James Wan and how to not ruin your horror movie

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‘Tis the season for horror, so I recently decided to check out The Conjuring, a movie that got a lot of praise from horror fans when it came out and was ludicrously slapped with an “R” rating solely for being scary. The movie isn’t worth writing a full review on- it’s an overlong convoluted mess with way too many poorly fleshed out characters (although whoever designed that poster should win an award)- but I thought I’d use it as a springboard to talk about horror in general and how often people fuck it up.

The Conjuring was directed by James Wan, who also made Insidious, which was also hyped up by horror fans despite being largely terrible. Wan as a director of horror specifically  infuriates me intensely because he has moments of incredible originality despite seeming to have no idea what he’s doing most of the time, and it’s all the more frustrating because the mistakes he makes are largely the same mistakes everyone else makes when they fuck up horror. Let’s take a look at a few of them!

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Going over the top

I might be alone on this, but for me horror walks a very thin line between scary and ridiculous. You can very easily slip over from the former to the latter by taking things just a little too far, and if James Wan has one over-riding flaw it’s a tendency for his movies to go sailing right across that fine line at around the two thirds mark, squandering a perfectly fine build-up.

Insidious is about a couple whose son falls into a mysterious coma after they move to a new house. There’s a wonderfully unsettling scene early on where their other son, who sleeps across the hallway from the room his brother is now permanently confined in, asks their mother to start closing the comatose brother’s door at night because he “doesn’t like it when [the brother] walks around at night”. That’s brilliant. It’s eerie, unsettling and spooky, and it works so well precisely because don’t actually see the kid walking around but are left to imagine it. Later on there’s an infamous scene where a medium is called in to investigate (James Wan absolutely loves this trope for some reason) and tells the family about a dream she had the previous night where she encountered a demonic entity in their house whose presence was heralded by an unsettling creaking sound. Immediately upon finishing the story she hears the sound again and looks up, treating the audience to a brief but terrifying glimpse of the demon crouching directly behind the oblivious dad. The scene takes place in broad daylight, in a crowded kitchen, and still manages to be utterly terrifying.

Cut to the film’s climax, where the demon- now revealed in all of its glory to be a bizarre and incredibly goofy Darth Maul knock-off- chases the characters around a ghostly fantasy-land that looks like it belongs in a Scooby Doo film. What the fuck happened? It’s like James Wan got tired of directing the film halfway through and decided to draft in a twelve year old to finish it off.

The Conjuring suffers the same problem, starting out with noises that go bump in the night and the kids seeing weird things and then escalating in the third act to people being dragged around by their hair and chairs flying against walls. There’s a scene fairly early on that manages to combine both Wan’s best and worst habits in the space of a few minutes, and it’s a textbook example of how easy it is to ruin a good scare. It’s established that as soon as the family moves into their spooky new house one of the younger daughters starts being harassed by a ghostly presence at night, smelling rotting vegetables and feeling something grabbing her feet (which is for some reason accompanied by a lous “whoosh” sound, horror directors having apparently decided that goats sound like trains driving past). After a particularly intense bout of this she becomes terrified of something standing in the shadows in the corner of the room, but here’s the thing- her sister, who’s in the room with her, can’t see anything and neither can we. We’re left to imagine what’s there based solely on the level of terror she’s expressing. This is such a smart way to frame the scene, relying cleverly on the old adage that nothing is scarier than what the audience creates in their mind. You don’t actually have to show something scary, you just have to set up the right circumstances so that the viewer will come up with something on their own.

After a door slams shut spookily the parents rush in and the girl explains that she saw someone standing in the corner- great stuff- and that the person spoke to her- ooh this is getting even creepier- and that the person said they were going to kill her entire family and you’ve lost me. A ghost just standing there and staring at you is scary as fuck; when the ghost starts threatening to murder people it stops being terrifying and starts just being goofy.

After the two thirds mark the the entire movie basically just devolves into James Wan standing behind you and saying A-BOOOGA-BOOOGA-BOOOGA really loudly, which quickly gets irritating. And speaking of loud noises:

Fucking jump scares

God, I hate jump scares.

Part of this is admittedly due to the fact that I’m skittish as a deer with jet engines strapped to its legs while watching movies, but on a more academic level I just find them cheap and uncreative. They’re not scary, they’re just startling. More and more horror creators seem to not realize this, believing that if audiences are jumping out of their seats every five minutes the film has achieved its goal. Hell, even a lot of professional reviewers have gotten in on the act, appraising a movie’s relative scariness on how intensely and how often the director has shit fly out of the side of the screen.

