Interview – Leigh Wannell/James Wan of Insidious/Saw April 11, 2011

I really loved that first Saw flick, so I jumped at the chance to talk to the guys behind it. Insidious is flawed, with a ton of startle horror, but at it’s core has great practical effects and filmmaking techniques. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a big horror flick since The Descent.

Like most revolutionary horror franchises that push past the boundaries of a trilogy (and even moreso the ones you can’t count on both hands anymore), people forget just how groundbreaking they were. Certainly Saw will be remembered alongside Friday the 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street, but where those franchises fell to camp, Saw fell to blood. Giving rise to a slew of “torture porn” pretenders that peaked last year with the fascinatingly abominable A Serbian Film, Saw was a revelation in a stagnant genre. Somewhere along the way, however, the focus became the gore and blood, the two least frightening parts of Saw. The creative team behind the revolution, screenwriter Leigh Whannell and James Wan attempt to capture the riveting psychological horror that set Saw apart with their latest film, Insidious.

“I think that’s partially what I want to prove with Insidious is that it’s possible to make a scary movie without blood and guts,” says Wan. With his partner Whannell, Wan has crafted a horror film that is mindful of convention, but aggressive in it’s subversion of those tropes The story of a young boy’s mystery coma and the spiritual infestation at the root of it pulls the very best of Poltergeist into the the modern shell of The Ring caliber art direction and bowstring suspense. He claims the Saw sequels missed the true horror core of it’s origin. The fear in Saw never came the blood, but the simple query “do you want to play a game”; the use of a bandsaw to cut off a limb was never near as scary as the threat of it’s presence. “There was scary things in the first Saw film that people now forget. All they can remember now is all the traps and the blood and guts of the sequels. That was never the focus of the film. I wanted to go back and do something that was scary again, but without all the trappings of what Saw had.”

That the partnership between Whannell and Wan that started in film school is obvious. The academic attention to horror detail and history is plain in Insidious, and is in some sense a return to Hitchcockian suspense techniques and tone seen in Saw. Starring Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) and Rose Byrne (Damages, 28 Weeks Later) as the doting parents who must contend with the cleverly realized spirits harassing their family, Insidious is as inventive and flawed as their previous work. From the brilliant throwback title card to the daring sequences of terror in broad daylight, Insidious plays fast and loose with hackneyed horror. “We want you to be uncomfortable in all scenarios. We don’t want you to take a breather when morning comes,” says Whannell. “You know a film is good when it has you scared in the daytime.” While one horror trope Insidious does not eschew is tripping on the hem of it’s dialogue, it’s effectively plotted, it’s startle-moments and aural stingers balancing nicely with eye-popping fever dream art direction.

Working with a budget even less than that of Saw, Insidious flaunts ever dollar on screen, becoming the best major horror production since The Descent graced screens. Wan and Whannell claim the restrictions enabled that success. “Leigh and I wanted this to be a low budget film. This is way smaller than Saw, and Saw was small. I actually find that when you have a finite amount of tools and toys and budget to play around with you actually make a scarier film,” says Wan. Whannell adds, “The difference I saw with James is that with Saw, he was frustrated with the lack of budget because it was preventing him from getting all these shots he had in his head for years. On the set of Insidious, he was reveling in it. He was reveling in the spirit of the thing. I think he was sick of development hell. I think that instilled in James a sense of ‘I just wanna go and shoot something!” It’s an adventurous attitude that bleeds into the film. “So instead of saying ‘oh man, I can’t believe we can’t get that crane shot’, you’re just like, fuck it. Let’s just grab the camera and do it.”

He continues, laughing. “Film school. Film school spirit.”

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Review – Year of the Carnivore June 28, 2010

I really meant the last paragraph of this. Hugely disappointing.


One of the best parts of Year of the Carnivore is the poster. A scene illustrated by accomplished Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel), it’s not only excellently realized, but philosophically appropriate. Where Brown took a comic strip biography about Louis Riel and made it into a subtle look into the nature of that figure’s neurosis and psychology, Vancouver filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus) makes similar observations about Sammy Smalls (Cristin Millioti). Like a twee and twenty-something answer to 2007’s Young People Fucking, Year of the Carnivore explores the nature of adversarial sexuality at an awkward stage of adulthood and at the same time makes a statement about the current state of Canadian film art. The result, however, is almost as confused as its main character.

