Those who consider themselves to be well versed in film history know how much of an impact the Horror Genre has had on the world of film as a whole. Many film makers that I consider to be the greatest film makers of all time – like Alfred Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg – have made their names and even their careers off of the genre. The reason so many greats can point to this genre for their rise to fame is because of the simple fact that it is one of the more challenging types of films to create. Being able to stimulate an audience visually through suspense, tension, and even fear, seems to be a special talent that can only be found in directors of this caliber.
Still, those who consider themselves to be well versed in film history, will also know that in the past few decades, the Horror Genre has become the laughing stock of the film world. Go to google and search, “Worst movies of all time,” what you’ll find are countless lists filled to the brim with terrible low-budget horror movies that you’ve probably never heard of. Films like Paranormal Activity have filled theaters time and time again despite their ridiculously low ratings with critics. The most popular titles in horror in the past few years have terrible ratings with critics and with myself. There is only one exception to this trend though: the films made by James Wan.
Time and time again, Wan has set himself apart from other contemporary directors in the genre. While anyone can point out the similarities between a Wan film and something like Paranormal Activity, they can still recognize that there is just something different about his films. Your average movie-goer knows that his films are better and even scarier, yet the same not-frightening garbage still comes out every year. So what makes him different? Let’s take a look at the film to find out:`
On the surface, this is a typical haunted house movie. Spooky stuff starts happening in the home that only the children notice, the parent or parents are skeptical at first, but they eventually seek help once the inevitable proof throws something large across the room. While this is all true, there’s still something about Wan’s films that stand out in from other typical haunted house type movies.
The beginning of this film establishes its main characters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple who have dedicated their lives to helping people who may experience “demonic activity” when no one else will help them. It then moves on to establish the Hodgson family in London. They are 4 children and a recently single mother that are struggling at school socially, struggling with their finances, and even struggling with a few disabilities. In the first 20 minutes of the film, Wan establishes a mission-driven couple whose love and care for each other seems to know no bounds, and a family struggling to stay on their feet but supporting each other every step of the way.
Compare that to what you know about the family or families in the Paranormal Activity movies. Before the spooky stuff starts happening, what is established? What are the kids like at school? Do both of the parents work and what do they do? Do they have any relational problems or are they a perfect family? Nobody knows! They aren’t characters, they’re just the poor family whose home the writer/director decided to shoot their shitty movie in. These films are not stories.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga shine once again as the Warrens. The relationship between the two is really brought out and focused on through their acting. Patrick Wilson is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors right now.
The rest of the cast is pretty good, but not really stand-out. There are a few scenes that focus on the children that are a tad over-done, but they are children.
This is where Wan really sets himself apart. His directional style is made for suspense and tension-building. His long-shots are great for establishing a house; I probably know the layout of the Hodgson home better than my own college dorm room right now.
But the thing that gets me every time is how he uses the worst cliche in the genre: jump scares. Films like Paranormal Activity are filled with pointless false jump scares and jump scares that come out of nowhere and catch the audience off guard. Wan, however, will literally show you the jump scare before it happens, role the jump scare, and still scare you. No other horror director can do this. One scene in particular from this film that exemplifies this involves a disturbing painting; you and everyone else watching knows what is going to happen with the painting, but you’re still terrified when it does happen.
Another great part of Wan’s films are his use of practical effects, especially in the makeup department. He is able to create more disturbing images with real people wearing makeup than anyone else has with a team of animators and an unlimited budget. This film is no exception, and may have been some of his finest work yet, especially with the demon that may or may not have literally haunted my dreams last night.
Joseph Bishara returns once again to score Wan’s film. The relationship between these 2 artists has been very essential in their careers because they are both masters of their craft. Bishara’s music remains some of the most haunting music I’ve ever heard in a score, and this film remains true to his previous works. The way the music combines with the visuals works perfectly for building tension, and it’s the music itself that excels at building the tension, not moments of silence followed by the loudest sound the orchestra can produce.. I hope these 2 continue to make films together and find success in their relationship.
X-Factor: 6/10, His name was Bill Wilkins
[Potential Spoiler] The film makes you think that the spirit of Bill Wilkins is its antagonist, but this ends up not being true, because we find that he is just as much a victim as the Hodgson family is. However, the film does not explain what happens to him after we find this out, because he never comes back. We don’t get a scene that tells us his spirit is finally at peace or where he comes back to apologize for the PTSD that some of the family members probably have now. There’s no closure for Bill, and I felt very sorry for him. [End Spoilers]
While I know that this caliber or sub-genre of Horror film isn’t for everyone, I would encourage anyone with the courage to see this film to go see it. It is incredibly well made and is actually frightening. With the newfound success Wan’s films have had, I hope that other filmmakers will become inspired and follow in his footsteps to restore the genre to its former glory.