Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Leigh Wannell, Angus Sampson, Ty Simpkins, Andrew Foster
Release date: April 1, 2011

If you catch my head shaking at Fast & Furious 7, it’s not because I have anything against Universal’s nitro-boosted street racing franchise or Vinny Deez. On the contrary, I’m hoping that the next chapter kills at the box office in summer 2014. But my joy at seeing director James Wan crush with his first mainstream blockbuster will be tempered by sadness because the horror community has lost one of its greatest talents.

The movie that cemented Wan’s genre genius was 2011’s Insidious. A masterfully paced, near-bloodless ghost story that flips the tropes of haunted house movies, it was a complete departure from the gory, seven-movie Saw franchise, which had devolved from Wan and co-creator Leigh Whannell’s clever 2004 debut, about a “serial killer” who teaches people to value their lives by trapping them in deadly puzzles, into far less inventive annual torture porn for Halloween. Pegged as gore guys—their uneven ventriloquist horror thriller Dead Silence, and Wan’s underwhelming vigilantism crime drama Death Sentence, failed to register enough in 2007 to change perceptions of them—the pair went old school to make a bigger splash than another bucket of blood ever could.

The central idea of Insidious is that ghosts and demons, which exist in a place called The Further, are desperate to inhabit the living body of astral projectors whose spirit departs their physical form when they sleep. What begins as a well executed haunted house story turns into a unique possession pic when two concerned parents (Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson) learn that malicious spirits are eager to occupy their son, who’s fallen into a comatose state that doctors cannot explain.

Wan’s slow pacing and subtle use of haunting devices like creaking doors, pitch black shadows, and whispering voices builds tension that explodes with perfectly timed jump scares punctuated by Joseph Bishara’s score, which introduces unnerving scratchy violins and thunderous piano bangs to moments of silent terror. These elements, combined with the freaky design of the story’s red-faced demon (played by Bishara) and an assortment of creepy smiling spirits that clearly are not as friendly as they appear, had my neck hairs standing at chilled attention on first watch. Subsequent viewings have only increased my appreciation for the movie’s intelligent ideas and construction.

They’ve also made me sad that Wan is taking his considerable talents, seen again in this year’s strong genre efforts The Conjuring and Insidious 2, elsewhere. I’m sure they’ll be put to great effect in F&F and wherever his career takes him afterward. And who knows, perhaps someday Wan will pull a move like Sam Raimi on Drag Me to Hell and return to the genre that started it all for him, rejuvenated and full of new ideas. And hopefully he'll avoid making a For Love of the Game in between. —Justin Monroe