With only a few films under their belts, James Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell have produced some of the most original horror movies of the past decade. Say what you will about the degradation of the franchise as it lumbers towards it's sixth sequel, Saw was a sensation at Sundance in 2003 and started an entirely new sub-genre of horror, which would be later expolited by director Eli Roth in the Hostel films.
Two men, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (Whannell) wake up to find themselves chained by the ankle to opposite sides of a filthy bathroom, a corpse and a tape recorder just out reach between them. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that they are latest victims of a serial killer known as Jigsaw, who places his victims in deadly contraptions which require the solving of various puzzles to escape. Dina Meyer, Ken Leung and Danny Glover are the cops hot on Jigsaw's trail, while "Lost" alum Micheal Emerson plays a suspicious orderly; "Parenthood" star Monica Potter is Elwes' wife and Shawnee Smith is the only known survivor of Jigsaw's monstrous contraptions. Startling, grim and highly original at the time, Saw was the first movie in a long time whose twist ending actually surprised this jaded Horror fan.
Wan and Whannell created a creepy and original film on a limited budget, while managing to lure some exceptionally talented actors to take part in what was a risky venture, at best. And despite the increasingly lame sequels (the latest, due in just a few week is in what I call 'The GD3D'), genre fans must admit that the the original Saw is quite a ride.
The duo's next film, 2007's Dead Silence (originally titled Silence) was a take on one of Horror's classic tropes, the evil ventriloquist. Explored in dozens of films (including the excellent Richard Attenborough's Magic, starring a young Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret), the creepy/evil ventriloquist has been the cause of almost as many nightmares as the Evil-You-Know-What.
Ryan Kwanten ("True Blood") is Jamie, who receives a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist's dummy. When he goes out for Chinese, his wife (Mia Farrow look-alike Amber Valetta) is murdered and Jaimie returns to his hometown of Raven's Fair to bury her. Detective Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) is suspicious and follows Jamie home, sure the young man had something to do with his wife's death. Jamie's cold father ("24" alum Bob Gunton) and his young wife welcome Jamie home, but there is something amiss. It turns out that Raven's Fair was once home to the celebrated Mary Shaw, a ventriloquist who was killed by vigilantes after the death of a young man who called her out during a performance. As the bodies pile up, Jamie and Lipton become convinced that something sinister is going on and a climactic battle between good and evil ensues in the rotting ruins of Mary Shaw's mansion/theater.
Atmospheric and surprisingly creepy, Dead Silence is an under-appreciated throwback to the ghost stories of the 30's and 40's, where what what the audience doesn't see is often scarier than what we do.If you've never seen it, you should.
That same year, Wan directed the rather formulaic revenge actioner, Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon (Friday the 13th) as a man bent on getting back at the men who murdered his son. Both director and star deserved better material, and I suspect contractual obligations led to this mess more than anything. Kelly Preston, John Goodman and Aisha Tyler all should have known better, too.
Wan reunites with Whannell for the upcoming Insidious, starring Patrick Wilson (X-Men) and Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later; "Damages") as parents trying to rescue their comatose from evil spirits:
Uncle P is looking forward to whatever horror this young Aussie filmmaker has in store in for us, including his scheduled 2012 take on vampires, Nightfall. Let's hope his future holds horrors as original and creepy as his first two films.