The twisted minds that brought us Saw, helped along by the producers of Paranormal Activity, are back with their latest fright fest, Insidious. The film - opening Friday - dusts off the haunted house movie and puts a new spin on its creaky conventions. The Globe spoke to director James Whan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell about which horror movies scarred them for life and why they've opted for creepiness over dismemberment.
What was it that attracted you to the haunted house genre?
Wan: We love haunted house movies. We think the scariest sub-genre within horror films is haunted house films because it's the most relatable sub-genre. We all live in houses.
Whannell: It's also a very malleable genre. To me, The Shining is a haunted house film, it's just a hotel they're living in.
There are a lot of nods to Poltergeist in the film. Was that a formative movie for both of you growing up?
Whannell: I think it scarred James for life because he saw it very young.
Wan: It did scar me for life. The creepy clown doll scared me to the point where even when I got around to making my first movie, Saw, people asked me, "Why did you put a creepy ventriloquist doll in it?" Well, I find ventriloquist puppets really creepy - the concept that it may be living is what makes it frightening. And I think why I'm fascinated by that is from seeing Poltergeist at a very young age, even though it wasn't a ventriloquist doll.
There are several scenes in Insidious clearly meant to make the audience laugh, which was surprising for a horror movie.
Wan: They're not too big, though. I feel like the levity in this film belongs in more like your indie, Sundance-type dramedy. It wouldn't be out of place in a movie like Juno, for instance.
After Saw , which has become the most successful horror movie franchise in history, you two probably could have done whatever you want. What's the appeal of continuing to make independent movies?
Wan: Creative freedom. We found with our second movie Dead Silence that creative freedom is very important in making a good movie. We strive to make good films, and filmmaking is so hard. If you can chip away at the things that make it hard for you to make your film then you're one step closer to achieving that goal. When I read Leigh's script, I was like, this is a great script, and it would be a shame to try to follow this through the studio system. If I did, it probably wouldn't be the film I see in my head.
Whannell: The producers of Paranormal Activity were the guys who enticed us back in to it. They made a good sales pitch, which was, "You're not going to have much money, it's going to be very independent but you're going to have this total creative freedom and it's a guaranteed movie."
Every few years people will start to say that horror is a dead genre. What do you make of that discussion?
Whannell: To me it's kind of like saying, "Drama is a dead genre," or "Comedy is a dead genre." It's never going to go away. I find the people who say that don't know much about horror, or can't define a horror film easily. What I think they mean is, a particular sub-genre of horror has run its course. For example, I don't know any other term for it other than extreme horror film, this sort of run of horror films in the wake of Saw, like H ostel and stuff like that. That has come to an end I think. But as long as human beings like to be scared there will always be horror films.
Wan: There was that period when American Pie was huge and then they just made all these fratboy-esque, toilet humour comedies, but no one ever said, "Comedy is dead."
This movie is a departure from what you called "extreme horror." Was trying to scare people by what's not on screen a challenge?
Wan: Shocking someone in a scary movie is the easiest thing to do - limbs getting cut off, blood on screen, that's easy to do. Actually scaring someone is really hard. But, to do something that's beyond scary, to create creepiness, is the hardest thing to do. Creating a sense of dread and creepiness that permeates an entire film is very hard to do. That's why Leigh and I are such fans of David Lynch, because he does dread and creepiness really, really well.
What's next for both of you?
Whannell: We've actually been talking about a sci-fi project, so we'll see where that goes.
Wan: My idols are people who started in the horror genre but then they branched out to do other stuff. That would be my goal. I cannot wait to one day make a Rob Reiner-esque romantic comedy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.