the splattery puzzle boxes. The original Saw is about dread first, the deaths are a distant second.

Dead Silence (2007)

Focusing on burgeoning scary movie series for the next few years, it would take a while for Wan to step back behind the lens. When he did, he and collaborator Whannell decided to dive into some good old fashioned supernatural spook showboating. They came up with the story of an evil female ventriloquist, gave her a Freddy Krueger-like backstory, and then lined up the demonic dummies.

For many, Dead Silence is just… stupid, an excuse for a successful freshman fright master to work out some of his more questionable conceits. But the film is actually an excellent primer for the current Insidious.

Wan loves to work in imagery — the sensed but unseen figure in the corner, the haunting white face just outside of the camera’s focus. He plays with expectation and the audience’s fluctuating levels of disbelief. In between, he shows a sharp ability to drag shocks out of even the most surreal material. While not a full blown failure, Dead Silence remains an interesting half-success, to say the least.

Death Sentence (2007)

In an about face that few ‘saw’ coming, Wan became a director for hire on this Kevin Bacon action revenge thriller about a father going after the gang that murderer his beloved teenage son. Dialing down the heroism and upping the ambiguous ethical moralizing, the results are strangely straightforward and very effective.

Basic, bloody, and bereft of many of the contemporary concerns within the stunt showcase (the exception being a terrific chase through a high rise parking garage), Wan wanted to work “dark”, and he achieved said tone in terrific style.

Of course, by now, audiences are eager for a return to form, so to speak (or more specifically, to Saw) and they avoided this late Summer release in droves. That’s too bad. Had he not been pegged just a “fright” guy, Wan would be a A-list name on any studio’s selection list. Instead, he took a few years off to relax and refuel, with apparently winning results.

Insidious (2010)

Like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist but given a nice post-millennial update, the latest film from Wan and Whannell is a brilliant filmic funhouse. Insidious is a ripping rollercoaster dark ride where two angst-ridden parents discover their comatose son is actually “haunted” by the spirits (and perhaps a demon) from a spooky plane known as “The Further”.

Employing every terrific trick in the gloomy Gothic “gotcha” handbook, Wan and Whannell deliver a sensational good time with an indirect audience participation project where screams solidify the viewer’s sense of involvement and (in)security. With a fantastic cast and a smooth, smart script, the film’s pace predicts a late Spring payoff as fans, desperate for something they can experience together and rally around, turn a simple creepshow into a potential cash cow.

This doesn’t take away from the filmmaking, however. Wan proves yet again that he has all the chops to be one of Hollywood’s leading genre luminaries. For those of us who like fear, let’s hope he stays in horror a little while longer.