If I told you writer/director James Wan built a career off incredibly cheesy low-budget horror would you be scared? If I told you Mr Wan launched a marathon of terrible Hollywood sequels would you hide under your covers? What if I told you James was at the peak of horror monsters that are more silly than scary?
And what if I told you James Wan was the only director I recommended for you this Halloween?
Though the man often changes jobs between productions his name keeps cropping up on movies that have struck my interest this year, and I don’t just mean recent films either. Anyone who knows me understands that I Love my horror films- with a capital L. So what happens when all horror on the silver screen and the small screen is mulched for the masses and watered down until it’s barely recognisable? What happens when ‘Ouija’ is the current standard for scary movies?
I get very upset. That’s what happens.
So imagine my surprise when I dipped my toes into some flicks I’d overlooked in the past, only to be taken on quite a ride! When I sat down to watch Insidious (2011) I expected nothing more than a poorly constructed mass-market horror… and at first that’s exactly what I got. Typical family home setup, the usual creepy angles and long moments of silent tension. Eventually the film deciding it’s time to switch over to jumpscares at the one-third mark. Usual stuff. That is until the film decided to get weird. The usual spooky, atmospheric moments were replaced with oddly comedic exchanges. Side-characters the likes you might see in a Marx brothers comedy start popping up. The big spooky ghosts actually get revealed in quite vivid detail, and were so bizarre I actually laughed out loud. And most important of all? I was having FUN.
I don’t wish to spoil Insidious in particular so believe me when I said the first two films really do go in directions you would never have expected, and you haven’t experienced true horror film making until you’ve seen the devil himself dancing to jolly music and doing his nails.
What else has Mr Wan done you might ask? What else might you have heard of?
Well SAW, for one. Yes he was the writer for SAW (2004) and invented the creepy Puppet everyone recognises, even from the terrible sequels. Looking back on it some of his colourful touch was seeping into that movie too before they drained all the fun out of it.
Personally? I recommend his movie Dead Silence instead, a picture much closer to his later experiments and an incredibly fun watch. Especially if the aforementioned creepy puppet was one of your favourite things about the SAW movie.
This year for Halloween I really have to highlight this man’s work as being the ‘Best of the Bad’. Meant with all the tongue in cheek enjoyment that it entails. Where his actual scares and monsters can be more comical than actually frightening I do find his characters and their on-screen relationships to be consistently great, probably the one thing that made Anabelle a decent movie in my eyes (and that one elevator scene, my god). It’s rare to see the slow moments in horror treated as anything but a checklist that the director needs to fill out before he’s allowed to apply the next pop-out screamer. It’s refreshing and very pleasant to see writers willing to make use of this downtime. Not to say his films don’t have their share of creepy imagery or atmosphere when the time calls. The smiling family in the Conjuring, the elevator in Annabelle (my god) or the dog scene in his latest Conjuring 2, these moments show a genuine understanding that actual scares are not born of loud noises but from something much deeper. That is, until you see what’s actually causing the scares. Bearing in mind we are talking about a man who’s ‘horror’ features no less than a dozen tacky looking puppets, an old man with dentures and a little boy dancing a jig to an old-timey radio.
Once you realise you’re sitting on a carnival spook ride and most of the baddies are indeed people in rubbery looking masks it gets SO much more fun. Kind of like the festive season itself, no?
Whereas other directors who rely on their cheese-factor like the great Sam Riami haven’t delivered on their signature styles in some time Mr Wan has perfected the corny spookhouse horror… so much that it takes half the movie to realise that’s what you’re in for. I think this is why so many people are luke-warm on his films, because the first third usually follows all the common rules of Hollywood horror, framing it to be exactly what we expect- Bad jump scares and being way too serious. That isn’t what we receive however and a part of me wonders whether being up front with his goofy kind of horror would increase their notoriety, or land him back making SAW sequels?
Speaking of which, SAW: Legacy, Insidious 4, The Nun (Conjuring 3) and…. Aquaman?… will all be hitting cinemas soon. So while the Hollywood sequel machine keeps burping them out, take some time this Halloween to enjoy a real spook-house. I recommend Insidious, Dead Silence and Conjuring 2 for a couple of scares, and a whole lot of giggles.