Not all jump scares are created equal and I do think it’s possible to use the technique effectively or in a more subtle manner; the problem comes when movies rely too heavily on the kinds of jump-scares at the top of this list.

The thousand decibel orchestra sting

The laziest and most irritating type of jump scare, this is where the imagery and sound design of the movie itself aren’t sufficiently startling so the director includes an ear-splitting sound effect or musical cue over it. This renders the actual context of the scene pointless. You could use this technique to make anything- a kitten falling onto a pile of feathers, a door opening, someone eating a tuna sandwich- “scary” because people naturally jump at loud, sudden noises. Hell you could dispense with the associated imagery completely and just have loud noises play randomly over the movie.

The exploding attic

The slightly subtler cousin of the above jump scare, where the “scare” comes from a loud or sudden noise (usually something crashing around in the attic, hence the name) but the noise is presented as existing in-universe in the film itself. This is a bit better in that the film makers have to bother coming up with some sort of context for the scene, but it’s still cheap and lazy. Usually the sound will be amplified enormously to make it more startling, so that a door slamming shut or a picture frame falling off the wall sounds like a passenger jet exploding.

The silent scare

A more sophisticated but harder to pull off variant wherein the jump scare is achieved solely through a sudden, frightening image with no accompanying loud noises. A rather crude but undeniably effective example is the sudden cut to the decomposed body of the cursed tape’s first victim in (as far as I can remember) both versions of The Ring. A better example would be the flash-forwards to future scary events near the start of The Shining, which are presented completely devoid of context.

The anticipation scare

I’m in two minds about this one since it can be used for both good and evil. Basically this is where the audience knows full well that there’s going to be a jump scare and they’ve more or less been told exactly how it’s going to go down, but he film holds off on pulling the trigger to create tension. One of these is used to great effect in the otherwise jump-free Korean movie A Tale Of Two Sisters (which you should all watch because it’s awesome) , in a scene where a character fishes around for a lost object near some cupboards that we’ve glimpsed a disturbing looking ghost underneath earlier. We know exactly what’s going to happen- the ghost is going to reach out and grab her wrist- but the movie draws the tension out for an ungodly long time before it actually happens. I find this type of jump scare more palatable because it seems more “fair” than the lesser varieties. The director is using elements that have been established already instead of just having something random pop up.

The slow burn

The best and hardest way to do a jump scare, this is where the startling nature of the scene comes not from anything in the scene itself but from the fact that the film has spent the preceding run-time working the audience into such a state of tension and dread that almost anything will make them jump out of their skin. The best example of this I’ve ever seen is in the criminally overlooked Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie about a woman who escapes an abusive cult (OR IS IT) and hides with her sister and brother-in-law in their fancy weekend house out in the woods. The premise alone seems to guarantee a violent encounter, something the film plays to the hilt by frequently having characters peer out of windows at night or have arguments in front of patio doors facing out onto dark gardens. Over and over again the movie suggests that something is going to happen…. and then it doesn’t…..something is going to happen…. and then it doesn’t….something is going to happen…..and then it doesn’t. Near the end of the movie when we finally see an act of on-screen violence it’s telegraphed clearly in advance and not accompanied by any loud noises or sudden, startling imagery but it still made the entire audience scream both times I saw the movie in the cinema, just because we had been so wound up with tension and paranoia by that point.

To be fair to James Wan, for all of his flaws Insidious and The Conjuring tend not to over-rely on jump scares. There are a few but they’re sprinkled conservatively through the movie as opposed to the fire-hose approach a depressing number of “horror” movies tend to use these days. I should also mention the over-abundance of this trope in video games. You’ve got big AAA franchises like Dead Space that appear to be built entirely around loud noises and monsters jumping through air vents, but there are also hoards of indie games that take a similar approach. Back in my post last year about indie horror I praised the indie gaming scene as the place to go for good horror games, but I should point out that there’s also a small ocean of amateur games that rely solely on jump scares, sometimes consisting solely of dark labyrinths that are punctuated by shit flashing on screen and screaming in the player’s face, essentially constituting nothing but an interactive screamer video.

Don’t explain the joke or the ghost

There is a direct inverse correlation between how much we know about a thing that goes bump in the night and how scary the thing that goes bump in the night is. The ghost of a spooky old woman is haunting your house? That’s scary. In life her name was Mrs. Spithenwercken and she was an occultist who died in a ritual involving the cursed Gem Of Dionysus? Less scary. Kind of stupid, actually.

