James Wan and Leigh Whannell are the collective faces of modern horror. Eleven years ago, they created maybe the most influential horror picture of the new millennium so far. Saw was a powerhouse hit that cost almost nothing to make. It changed the landscape of the genre. I’ve talked a little bit recently about how it took me so long to rewatch Saw even though I liked it the first time that I saw it. And a large part of that was honestly due to its immense popularity. For the latter half of that decade, it was just everywhere and completely unavoidable. Saw was a cultural happening and it was hard to be able to see it as a single piece of film during all of that hype.
But it wasn’t just that movie. It was everything these guys did. They defined one decade, then came back and did it again with Insidious. Unlike Saw, I didn’t immediately gravitate to Insidious when I first saw it. I’d seen Poltergeist many times and it just looked way too similar for my tastes. Again, Insidious was huge, but I had no distaste toward the bandwagon because it was pretty much just people who loved haunted house movies and I considered myself among them even if the particular film they were crowded around didn’t do it for me.I knew who Wan and Whannell were before Insidious struck gold for them a second time because they’d already been hailed as the new kings of horror right after Saw. For a while there, they were pretty much undisputed. When Dead Silence was announced, everyone ate it up. The fans I knew went rabid for that movie and that was when I first thought I was in the twilight zone when it came to these two guys. It was never a case of “they’re not good” for me, because I’d still liked what I was seeing, I just didn’t like it as much as everyone else seemed to. My thought process was more, “Are they really that good?”
I would talk to fans about Dead Silence who would say things like, “Well, I didn’t really like it, but I still love it.” And that’s something I understand a lot more now than I did then, because that’s essentially my relationship with Ghosts of Mars. If you have a favorite filmmaker, you even love their missteps.
I think I first started to become a fan of James Wan and Leigh Whannell with, ironically enough, Insidious 2. It was everything I wanted the first Insidious to be. It wasn’t just another haunted house movie, it was weird. Weird is good. Weird makes something memorable, especially now, when paranormal horror is very much the mainstream. At the same time, there was a strong and surprising slasher element to Insidious 2 that really appealed to my particular tastes. It was very much within the style they had established over their previous features, but you could also see their influences, which is always important for me. While it was coming from these new wave, young filmmakers, Insidious 2 was nonetheless the Brian De Palma haunted house film I’d always wanted.
I was impressed with that movie, but I still wasn’t a fan of theirs, at least not yet. Instead, the film that made me a fan of Wan and Whannell was The Conjuring. All it took was one viewing and I’d completely opened myself up to these two as filmmakers. Everything I’d seen over the past few years, all the Fangoria and Bloody Disgusting articles that I’d read that had built them up as these totally innovative young creators who were paving completely new roads. To me, that had always sounded like two people who just weren’t that into everything that had come before them. That description that I had always heard of them and of their work had always made it sound like they weren’t actually fans.
Instead of reading interviews to see that that was not the case, I watched The Conjuring. That was all it took to change my mind. They had already proved with the Insidious franchise that they could turn the basic haunted house story on its head. But The Conjuring was not new, it was not innovative and that was the best thing about it. This was a throwback through and through, completely an homage to classics like The Amityville Horror and The Changeling that I had grown up watching. You could see how much they loved those foundations of the sub-genre in every frame of The Conjuring. Everything about it was a very clear and effectively crafted homage. I gained a new respect for them when I could see that they weren’t simply trying to break new ground. I saw their own love and their own respect for everything in the genre that had come before them.
It seems petty and cheap to say that I was put off by their success at first. I think I was more put off by their oversaturation. I didn’t like the way they were being marketed and being a fan of them now and having read their interviews and listened to their podcast appearances, etc… I’m pretty sure they weren’t overly fond of it either. For a stretch there, they weren’t really two filmmakers working together to create a shared vision, they were a brand. Now, it’s a bit bittersweet as they—as individual creators—have sort of gone their own separate ways.
There’s no animosity between them as far as I can tell. I’m sure, when the opportunity arises and the time is right, that they will collaborate again. And I think it’s ultimately ironic, considering they kicked off an incredible career in 2004, that I didn’t become a true fan of their work until 2012 and that I now can’t wait to see what they do next, both separately and together.