Modern horror maestro James Wan tells Donald Clarke how he went from Saw to spectres
YOU MEET horrid people in all fields of endeavour. Monk conferences and lollipop lady conventions are, surely, populated by their fair share of bitter malcontents and backbiting underachievers. But, despite the gruesome nature of their enthusiasms, horror fans and practitioners tend to be disproportionately nice. James Wan and Leigh Whannell are a case in point.
The two young Australians, creators of the notorious Saw franchise, have arrived in Dublin to promote a fine new haunted-house flick, Insidious. As expected, Wan, a 34-yearold of Chinese ancestry, fails to chain me to the radiator or brandish any form of rusty torture implement.
“Yeah, you do meet the nicest people at horror conventions,” he enthuses. “It’s the same with heavy-metal fans. They are the scariest-looking people, but the nicest people. Somebody once said that horror directors are the happiest people because they exorcise their demons on-screen. Maybe there’s something in that.”
The various rabble-rousing idiots who declared Saw a menace to society would, one imagines, be somewhat surprised to meet Wan. Spiky of hair, endlessly cheery of disposition, he is nobody’s idea of a bloodthirsty maniac. But, since the first film’s debut in 2004, the Saw franchise has stirred a fair degree of ill-informed outrage. This was the film that launched the subgenre known – often to those who hadn’t seen any films meeting the supposed critera – as “torture porn”. Once again, as with The Exorcist, video nasties and Italian cannibal shockers, horror film-makers were responsible for leading society towards barbarism.
“I would feel better about the phrase ‘torture porn’ if it wasn’t always used in a derogatory way,” Wan says. “But that’s not the case. It’s not a term I care very much for. If you watch the first Saw film – the only one I directed – you’ll see the torture stuff is actually very muted. The first film played far more like a thriller.”
You could see Insidious (significant title, incidentally) as a creative response to those critics. Though nobody is likely to confuse the picture with Winnie the Pooh, it offers a much slower burn than the Saw pictures.
More of a ghost story than a straight-up horror, the film finds Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne playing a middle-class couple experiencing weird happenings in their new house. Spectres flit past the window. Strange noises emanate from apparently unoccupied spaces. Eventually their young son falls into a baffling coma. Greater madness follows.
In earlier interviews, Wan, born in Malaysia but raised in Perth, has explained that he first connected with horror when he caught a glimpse of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Indeed Insidious, which was written by Leigh Whannell, his loyal creative partner, looks and feels a little like a tribute to that popular ghost flick.
“No. It’s not that. Leigh was not as affected by Poltergeist as I was. So it’s just worked out that way. Our biggest influences on Insidious were ghost stories we’d heard from our friends – stories passed down through the years. We thought that, if we got chills just listening to them, imagine if we put them on screen. Let’s scare other people.”
As wildly enthusiastic as any fanboy, Wan goes on to explain that he and Whannell