James Wan Resurrects Horror


In the past three years, James Wan has resurrected horror movies from the grave. 2011’s Insidious, an updated version of Poltergeist, re-established the fundamentals of movie trickery, not twist endings or gory bloodletting, as the engine behind the horror. Two years later, Wan’s unassuming followup, The Conjuring and the Insidious sequel cemented Wan’s ideas: the right actors, setting, and a little ingenuity can make a house feel haunted again.

More than anything else, Insidious takes the ideas of the haunted house movie and brings them into the 20th century. With influences ranging from Vincent Price to Poltergeist to Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, Insidious dusts off some old scares and shows that they still work. A family moves into a new house for a fresh start, and immediately, books fly off the shelves, ghostly figures appear outside their window, and Tiny Tim records play seemingly on their own. Wan employs some of the oldest tricks in the book, but finds new roles for them. Instead of a ghost being behind someone’s back, it’ll be in the corner of the screen. The audience still gets that helpless omnipotence in a way that’s more subtle and infinitely more creepy.

One of the things that Wan does better than almost any mainstream horror director today is long tracking takes. He creates a sense of dread from the mundane chores of life, realizing that the most effective scares come when the audience feels most comfortable. Take a look at the clip below.


Wan latches the camera close to Renai’s back and acquaints us with the set, a technique very similar to Danny’s long tricycle rides around the Overlook in The Shining. After putting on the record, we track her movements as she collects garbage throughout the house, going from the hallway to her son’s room and finally back to the living room. Wan creates a space for us to see and then heightens the tension by quietly placing an intruder on her route. We feel comfortable that no one is home because we’ve seen the house. When the boy appears, however, the tension rises.

Earlier this year, Wan followed Insidious with The Conjuring, a look at the two ghost hunters who infamously took on the Amityville House Horror. The Conjuring relies on repetition and build up to create a fulfilling finale—something Insidious sorely lacked. The same elements—a smell, a stopped clock, a tune on a player piano—alert audiences that something dangerous is here. Wan creates a series of events and relies on the audience to pick up their occurrence.

James Wan makes haunted house movies in the strictest sense—no matter how much he wants to convince us that the spirit latches on to the person. The house and home, a place of safety for most, becomes the greatest source of fear. Grand movements don’t make this happen, but subtly placed intruders. A book shelf leading to a room filled with white sheeted ghosts or a some ghoulish make up seems hokey when you stare at too long, but it works in Insidious: Chapter 2. Wan never gives us a good look, relying on the mystery and our unsure eye to create most of the tension.

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