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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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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Let The Right One In, immediately. November 17, 2008

What do you say?

What do you say walking out of a darkened theater after having seen the greatest piece of genre film in the last 20 years? What do you say to directing and cinematography so adept, you can see many fledgling filmmakers throwing in the towel, demoralized, assuming they can never attempt to be as good? 

What do you say about a film that is simultaneously among the most heartbreaking and terrifying you have ever seen?

Nothing, apparently. I was struck dumb.

The success of of Let The Right One In will hinge on the breathless hyperbole of those who have seen it, and will be endlessly called “that Scandinavian vampire flick” to anyone who will listen. Based on the bestselling (in Sweden) novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Tomas Alfredson directed film has been a festival darling in its short run, garnering such honors as the Founders Award for Best Narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival. Such hype surrounded its release, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves had signed on to do another adaptation of the novel before the film even hit theaters.

Sweden forms the Hobbesian backdrop for this endlessly inventive horror flick, with somewhat disturbed Oskar meeting his next door neighbor Eli. With a stunning eye for contrast and a striking color palette, the movie takes a note from Hard Candy and has you sympathizing with the monster it centers on, and lets you feel the conflict of your sympathies.

The film explores violently frightening aspects of the fictional horror mainstay in a far more satisfying way than was explored by Joss Whedon or Bram Stoker. Let The Right One In just may be the new benchmark of horror, and its arguable it has made a claim to a reputation in the annals of film as a whole.

In school, we were never allowed to do book reports on horror novels. Stephen King, Anne Rice and H.P. Lovecraft were taboo, the Catholic school board none to keen on their content. I have a feeling if they were to experience the beauty Let The Right One In imbues utter horror, they might redouble their efforts to keep it away from us. 

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