Mar. 30, 2011 - Issue #806 : Insidious
Dusting off the haunted house
Saw co-creators step outside the major studio system to make their spectral Insidious
Then Dalton skins his knee falling off a ladder in the creepy attic, and in the morning has seemingly lapsed into a coma. Doctors can neither explain or treat it, and three months pass with no recovery. And then the real dark rumblings begin: garbled demonic voices in the baby monitor while Renai's home alone with Dalton's unconscious body, then bloody handprints all over Dalton's sheets, then a figure in the window, and the downward spiral of increasingly paranormal visions and demonic spirits picks up its pace: creatures that appear in windows, blow open the front door in the middle of the night, stop a record and replace it with the high-pitched whinny of Tiny Tim, then stick around tauntingly. Evil's bad like that.
Frightened, the family moves in with Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey), but it's to no avail. Some deeper sort of evil has found them, linked to Dalton's body—though not in the creepy child way that's become so popular in mainstream horror—and it's not letting go without a fight.
I consider myself pretty numbed to the effects of a horror film, yet the notes I took during the press screening of Insidious include "Spooky-ass shit," "Fucked up" and "Great. Back to that fucking house." It's to the credit of writer Leigh Whannel and director James Wan, known best for kicking off the modern horror franchise Saw, that Insidious is actually nothing like that series—the only acknowledgement of their gory roots is the face of Saw's iconic puppet Billy, drawn on Josh's classroom blackboard, looking quite cheery and pleased with himself. It's a movie that uses sound and mood more than blood and guts, and continuous, jarring moments to destabilize you. There are no fake scares, no cats jumping on the hood of a car. Every jump is for a reason. You don't feel safe watching the screen.
If Insidious starts to lose some punch by the third act, after a séance goes awry, at least it's because it's going down a path of its own instead of falling back on genre clichés. Whannel and Wan have crafted a sort of Poltergeist update, a haunted house story where even leaving the house can't protect you as dark forces work their way through your defenses: the house, the family and eventually the body itself.
"This is something James and I have wanted to do for a long time. As long as I've known James. Even from before we started chatting about making feature films, we told each other ghost stories," Whannel explains over the phone from Vancouver, where he and Wan are fielding a press day's worth of calls. "One of the side effects of being really into horror films is you tend to be really attracted to ghost stories."
There's nary a splayed throat or severed limb to be found in Insidious, but Wan notes the lack of gore felt organic to the genre.
"When you're making a ghost movie, you don't need to see blood and guts. It's not that kind of a film," he says. "If you're watching a zombie film, then yeah, I wanna see my goods, I wanna see my gore and bloody details. But when you're making a haunting ghost apparition movie, what makes it scary is the fact that you could be seeing a ghost."
The pair met in film school with a mutual love of the horror genre. After graduating, they shot an eight-minute version of the original Saw (with Whannel acting) to shop around. It got them a modest, just-over-million-dollar budget and a release from Lions Gate Films. From that first feature, Saw evolved into the largest horror franchise of the modern day. They've been executive producers on each installment of the series, but long before Saw 3D, the seventh instalment, hit the screens this fall, they'd taken some steps away from that particular horror-brand: Wan only directed the first Saw movie, moving on afterwards to other work including another pair of horror films, Dead Silence (2007) and Death Sentence (2007). Whannel stuck around to flesh out a trilogy of scripts (as well as acting in the series) but pulled back creatively after the third movie.
"I liked the idea of writing the box set; I like the fact that there's a Saw trilogy out there with my name on it," he explains, "But by the end of Saw III, I was starting to feel like I was painting with the same colours, and I couldn't really spend any more time thinking up ways to kill people." As if detoxing from all that gore, Whannel wrote a children's movie after Saw III, one currently working its way through the studio system.
Whannel and Wan's best work has been done together though, and Insidious ranks among it, if only through that dual sense of agreement: going into Insidious, they made a list of genre clichés they didn't want to have appear in the film.
"We wanted to take some conventions of the genre and skew it around, kind of break it," Wan explains
"There's a lot of ruts that mainstream horror films of recent year have fallen into," Whannel adds. "James and I really wanted this film to be representative of our likes and dislikes of the modern horror scene."
The current horror scene does seem split: for every sleeper success like Paranormal Activity (or the original Saw, for that matter), there's a handful of remakes or sequels that simply perpetuate the usual screamer tropes—not to prejudge, but the fact Scream 4 is due out later this month sort of underlines the point.
Of course, the foreign horror market is a different beast altogether. But the Hollywood take on horror seems to be a well of undiminished financial returns, one often devoid of actual fright. The usual clichés—sexpot teens, buckets of gore, an iconic killer figure—parade through movie after movie to the point where it slips into self parody (see: Freddie vs Jason), filled with knowing winks to an endless barrage of clichés, as if that was somehow an excuse for a lack of creativity. It's all less Exorcist and more Nightmare on Elm Street: high levels of carnage and a bleed-by-numbers body count, but little in the way of mood or actual unsettlement (or usually a quality film, for that matter).
"The problem with a lot of movies that have been pumped out of the Hollywood studio system is that they're not scary at all," Wan says. "And I give a lot of kudos to people who make the effort to make films to make scary movies scary. It's like trying to make a comedy funny: you want your comedy to be funny; you don't want it to be blah.
To replace gory shocks with actual scares in Insidious, Wan and Whannel found it necessary to work outside of the major studio system. Though the continued success of their lucrative Saw franchise could've gotten Insidious bankrolled for a solid chunk of change, they instead made it on the cheap, sacrificing dollar value for creative control. The producers behind Paranormal Activity bankrolled Insidious for $1 million, less money than they made the original, unproven Saw on, but a more than ample amount to achieve what they were trying for.
"If I'd done it through the studio system, there's a certain template as to how they make their scary films that I feel would be very detrimental to this film, and I felt like it would've been the wrong approach," Wan states. "And that's why Leigh and I were very happy to make this film with the guys from Paranormal Activity, and make the movie for next to nothing really. It's our smallest film. It's smaller than Saw. But we know that we have complete creative control to write the script the way we want to write it, and for me, to make the film the way I want to make it." V
Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannel
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara hershey
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