How Leigh Whannell and James Wan Changed Horror (Twice)

Most writers and directors could only dream of making a movie that’s so popular and has such an impact so as to create a shift in the genre itself. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead led to the birth of the zombie subgenre,  John Carpenter’s Halloween lead to the slasher boom of the 80’s, and Wes Craven’s Scream led to slashers going full “meta” to stay relevant.

However few have had the same impact as writer/director team Leigh Whannell and James Wan.  After meeting in film school back in Australia, they came to the Hollywood with nothing but an idea for what would become Saw.

With literally no budget, they shot a short film of just the Reverse Bear Trap scene (with Leigh Whannell himself in the role). This was part of their pitch and got Saw the greenlight.

Then, nearly a decade later, their supernatural haunted house movie Insidious had a similar shifting effect on the genre.  How were these two movies from these same two people so influential?  Let’s take a closer look and find out why!

Unintentionally Creating “Torture Porn”
Back in 2004, with nothing more than a miniscule budget (by Hollywood standards), Whannell and Wan crafted a suspenseful Hitchcockian thriller known as Saw.  It forced the audience to ponder what we might do if put into a dangerous and desperate situation of life and death.

Despite its reputation, the original Saw film is not actually that gory.  The sequels would double down on the blood and guts.  And in the wake the series’ popularity, other brutally violent films were given the greenlight by studios, such as Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects, The Hills Have Eyes (2006 remake), and many others.

For most of the late 2000’s, the goal of horror seemed to be how violent and gross they could make things.  It’s quite fitting that the decade ended with the release of something as grotesque as The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film.  But it all went back to the success of Saw, which is quite ironic since it was never the duo’s intention.

Saw always had some sort of moral or story around the gruesome violence, but Hostel just went straight for actual torture!

Bringing Horror Back to its Demonic Roots
Following Saw III, both Whannell and Wan took a step back from the franchise, having little to no involvement.  They went to make a really creepy supernatural puppet movie with 2007’s Dead Silence.  It’s a great film that sadly didn’t get enough attention.  In 2011 however, they released Insidious, and it took the horror genre by storm.

In an attempt to subvert all the clichés, Insidious is simultaneously a haunted house, possession, and astral projection movie.  And it’s one in which the characters move as soon as strange things start happening in their new house, but the haunting follows them.

Whannell’s writing and Wan’s directed created a strategically designed barrage of horror and suspense that blew audiences away in a manner not done in years.  And like before, it led to a wave of paranormal demonic horror suddenly being popular again.  Audiences got movies like Sinister, The Conjuring (which Wan also directed), Ouija, Oculus, Deliver Us From Evil, and many more.

Part of its success with subverting tropes was giving us a huge jump scare in a brightly lit daytime scene.

Once again, it was Whannell and Wan whose film started the new trend.  And it both cases, it’s very unlikely that this was even their intention.  They just set out to make good and compelling horror that seemed to motivate the industry itself.  It speaks to their incredible skills as filmmakers.

Shaping the Future
Whannell and Wan seem to have gone their separate ways in a professional sense, although they still have occasional cameos in each other’s movies because they’re still good friends.  Sadly it seems that Wan has departed from horror (for now at least).

The incredible success he had with directing Furious 7 led to Warner Brothers offering him Aquaman, and he’s currently working on the sequel.  He has however expressed interest in doing a horror spinoff set in that universe.

With Wan unavailable to direct Insidious: Chapter 3, Leigh Whannell stepped in to direct and has since proven to be just as good at that as he was at writing.  He’s since written and directed 2018’s Upgrade and the 2020 remake of The Invisible Man (which remains my personal favorite horror movie of the year).

The action in Upgrade is truly unlike any other movie!

He still does everything he can to subvert tropes and expectations and his recent movies definitely show it.  He’s currently working on a remake of Escape From New York, though admittedly it would be nice to see more original works from him like Upgrade.

History will certainly remember Whannell and Wan on the same level as it does Romero, Craven, and Carpenter.  By all expectations, it looks like they’re nowhere near done making awesome movies!

What do you think of Leigh Whannell and James Wan?  What is your favorite movie of theirs?  Let us know in the comments!

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