Saw’s James Wan and Leigh Whannell crank out an old-school scary movie
Published: March 30, 2011
Read Review by Lee Gardner
Adults tend to forget that when you’re young, even lame scary movies are utterly terrifying. Hence the attraction. But the rise and genre domination of bloody-tanktop gorno films and their hard-R hijinks over the past half-dozen years—in large part thanks to the success of the Saw franchise—made it harder for teens and tweens to get scares at multiplexes (or prematurely twisted the ones who went ahead and snuck into Hostel, take your pick). Now director James Wan and actor/screenwriter Leigh Whannell, the creative team behind 2004’s original Saw, are pushing the pendulum back the other way with the aptly named Insidious, a PG-13 flick that puts aside blood and boobs for fiendish but MPAA-friendly scares that work on any age group.
As Wan puts it jovially in a phone interview, “I want people to be able to enjoy this film at a young age, like I did when I watched Poltergeist, and be freaked out by it and hopefully scarred for the rest of their lives.”
Fans of Poltergeist will feel right at home with Insidious, as will devotees of Robert Wise’s 1963 The Haunting and other classics from a more subtle era of horror. In fact, the movie’s first half is an exquisite throwback to the vintage haunted-house genre, as a young couple (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move into a new-to-them old pile with their two small sons. A few unexplained happenings (books knocked off a shelf, disappearing sheet music) lead to darker outcomes before the characters—and the audience—find themselves in, essentially, a rollicking, twisty Poltergeist reprise/homage.
Asked if Insidious was a deliberate reaction to Saw and the torture-porn boom it inadvertently wrought, both Wan and Whannell (who is also in on the call) say if so, it was unconscious. “We didn’t sit down and have a business meeting where we said, ‘OK, here’s the plan of action’ and pull out a graph of where we want to be in five years,” Whannell says. “It was more of an organic thing in terms of knowing that we wanted to make a really scary film, and then when I turned in the script . . . we were like, if we take out a couple of ‘fucks’ and tone [a few things] down a little bit, we could get a PG-13. It sort of dawned on us.”
“Some of my favorite scary movies are PG-13, like The Sixth Sense and The Others,” Wan says. “I think that kind of restraint made me be more creative with what I can do to make it scarier.”
Shooting on location in Los Angeles, Wan made the most of an actual creepy-ish old dark house for the slow-burn first half. “I love creaky floors and creaky doors, because I always feel like that sets the mood for this kind of film,” he says. “Needless to say, my sound recordist hated it. Every little step the actors would take or the crew would take, the creak would pop up in [the dialogue track].”
About the time Whannell shows up onscreen as half of a team of nerdy ghost hunters, however, Insidious’ brooding tone gets pitched aside for another zone altogether, literally and figuratively. “I’m very attracted to films that take their time to build, but just keep building and building and building, and by the ending it doesn’t quite match what it was when it started,” Wan says. “The key is to find a balance so that one scene leads into another leads into another. You don’t want to tip the tone too far one way.”
“There’s a real ride aspect to the film,” Whannell says, before catching himself. “It’s a bit of a hackneyed Hollywood expression”—for a second he drops his native Australian accent for the smarmy West Coast purr of a junketing filmmaker to repeat, “‘I want the audience to go on a ride’—but I’ve seen it with a few audiences now, and you do see them go from sitting there on the edge of their seats during the quiet moments to jolting during the bigger moments and then laughing when the ghost hunters come and then it becoming more suspenseful toward the end and more of an action-based thing, and I like that.”
Besides, as Whannell notes, “It’s not often we get to release a film, so James and I don’t really want to play it safe.”
They don’t, seemingly throwing everything they can think of onscreen during the movie’s frenetic final half. But, as they established with the still somewhat underrated Saw seven years ago, Wan and Whannell are clever and resourceful filmmakers who know their stuff. Ultimately, Insidious does exactly what a scary movie should do, which is periodically scare the living crap out of you.
In fact, Whannell acknowledges that even at age 34 he himself isn’t immune. “I’d be writing late at night on my own, I’d be sitting in the office, not much light on, and all of a sudden you come up with a scene [where] you start to scare yourself,” he says, singling out a galvanic bit involving Byrne’s character waking up to someone walking outside her bedroom window. “That’s a pretty good barometer for whether it’s going to be scary for an audience.”
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