It’s not just that when we get an explanation behind the ghost/monster/alien it’s usually disappointing. The very act of over-explaining something can inherently render it less scary, as people are naturally afraid of the unknown. Long before the halfway mark of The Conjuring we’ve been presented, in an extremely inelegant infodump, with the full identity and backstory of the ghost responsible for all the mayhem. This also not coincidentally marks the moment where the film ceases to be all that scary.

Movies do this a lot, but it’s in novel form where authors really get to cut loose and sabotage their own ideas. Stephen King is the absolute grand-master of this, more often than not taking a perfectly workable horror concept and over-analyzing and complicating it until it gets goofy. If you saw the film of The Shining you know that there are ghosts or something in the Overlook hotel, and also Jack Nicholson is a creepy weirdo (and in the movie as well) . If you read the book you know there’s ghosts in the Overlook hotel, and the hotel itself is trying to possess Not-Jack Nicholson so it can get his son’s psychic powers woooOOOOooOOOoooo.

Basically this boils down to the narrative version of my first piece of advice. Don’t overdo it. I’m not going to go as far as some people and say never even show the ghost (although you can certainly do that if you’re good enough), just keep in mind that the less we know about the ghost the scarier it will be.

The power of cliche compels you

For some reason there’s a been a slew of movies about demonic possession lately and it’s striking how unashamedly these films just rip off The Exorcist. Nine times out of ten the following tropes are recycled without an ounce of self-awareness:

1) The victim will be a woman, usually but not always young

2) The symptoms of demonic possession include bodily contortions, speaking in tongues, distorted voice, levitating and Acute Onset Monsterface

3) At some point either in the film or the promotional material the victim of the possession will be depicted wearing something white and flowing

4) Catholic exorcisms are 100% effective, and by implication the catholic worldview of Earth as a battleground between God and Satan is more or less objectively true (which is almost never commented on, incidentally)

5) At one point the medium or paranormal investigator character will gravely inform the protagonists that it’s not the house that’s haunted (this is actually Insidious’ tagline despite more or less the exact same line of dialogue appearing in Paranormal Activity)

6) The demon will have enough power to make objects fly across rooms and drag people around by their hair but won’t actually be able to kill anyone, or if it does it will insist on trolling them for a while first

To be fair to Wan Insidious doesn’t really follow most of these tropes. The comatose son is “haunted” by a demonic entity and the implication is that the end result of this will be full-blown possession, but it never really operates along the same lines as so many other possession films and Wan builds a mythos that doesn’t draw from Catholic dogma, but The Conjuring completely hews to the expected formula and it’s got a small army of contemporary exorcism films that are just as uncreative. Can we please do something new with this idea?

(Although on the other hand the entire idea of making movies about demonic possession is a bit troublesome when you remember that the entire concept was cooked up as a way to explain mental illness so maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the genre just went away)

The sound of silence

If there’s one thing I wish horror creators across all mediums would come to understand it’s the importance of silence. When I’m watching a horror film it’s very easy for even ordinary background music to ruin the atmosphere, and yet a lot of horror directors don’t seem to realize this, draping their films in “scary” music that’s about as effectively creepy as yakety sax.

Stop making bad horror movies

When I look at the landscape of horror films I can’t help but come to the depressing conclusion that a lot of people just don’t really know how to be scary any more. Certain horror trends pop up from time to time to reinvigorate or at least provide something new to the genre (Asian horror! Torture porn! Found footage!) and then get run mercilessly into the ground as hordes of imitators rip off the one or two early examples that actually worked without displaying any understanding of why they worked in the first place. A similar problem also exists in the world of mainstream horror games, which I’ve written about before.

Maybe it’s arrogant of me to sit here and loudly declare that ur all doin it wrong but having watched my fair share of horror movies I honestly don’t think it’s difficult to be scary. Mostly the process seems to consist of not doing things that are going to shoot your own film in the foot, and yet  every year director after director dutifully lines up to churn out one limp, toothless “supernatural thriller” after another. I really don’t know what the solution is.