Sammy Smalls lost partial use of her leg fighting cancer as a child. Her overbearing narcissist mother and weakling father want her to quit her job as a grocery store “detective,” thinking that running down shoplifters stealing flank steaks is too dangerous for someone of her stature. The film’s runtime is preoccupied with Sammy getting “experienced.” That is, she hops from one awkward sexual encounter to the next in the hopes of getting good enough to impress a boy, Eugene (Mark Rendall). While these encounters are filmed in an attempt at humour, they’re incredibly hard to watch and leave you wanting to give Sammy a shake and ask her what the hell she is thinking. While this could be leveraged as good drama, it’s instead an air ball lobbed and missing its target through an unfocused script. If the aim was to instill Sammy’s sense of frustration onto the audience, it’s mission accomplished.

To be blunt, Cristin Millioti deserves to be a star. The amount of humanity and depth she gives to an uneasily written character is admirable and to not walk out of the theater impressed with her performance would be impossible. Her supporting cast (including Will Sasso) are fairly strong, but Sammy Smalls is a star-making role. It is unfortunate then, that the script and film as a whole (as beautifully shot as it is) do not elevate a commendable performance.

Sook-Yin Lee made waves a while back for taking part in sexual acts on film in Shortbus, an act that royally irked her employers at the CBC and made her a news story for a couple of months. But while that film took all the eroticism out of sex as a stated goal to explore sex-as-mechanics, Year of the Carnivore does the same with a shudder-inducing lack of compassion, a detachment that edges on sociopathy. Each of the characters operates out of a strange, intense selfishness that totally breaks any connection with the audience and shatters the suspension of disbelief with uncomfortable scoffs. Its disconnect with actual sexual relations between young people is disturbing and its attempts to be iconoclastic take priority over being entertaining. Most egregious is a scene that is tantamount to depicted rape, but its implication is that if a female is the aggressor, the male will just enjoy it. Were this reversed, the backlash would be deafening. While the film makes a half-assed attempt to call this action immoral, it seems to do so with fingers crossed behind its back, some dialogue thick with shallow psychoanalysis a stopgap for actual emotion.

Did I say scene? I meant scenes. Plural. In an attempt to be unique and edgy, it comes off as creepy and objectionable. With each scene of torrid sexuality, a clear attempt is made for a condom to be applied. This restraint and modesty is horribly Canadian and turns the confusion of youth into the measured mistakes of an adult. It’s personally destructive performance art, the conscious martyrdom of Sammy Smalls. This is a Woody Allen film, courtesy of the new millennium. Be afraid.

It seems impossible for a film to fail with such an interesting leading lady, but Year of the Carnivore does. It tries to preach a muddled philosophy (I still can’t figure out what it was trying to tell me. Convenience conquers love? Change yourself to gain the love of others? I have no idea) and attempts to be an uplifting tale of a young woman exploring her sexuality, but instead rings out like an exploitative farce. I’ve never wanted to love a film more, and have never been so sad to see one fall short.

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Review – Splice June 17, 2010

This originally appeared in The Peak. The movie is great, I wholly recommend it.


It’s great when good movies are failed by the marketing departments of their studio partners, as it always makes success all the more satisfying. Splice is thus afflicted in spades; its trailers and promotions billing are a lame science-run-amok horror cash-in with a low IQ, and the entire merit requisite that genre. While the former is mostly correct, the latter characteristics are absent, resulting in one of the most interesting and entertaining science fiction films since Aliens.

