“The scariest movies to me growing up were “Poltergeist,” “The Exorcist,” something that wasn’t so gory,” Patrick Wilson said as he introduced the comparable “Insidious” at NYC’s Walter Reade Theater Thursday night. Joined by director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, the actor set up the new horror flick, which closed out Lincoln Center’s 2011 Film Comment Selects series, by calling it an “adult drama thrown into a haunted house.”
While it is true that some adult dramas give people chills, the shrieks and gasps from the modestly sized crowd were definitely more a response to the taut ghost story than the relationship troubles of the married couple played by Wilson and Rose Byrne. That isn’t to say the drama isn’t as good as the frightening elements. “Insidious” is a kind of throwback that works in the great old combination of family fears — those common to children, like nightmares and bogeymen, and those common to parents, like the dread of something tragic happening to their kids. But for Wan and Whannell, best known as the guys who gave the world “Saw,” an old-fashioned haunted house film isn’t necessarily what Hollywood is banking on these days.
“At the end of the day Leigh and I are real fans of the genre,” Wan said after glowing praise from an audience member. “We know the genre inside and out and we’ve been kind of jaded by all the horror that’s been coming out. And partly “Saw” had a lot to do with that, as well. After “Saw” there were a whole crop of movies that were more about [being] in-your-face visceral as opposed to being about trying to scare you with suspense and tense eeriness. I wanted to make a film that was really creepy, and the only way we could do this was to do it outside of the studio system. I believe if I’d taken that script through the studio system the film would have been different. I’m not saying it would have been any less, but it definitely would have a different feel to it. Keeping creative control was very important for Leigh and myself to make the film we wanted to make.”
“I had a list of commandments while I was writing,” Whannell added, “stuff that I knew we didn’t want to do. Just from watching so many horror films. There’s just been so many cliches over the years that have become standard. Number one is the false scare. Like where someone opens the closet and the cat jumps out. And the orchestra goes ‘DUNH!’ But really it’s just the cat. Or, my personal pet peeve is the gas station attendant tapping on the car window. If you’re going to have the orchestra go ‘DUNH!’ and have everyone in the audience [jump], have it be the bad guy. Don’t have it be the friend. Another classic is the mirror cabinet in the bathroom. Open it. Get the pills. Close it. ‘DUNH!’ And it’s just the mother. I hate false scares with a passion. James and I agreed there’d be not one false scare in this film. If the strings in this movie ever go ‘DUNH!’ it’s because of an actual problem. Like the bad guy is there.”
The screenwriter continued to list issues he has with most horror films, such as general overuse of music, as in depending on the score to tell the audience when to be scared. But Wilson then chimed in to remind the filmmakers that “Insidious” unintentionally does something interesting with the connection between music and horror: composer Joseph Bishara actually plays the film’s demonic villain.
“Imagine if in ‘The Dark Knight’ the Joker was played by Hans Zimmer,” Whannell quickly joked. “Has the composer ever played the bad guy? Darth Vader will be played by … John Williams.”
(the funny thing is that Bishara’s demon looks kind of like Darth Maul instead)
As much as “Insidious” looks back to mentioned classics like “The Haunting” and “The Innocents,” Wan and Whannell also wanted to do something fresh with the genre for their latest film. After leaving school the team intended to make a very cheap horror movie in the vein of “The Blair Witch Project,” and they had three basic ideas, one of which had to do with astral projection, which they felt had never been done before in horror (though I think Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners” might count, and maybe something even earlier). Another of the ideas was “about two guys who wake up in a bathroom,” which Wan says he’s glad they went with at the time.
One thing they learned from their breakthrough, other than the fact that a simple idea can spawn a whole ton of sequels, is the need for comedic relief, which “Insidious” employs perfectly at just the right moment in its story.
“If you’re making a film like this, where the audience is supposed to be on a knife’s edge and tense, if you don’t give them somewhere to laugh they’ll find their own place to laugh,” Whannel said. “They definitely found places in ‘Saw’ that weren’t intended.”
“Lee and I joke that ‘Saw’ is the best comedy we’ve made,” Wan added.
“Yeah,” Whannell came back, “we started with comedy and moved to horror.”
Also after “Saw” the guys were admittedly labeled as “the blood and guts guys” by people Wan claims didn’t really get what they were trying to do. And it’s true, the first installment of that franchise doesn’t have as much blood and guts as its followers and imitators. So “Insidious” is a way of reminding fans that they’re more interested in psychological stories that don’t depend on gore or digital effects.
“I really wanted to make a movie that works without a single drop of blood, without any gory effects,” Wan said, “and really just rely on atmosphere and mood to pull it off.”
“It’s the one genre where the more low key you go and the less effects you have the more effective it is,” Whannell added. “If you take Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick out of ‘The Shining,’ you’ve basically got a low budget film. It’s only one location. You can make ‘The Shining’ pretty cheaply with different actors and a different director. It’s really conducive to doing something in a low key way. It hurts it if you go overboard.”
The result of going so low key has garnered the filmmakers their first PG-13 rating, but it’s also, as Film Comment editor (and Q&A moderator) Gavin Smith noted after the film, the scariest PG-13 movie in a very long time. See for yourself when the film opens in theaters on April 1st.