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22 thoughts on “James Wan and how to not ruin your horror movie

  1. Pingback: Spooktober 2016: Channel Zero: Candle Cove ep. 1 | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Sachin Pathmajan

    As a film student who has attempted to make a few zero budget horror movies ;I think it is easy to decode a horror technique and convert into mere theories.The skill lies in executing them.And trust me its no easy task.And Wan is brilliant at it.I do agree that there are a few ridiculous moments in Insidious.But still the quality of the jump scares that Wan has applied in it is really high.And of course there are both cheap jump scares as well as highly creative ones.James relies on the latter as far as I’ve observed and learned. And the actual advantage of jumpbscares is that there so much like slapstick comedy.They can be timeless.Unlike other kinds of horrors,jump scares will still be effective after maybe 3 or 4 decades. As I said very much like the slapstick humor in those Chaplin movies.Other kinds of horrors could become ineffective as the generation changes.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Spooktober 2014: A Tale of Two Sisters (plus special bonus material) | Doing In The Wizard

  4. Samuelson

    As I was reading this, I was going to ask if you have ever seen the Korean movie A Tale of Two Sisters. But right when I thought of it, you mentioned it hah. Such a brilliant film. The music, cinematography, acting… pretty much everything was crafted very well. It’s enjoyable to watch multiple times, piecing together the storyline and how/why the director filmed certain scenes. Of course, Hollywood had to follow the trend of re-makes, thus the creation of the pile of shit The Uninvited.

    Reply
  5. luke

    I can pin down the exact moment in Insidious, that ruined the rest of them. the rest of the moments.
    When they’re preforming the seance on coma-boy, he pops up, stands by the table, and beats everyone savagely with his coma-boy brain powers. The comic relief ghost hunter duo, are filming all of this. In a frame of their film, you can see that coma-boy is being worked like a puppet by the lip-stick demon. I believe that’s the name they used to refer to the main demon in Insidious, at least on the set.
    now, coma-boy is like 10 years old. possibly younger. and the lipstick demon is
    the
    exact
    same
    height
    In the demonic rules of engagement in most of these films (catholic rules, as you’ve pointed out) one must first identify the name of the demon, so one can locate the demon’s position in the demonic hierarchy. A demon the size of a 10 year old boy is probably a janitor down there.
    Still love Mr. Wan, because as you’ve mentioned, he’s got something there. He tends to ruin it, but it’s there, still waiting for the gem.
    just a couple ideas:
    instead of using a catholic priest, who threatens the demon with Jesus, a gentle carpenter. (I mean no offense but as far as gods go in our history, Jesus is not the toughest.)
    Try instead using an Icelandic holy man, who calls upon Odin. I’d be the fastest exorcism to date. That or call Chris Hansen with dateline, because in America when ya got a scared vulnerable child being chased by a malignant being. Chris Hansen steps in to save the day.

    Reply
    1. luke

      Just a fun fact, the guy who played the lip stick demon, also composed the annoying score to that movie. look it up.

      Reply
  6. samir h., beewolf (@ap0cryphal)

    I remember actually snickering when they named the sinister demon figure in Sinister, the po-faced, rubber-masked B’GHUL. Bit of a misstep, for an otherwise engaging story that could generate waves of unease without too many scare chords.

    Aside, on that minor point about demonic possession coming from the church’s misunderstanding of mental illness: DID YOU KNOW this is a cross cultural phenomenon? In the traditionally muslim parts of South Asia, it’s wicked jinn who do the possessing and local mullahs who do the exorcisms. I personally blame the mughals for coming over with all their cultural baggage, but there’s already precedent for possession in older folklore, what with angry spirits, river ghosts, dead people not staying in their graves or pyres, etc, so I dunno.

    Reply
    1. braak

      Honestly, though — if you live in a culture with a strong belief in spirits and that also doesn’t know a lot about how brains work, “Schizophrenia is possession by evil spirits” is actually a fairly rational conclusion.

      Reply
  7. braak

    In defense of jump scares (kind of), I just want to say that maybe the actual issue here is that there are two, very different kinds of horror movies — there are horror movies that are like roller-coasters, which are built basically around building up some tension and then blowing it off, basically getting you high on adrenaline. And there are some horror movies that are about leaving you with an abiding sense of dread, so that you’re anxious to be in the dark or alone after seeing the movie.

    I’d suggest that these are actually both valid approaches to movie-making (in the sense that any dumb way you want to spend your time is pretty much as good as the next), and that one of the major problems is not jump-scares themselves, but the failure to recognize that these principles — “scares” and “dread” — don’t necessarily overlap.

    In a lot of ways, they kind of contradict each other; scares typically burn off the feeling of tension that suspense brings about, while dread relies on that tension just ratcheting up throughout the whole movie. When you get them confused, or combine them in less than optimal ways, one of them is always going to sort of sap power from the other.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      See, my problem is that fundamentally I just don’t view jump-scare movies as actually being scary. It’s fine to build a movie around making audiences jump out of their seats, but the problem comes when film-makers (and often even critics and audiences) equate this with the definition of horror, which I think has happened in recent years.