Splice follows the exploits of Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Elsa Kast (Sarah Polley), a scientific Brangelina and the current darlings of their field. Their work, involving the recombination of various animal genetics, has resulted in a viable new species that produces a commercially valuable protein of some sort. On the edge of even greater achievements and medical breakthroughs, their research is threatened with being turned into an expensive farming operation, their ambitions to work with human DNA being shut down before they start. In an act of rebellion, Elsa and Clive disobey the law and their company, bringing a life form with part human and part animal DNA to term. Their interactions with what they create, the sentient and semi-lethal Dren (Delphine Chanéac, heavily modified with makeup and CG) and their struggle with creating something they cannot control, form the basis for the film’s second and third acts.

Like the trailers, this summary is a poor reflection of what this film is. On paper, it reads like any other sci-fi/horror film, which is to sell it short entirely. In actuality, it is a deep, layered film exploring paternal and maternal interplay with the couple’s new “offspring.” While it occasionally falls short of delivering compelling dialogue between the characters, its subtexts and intricacies are enough to put you on the edge of your seat. Every moment comprises some instance where a lesser studio thriller would shy away, hiding behind banality to inflate box office take or reach the coveted PG-13 threshold. Splice revels in these moments of shock, but never comes off as exploitative. Each is surrounded by a disturbing rationality, its character failings and instances of sheer horror coming only on the coattail of a well-constructed logic. It is this understanding that director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Paris Je t’aime) instils on his audience that makes Splice so terrifying. There is no moment of emotional or physical brutality that is senseless, and the audience can nearly sympathize (or at the very least see the reasons behind each, be they animal or cerebral). This makes for a psychologically chilling experience and one that will walk out of the theatre with you.

Polley and Brody picked a winner with this film, one that balances with ease its interest in Dren as the “monster” and the monstrosity of its creators. Both characters attack their roles and any frailties in the script dissolve in their performances. Polley expertly projects her character’s own mommy issues onto Dren: her motherly instincts taking on a frighteningly casual tyranny, the relationship between mother and teenage “daughter” finding a new, awful context. Just as deft is Brody’s struggle with a rapidly-aging Dren. An animal, an experimental subject, and ward of his protection, Splice shows its true fearlessness confronting him with Dren’s most problematic characteristic — the body and desires of an adolescent human female. Delphine Chanéac does exactly what is needed in her role, balancing a total animalistic streak with enough humanity showing through as to raise the question: Where does the animal stop and the human begin?

Its direction (and, particularly, art direction) are top notch, with the film’s drama never seeming tired and its action cohesive and smooth (take notes, Paul Greengrass). So tight is the experience, that to divulge much more than a brief synopsis is to start a domino effect of spoilers that would utterly undo its multiple satisfying twists and turns. Splice is science fiction without pandering, horror without restraint, thrilling without relying on pop-out scares, and infinitely exciting. It’s solid almost without exception and is one of the first truly great films of the summer. You’ll be shocked, disgusted, horrified, and happy with every cent spent on your ticket.

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Why Slasher Horror Can Never Die May 27, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. It was written for my friend Brendan Levesque, who knows far more about these flicks than I do. Hope I did them justice.


I was always more of a Jason man myself. Call me crazy, but a machete-wielding madman using an occupied sleeping bag as some sort of Cabela’s catalog morning glory to attack a tree always tickled me in an immeasurable way (R.I.P Judy).

That kind of terror is minimalist and embodies a kind of punk, DIY spirit that I gravitate toward — grab your biggest knife and a hockey mask and you’re in business. That being said, I was always intrigued by the nuance of fellow triumvirate member Freddy Krueger. Nuance might sound funny to describe a man with a lethal manicure coming to kill you through your dreams, but this concept played with the idea of mental illness and the intractability of deemed insanity. Invariably, telling even your nearest and dearest that a man is trying to kill you behind your eyelids is a quick route to a tidy lobotomy, and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise plays with the loneliness and eventual independence that came with triumph. It pulled the slasher film away from an explicit external force with a neat mask to an internal struggle, an invader incurring on the most personal of human experiences. Further, the overtone of fearing your dreams is delicious.

