Assessing James Wan

Like most people, I’m wary of horror sequels. Even more so when the first film is a favorite of the genre. But sequels, like reboots, are pretty inevitable these days, and I always hope that at the very least the original films themselves aren’t watered down by what comes after.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is upon us. Before I head to the theater, I thought I’d give the original a quick revisit, along with the rest of director James Wan’s body of work. Insidious struck me immediately—and continues to do so after a few more viewings—as a horror film that gets so much right. I often watch scary movies and find myself thinking of subtle, simple ways that would have improved a scene or a particular shot. “Show the ghost from that other angle.” “That should have stayed mostly off-camera, where it was way creepier.” “You just missed three chances to slip something into those shadows.” I’m always mildly shocked by how horror directors miss genuine ways to subvert the norm and prevent yawns. What seems like common sense is usually ignored.

For almost all of Insidious, I didn’t have a single one of these thoughts. The story follows the family of a little boy who falls into an inexplicable coma and becomes targeted by spirits. Early in the film, the family makes the rare but wise horror-movie decision to get the hell out of the house, but since it’s the boy who is haunted and not the home, their troubles move with them.

The tension is well-paced and dialed up slowly, perfectly. The music is incredible, reveling in horror tradition. Tone, atmosphere, dread…Wan knows what he’s doing and manages so many great shots with a pretty limited palette. There’s a scene in the baby’s room where if you’re paying attention to the curtains, you’ll glimpse one of my favorite horror moments. Another impressive sequence takes place in the second house—watch the long tracking shot where the mother is doing chores and passes the laundry nook on her way out to the trash bin. The scene ends with an eerie sight, but much more subtle is the precursor almost hidden in the middle of the shot.

Insidious does come close to derailing itself when the film ventures into the astral projection realm known as the Further. It falls prey to the old mistake of showing too much of the monster, who does, admittedly, look a bit too much like Darth Maul. But the creepy slam-dunks greatly outweigh the meh. Wan really came into his own with this film, and after three years Insidious holds up well.

Speaking of sequels diluting the impact of originals, Saw tends to be lost in the increasing silliness of the 78 films that followed in its wake. It’s easy to forget that the first one was actually pretty great. Director Wan was only 27 years old when it was released, and the poise displayed in such a gritty, borderline torture-porn context is still impressive. Never mind that the rest of the Saw films actually were torture-porn. Wan had little to do with those.

His next two films offered nothing special, as Wan hadn’t quite tapped into his ability to elevate tropes. Dead Silence (2006) is a typical “evil murderess killed by villagers seeks her revenge from beyond the grave” tale with some nicely spooky moments sprinkled into a clichéd plot with an even more clichéd twist ending. Death Sentence (2007) found Wan sliding over into the ultraviolent revenge flick territory best navigated by Chan-wook Park of Oldboy fame. Kevin Bacon plays a regular-guy executive suddenly thrust into that ultraviolent world, and the whole thing is forgettable.

The Conjuring, though. Wow. On the strength of Insidious, I already had high hopes, and Wan managed to somehow exceed them. I hesitate to call anything a perfect horror film, but it’s up there. And it’s “based on a true story,” which often proves restrictive. Considering that the “true story” also revolves around several tired tropes of the genre, the film is even more of a triumph. Here we have the evil witch terrorizing from beyond the grave. The secluded farmhouse. Bumps in the night. Paranormal investigators. Demonic possession and the exorcism in the final act. So much been-there-done-that mushed up into a brilliant, effective, and chilling two hours.

Ed and Lorraine Warren, a demonologist and medium known to most for their after-the-fact dabbling a few years later in the Amityville Horror case, agree to help a family in 1971 at a Rhode Island farmhouse. The Perrons—mom, dad, and five daughters—are being tormented by various ghostly happenings, which quickly escalate from strange noises and dead people glimpsed in mirrors to outright dread. Wan employs many of the same devices he and countless other horror directors have relied on throughout the years, but something in his sure hand and sense of pacing sets him apart. He knows just the amount to show you, and when, even if it’s nothing you can actually see.

There’s a scene surprisingly early in the film that makes a mockery of most entire scary movies: One of the girls is trying to sleep but something keeps yanking her down the bed. First she thinks her sister’s playing tricks; then she peeks under the bed. It’s a simple scene, shot with goosebump grace to culminate with the audience staring at a huge patch of shadow behind the bedroom door. There’s something there…but you can’t see it. The tension stretches out, almost tangibly elastic…but still you can’t see it. It’s an amazing shot, and even though the remainder of the film builds upon it to achieve even more greatness, my mind has continued to linger on that chunk of blank black. Along with the hallway shot in The Exorcist III, it will never truly leave me.

Oh, and I had red marks on my leg from my girlfriend’s digging fingernails. She was a coiled wire for nearly two hours. That’s as sure a rating system for horror films as anything. Five out of five fingernail scratches.

The Conjuring already has a sequel in the works, based on another of the Warrens’ cases (cue hopeful apprehension). And now, as I write this, Insidious: Chapter 2 is debuting in theaters. Time will tell if it can stand next to its predecessor. I’m tempering my expectations using the Sequel Meter, but Wan is just too good at what he does.

Wan has proven himself to really get the construct of a horror film. I’ve watched so many others fail at it for so long, so it’s refreshing that we have a director who’s changing the game, albeit in a subtle, old-fashioned way. He doesn’t need gobs of CGI or wild, ambitious stories in order to work his magic. There’s often a knowing wink to classics of the genre, even as he refreshes them. And he’s still young and only now reaching the peak of his ability. With back-to-back efforts as wonderful as Insidious and The Conjuring, his previous two duds are entirely forgiven.

I’ve been tempted in the past couple of years to claim that the horror film genre is entering a renaissance. I’m still not committing to those words, but Wan is edging me closer.

I hate to end on a downbeat note, but the fact that Wan has signed on to direct the seventh The Fast and the Furious movie gives me pause. Hopefully he’s just cashing in on some megabucks in order to fund his next dose of scary awesome. I’ll be in line for the horror, although I’ll be skipping Vin Diesel’s latest stunts, as I have six times before. For now, let’s cross our fingers that the new Insidious doesn’t wreck everything I just wrote.

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3 Responses to Assessing James Wan

  1. Evan Dicken says:

    I’ve been trying for years to convince my friends of the value of the original “Saw” over the horrifying cavalcade of sequels. You’ve given me some good ammo. Wan does have a penchant for ambiance and structure, and frankly, I’ve been avoiding both “The Conjuring,” and “Insidious” out of sheer cowardice.

    Well, after your review I’ve got no excuse. Thanks Michael!

  2. Pingback: 5 Must Read Horror Articles 21 October 2013 » This Is Horror

  3. Evan, you should see both The Conjuring and Insidious. Now! Glad to give you some backup for you argument.

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