      Reply
      1. braak

        Well, I don’t disagree, but I do think this is an issue compounded by the fact that the definition of “horror”, when it comes to movies, is actually pretty muddy in the first place.

        I do think that, if we were clear about these two basic kinds of horror as the foundation for what is actually two separate, but related, genres, there’s be a lot less confusion on the subject.

        Reply
        1. ronanwills Post author

          I think I’d agree with that. I mentioned “supernatural thriller”, a phrase I’ve seen thrown around a lot lately, and I think that would be a more fitting description for movies like The Conjuring and Insidious.

          Reply
  8. Andrea Harris

    The jump scares are a big reason I can’t stand most horror movies. After living a life I’m a bundle of frayed nerves, and the last thing I need is to be made to jump out of my seat every five minutes. But most people grew up seeing films like Poltergeist and going to theme parks, so… (As for the Exorcist, maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised Catholic that I didn’t find that movie scary at all, just sort of gross? On the other hand, The Sentinel, another heavily Catholic horror movie from the 70s, actually had some genuine scares.)

    Anyway, the best horror films for me shouldn’t make you move from your seat at all. In fact, you should be left frozen in your chair a while after the film ends, as you look around at your surroundings which now seem alien and menacing.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      OMG exactly. In face I don’t judge an effective horror movie on the effect it has on you as you’re watching it, but on how it affects you for hours or even days afterward.

      Reply
      1. Andrea Harris

        One of the most effective horror (well, scary & mysterious) movies I ever saw was Peter Weir’s The Last Wave. It came out early in the Australian film wave in the late 70s, and I saw it late at night on our little old tv… it was the first movie I ever bought when video tape just started, and I paid $84.00 for it in 1981 I think.

        Anyway, it literally haunted me for the whole year. I can’t really describe how eery it was. There was little violence, and the scares probably seem mild to a population now used to seeing zombies eating entrails in living color… and as I haven’t seen it for many years (gave away the tapes and video players long ago) I wonder if it would affect me now the way it did then. I was a pretty weird teenager. And it wasn’t really a “horror film” per se — it was a psychological mystery with mystic (and alas, probably culturally appropriative though at the time I didn’t really know the first thing about Australian aboriginal culture so it all was new to me) elements and there was only one murky scene of violence that might or might not have been a hallucination. But the odd dreamlike tone was what was most effective. I will say here that I was devoted to old thrillers and Vincent Price movies and cheesy horror films like “The Screaming Skull” and “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” but those didn’t scare me or haunt me.

        Reply
  9. Austin H. Williams

    “Hell you could dispense with the associated imagery completely and just have loud noises play randomly over the movie.”

    I’m sensing some great potential for experimental film right here.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      Someone recut Citizen Kane with random air-horns going off throughout.

      “Roseb-BWAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH

      Reply
  10. braak

    One of the problems I had with Insidious (I haven’t seen The Conjuring yet) is actually some pretty specific problems with its cinematography. I don’t know that I’d argue that it’s congruent with the problems that you’ve listed here, but I think it is broadly a consequence of not really understanding what ghosts are or what’s scary about them. It felt like a combination of these weird, medium-to-close shots that completely destroy the geography of the setting (geography is something that I think is actually essential to horror), and then just sort of bonkers cliches: what if the demon plays scary old time music? &c.

    Anyway, it may be of some interest, I have written about some of these subjects elsewhere:

    On ghosts: http://threatquality.com/2011/10/19/eigen-league-of-monsters-part-three-g-g-g-g-ghosts/

    Also on why horror so easily becomes ridiculous: http://threatquality.com/2009/10/05/the-horrorhumor-problem/

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      I got some sort of sense of what you’re talking about with the cinematography in Insidious, although I couldn’t articulate it. There’s less of that in The Conjuring, probably just because you don’t see the ghosts as often.

      Actually while we’re on Insidious there was one really awesome shot I loved: right after they move into the second house, when the mom is carrying a basket of laundry out of a room you can see the old-timey little boy ghost standing against the wall to her left. The movie never draws attention to this so it’s actually quite easy to miss it, but if you do notice it it’s pretty unsettling. The rest of the time the ghosts are front and center though, which to my mind really diminishes their impact.

      Thanks for the links, I’ll make sure to read them! How have I not followed your blog before now? I must remedy this.

      Reply

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