It’s due to this level of nerd affinity that I can’t get too cynical about the recent rash of horror remakes. The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, and now the resurgence of A Nightmare on Elm Street are only partly the fault of a Hollywood that is out of ideas and clamouring for the shrinking box office take. The fact is, there are a ton of profitable, remake-ready franchises out there that don’t carry with them the lexical baggage of the horror genre. This recent Elm Street is mindful of these tropes, ones that — if not present — would represent the failure of the movie in the eyes of the horror cognoscenti. Paradoxically, their inclusion makes sure the genre never moves forward, that stagnation being both its hallmark and kiss of death.

Before remakes became the norm, Neil Marshall’s The Descent made the horror fanbase step back and ask if these tropes could be dismissed in favour of layered, smart, and engaging horror. 2010’s Elm Street takes that idea, gives it the finger, and bastardizes it in an incredible way.

The movie itself is mediocre. The inclusion of Jackie Earl Haley (Shutter Island, Little Children, Watchmen) and Kyle Gallner (who stole scene after scene in Veronica Mars) inspired some early hope for the film, but it falls on its melted face pretty hard. The script has interesting ideas that are relegated to vestigial status one by one. From interesting subplots regarding academic reliance on alertness medication and the disadvantages of the buddy system (it’s hard to convince people you’re innocent when you are drenched in stage blood), this Elm Street abandons smart ideas methodically, peaking with a fantastic sequence involving a video blog. It even starts toward an incredible character rewrite of Krueger, casting him as a kindly janitor unfairly lynched for child abuse. Instead, they take the easy way out, throwing away a very modern story of a persecuted innocent man and turning it into the standard “Yes, all single men over 40 are pedophiles.” Stacked against blatant quotes from Psycho, Pulp Fiction, and the aforementioned The Descent, it all comes off as thoughtless cash, desperately trying to be cool, and collapsing under the weight of its could-have-been innovations.

However, despite its overall failure, A Nightmare on Elm Street demonstrates why the genre is endlessly perpetuated, and why it can never and will never die. Elm Street is perhaps one of the most astute mirrors held up to our generation, and by far the most tongue-in-cheek comparison of Millennials to baby boomers to hit film screens yet. That lexical precision of the genre prescribes a few things; among these, the philosophies represented by the harbingers of death in them. Some trends border on the silly: minorities die first, mirrors are untrustworthy, running is pointless, and the virginal type is likely to slay the antagonist with some sort of phallus. In fact, these are so well documented that a fantastic mockumentary was created around them in the form of Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Most pressing here, however, is the changing social landscape seen in these films.

In previous decades, boomers were being punished for their teenage decadence — drugs, alcohol, fornication, and the ingratitude toward the Greatest Generation were punished mercilessly by those film’s antagonists, a kind of reaper acting in the interest of ‘50s American values. Here, the violence lacks that kind of engine by virtue only of what we have become. The characters are depressing modern archetypes — sexless, tepid, wannabe artists without a hint of warmth or confidence, toiling away on homework in their rooms instead of the standard vacationing in abandoned cabins ripe for coitus interruptus. In context, you would expect this film to be a mirror bent to fun house specifications, but Elm Street opts for realism and just shows us ourselves. It’s terrifying.

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A Delightfully Tipsy Response to Generation Why? November 6, 2009

Please excuse the slapdash nature of this response. I am privileged to know the filmmaker in question, the lovely Brendan Prost, so it seemed a little impersonal just to do a review, and besides, who the fuck am I to judge, right? Objectivity is out of the question, so this piece will be formatted as a hybrid collection of thoughts and response directly to an auteur as talented as he is short (which is to say, very).

I.The Skinny

Generation Why? (from here on referred to as GW) is ostensibly a movie about rebellion. Not the wet slap rebellion of adolescence, absent the multicolored hairstyles and Juggalo face paint. It is more a rebellion at an age where rebellion is seen as not just juvenile, but pathetic. Patience is relatively boundless while a person is in high school with a society at large conditioned to expect a certain degree of ridiculousness out of a person aged 13-19. GW attempts to understand an the disconcertingly immediate change in expectations following the graduation from that age bracket, and is fairly effective in doing so. However, I am of the opinion that that is not where the greatest philosophical strength of the film lies. I’ll get back to that.

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