From Inspirational to 'Insidious': James Wan 101

Patrick Wilson as Josh Lambert in Insidious (2010) (IMDB)

Sure, he's settled into scary movie biz rather well, but all throughout James Wan's canon you can see where his effectiveness can (and will) transcend the shivers.

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)

Tobin Bell as Jigsaw in Saw

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)

Dead Silence film poster (IMDB)

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)

Kevin Bacon as Nick Hume in Death Sentence (2007) (IMDB)

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)

Joseph Bishara as Lipstick-Face Demon in Indisious (2010) (IMDB)

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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

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.