Appropriately for the director of Saw, James Wan has been desperately trying to get out of a trap of his own devising. He is best known as the man who unleashed upon the world the film that would help usher in the genre that would ignominiously come to be known as “torture porn.” Yet the Malaysia-born, Australia-raised Wan, who directed only the first Saw (04) and claims creative distance from the sequels, hardly bears comparison with the likes of so-called Splat Packers Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja. There’s an infectious, even good-natured enthusiasm to his old-fashioned creepshow storytelling that’s evident in the two horror films he’s made since Saw: 2007’s Dead Silence, a paean to the uncanny terror of the ventriloquist’s dummy; and, more successfully, his latest, Insidious, a whopper of a haunted-house movie that might just invade viewers’ dreams. Its frights are so pure that it could help Wan pry himself loose from Saw’s jaws for good.
“The whole plan was to go back to my roots and make an independent film, to have complete freedom,” Wan told me in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I haven’t had a chance to show that side of myself in a while.” He excitedly reminded me that the first Saw was a small film, cheaply made, in which not much is shown in the way of gore, à la The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
As for the subgenre spawned by Saw, he confesses, “It now seems to be dying, and I think that’s a good thing.” The seemingly endless proliferation of slickly grotesque Saw sequels has largely eclipsed memories of the original’s raw ingenuity. Mention the titles now to anyone other than a gore geek and you can expect disgusted eye-rolls. And rightly so: the inherent one-upmanship of sequels and the films’ narrative reliance on ever more elaborate lethal booby traps together created a vicious cycle of supply and demand unfathomable to those not tuned to its wavelength. There’s no better expression of the crass cynicism of “product,” perhaps, than this franchise—its viewers are meant to delight not only in the mutilation of fresh bodies but also in the films’ narrow moralizing framework, the notion that its victims somehow deserved their fates.
Naturally, it’s easy to forget that the first Saw’s horror imagery was not all predicated on watching selfish, pretty young things futilely try to escape from pits of hypodermic needles or modified iron maidens. There was real atmosphere, a sense of dread rather than relentless, punishing mayhem; an inexorable trudge toward a seemingly predestined doom instead of false, compartmentalized suspense scenes (almost no one wriggles out of the various traps in the sequels). And giving credit where it’s due, with the character of Jigsaw, Wan and his frequent screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell introduced a villain, who, in dispensing horrific judgment while safely hiding behind a cloak of self-righteousness (not to mention a cartoonish avatar) seemed appealingly 21st-century.
Insidious, on the other hand, looks backward—it’s a timeless, ruthlessly efficient scream machine that plays like a spiffed-up version of a creaky old Universal monster movie. It’s as narratively outrageous as horror cinema gets: a young couple, Josh and Renai, find their home upended by mysterious malevolent forces, which seem to have a hand in their young son Dalton’s mysterious falling into a coma. Yet their story is lent gravitas not only by the committed lead performances of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne but also by Wan’s obvious desire to frighten us in primal ways, often offering only fleeting, peripheral glimpses of some very bad things. Days after seeing Insidious, what crouches, goblin-like, in the corner of the mind isn’t its increasingly outlandish plot, but those details that seem plucked out of childhood nightmares: a ghoulish face at the window, lit by a single candle; a horned, silhouetted figure hovering bedside, single claw outstretched; barely audible whispers; horrible thumps emanating from the attic.
For Wan the approach came out of a need to prove that he hasn’t forgotten why he adores horror in the first place; it’s calculated, maybe, but it’s also from the heart. “Insidious is me responding to some of my critics who are critiquing the whole genre,” the director says. Traditional horror films deserve more respect, he claims, but they’re often nowhere to be found these days. “There was a bit of a return during the J-horror craze, with its more brooding style, but classic scary movies are a lost art.”
Insidious is less a film of shocks than shivers, each of them elegantly timed and composed—a glimpse of a leering face obscured by a baby crib’s netting is as heart-stopping as movie images get. Yet it’s also unafraid to plunge into the deep end of the genre pool. With its heavily made-up demon faces and its guileless embrace of pseudo-scientific and sorta-spiritual mumbo jumbo (bone up on your astral projection before buying a ticket), Insidious, unlike the phantasmic restrained horror of The Others or The Sixth Sense, courts disreputability. And that’s the fun of it.
At the same time, Insidious isn’t content to simply be another ghost story. Wan wanted to bring a fresh twist, one that, by centering the haunting on a person rather than a house, bypasses the age-old question “Why don’t they just move out of the damn place?” Without spoiling much, let’s just say that things don’t necessarily improve when the family relocates from their Gothic, Amityville-style abode to a humbler residence. Insidious plays with the ambiguity of whether the threat is coming from inside or outside the house—sinister things are often viewed on either side of windows. So in a sense, Insidious has it both ways, utilizing the conventions of the creaky-old-house flick and the possession story—not unlike that recent stripped-down horror sensation Paranormal Activity.
Even the most appreciative of Insidious’s viewers will find it difficult not to play a game of spot-the-references, though Wan himself demurs. For him it’s all part of a continuum: “It’s hard to pinpoint a single thing when you grow up on a diet of horror films and comic books.” Yes, the film’s tendrils snake out to everything from Poltergeist (child’s life force coveted by malevolent spirits—check) to Hellraiser (gallery of grotesque demons crossing over to our dimension—bingo) to Don’t Look Now (the paternal figure unwilling to open his mind to paranormality until it’s almost too late—gotcha). Yet the way Wan handles, say, the film’s frightening central séance reveals his adeptness at tweaking tropes and for turning the intensity up a notch without resorting to easy gimmicks. What’s normally a static scene on screen (characters sitting in a circle) becomes a tour de force, thanks in no small part to brilliantly effective editing and unsettling sound design, as well as the droll and disquieting decision to clad the medium, played by redoubt-able character actress Lin Shaye, in a gas mask.
Despite Wan’s flashes of inspired idiosyncrasy (he cites David Lynch as a touchstone for his tone and timing) and his interest in “subverting familiar material,” Insidious is largely effective for its traditionalism. Which is to say that it’s a film (like The Haunting, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist) most concerned with characters—how fragile people might plausibly respond to extraordinary situations. Finally, Wan considers Insidious to be about the realities of “growing up and getting old,” which is not only reflected in the haggard, decrepit spirits stalking the child but also in the small details that betray the parents’ coming to terms with aging (Josh is seen plucking out his gray hairs and rubbing cream on his crow’s feet; Renai’s young son tells her she’s old, unknowingly needling her). Ultimately, Wan knows that there’s nothing scarier than the march of time. It’s like the camera prowling through the house in the opening shot, bringing us ever closer to something sinister. We’re scared of following, for fear of what might lurk around each corner, yet we remain in thrall to the film’s inexorable forward motion.