WRITER LEIGH WHANNELL
It's about damn time we get better acquainted with Leigh Whannell, one half of the Aussie brain-trust behind such modern day horror classics as SAW and INSIDIOUS, and to a lesser degree, DEAD SILENCE and a few others. And while Whannell stars in most of the flicks he co-writes, often giving the audience comic relief, most people still tend to associate his movies with his creative partner James Wan, who directs the pictures. Fair enough, but I suspect the partnership is more of a 50-50 proposition, which isn't quite the case when it comes to publicity. However, I'm guessing all that is going to change after the announcement that Wan, now in line to helm FAST AND FURIOUS 8, will be leaving the horror genre behind. Thankfully, such is not the case for Leigh Whannell, who has already committed to writing INSIDIOUS 3. It stands to reason then folks that we lance the scalpel and dissect the contributions Mr. Whannell has given us thus far. Get out the gloves, this shite's gonna get bloody!
As much as I recognize the profound effect SAW has had no not just the horror genre, but Whannell's writing career as well, I still think it comes across as a first-feature. It's rough around the edges, has some questionable acting, and in terms of the script, isn't as tightly woven as some of Leigh's later work. Therefore, I submit that INSIDIOUS - a million dollar PG-13 horror hit - is Whannell's best written script. Here's the case to be made:
First off, Whannell wrote INSIDIOUS all by his lonesome, something he's only done once without story collaboration with James Wan. Therefore, he's wholly responsible for every aspect of the 100 or so page script. It's all him. Hell, even for INSIDIOUS 2, which I consider a mere addendum to the first part, and therefore also qualifies as his best work - Wan helped conceive the story. But there's nothing to help conceive if that first film was never made, and it's a testament to Whannell's imagination that it eventually did.
But even more than all that logistical stuff, to me, the great achievement of INSIDIOUS is the less-is-more approach to old-school, throwback horror. Outside of some minor CG shading, the FX in the film feel germane to the story, which of course starts on the page. The film feels earnest because of its simple, stripped down approach...and with that earnestness comes belief. By the end, this simplistic, one-location PG-13 horror cheapie managed to make frightened believers of us all. Let us cross our fingers the trend continues through INSIDIOUS 3.
If a wide poll was taken, I think most of us would agree that SAW III is the weakest link of Whannell's armory. Hell, dude left the franchise altogether right afterwards, so perhaps he even knew it was time to call it day. After-all, more was heaped on his plate on the third serving. Remember, James Wan co-conceived and directed SAW, Darren Lynn Bousman co-wrote and directed SAW II...but for SAW III, Whannell was tasked with coming up with the script himself. Nothing strange there for Leigh, but with Bousman again directing for part 3, the tone and tenor Whannell had to vacillate between the original of Wan and the continuation of Bousman...well, you can tell the end result suffered from a bit of tone-deafness or being lost in translation. That's how it felt to me. That Whannell tried to adhere to the original intent at the same time making way for a new style of filmmaker to come in and do his thing. By 2006, the wise move seemed for Leigh to pull the stakes out of the ground and head to more fertile territory. As we know, DEAD SILENCE would immediately follow suit, with INSIDIOUS only 4 years away.
Since he is more of a professional wordsmith rather than an out-and-out visualist, it's a bit harder to pin down identifiable trademarks in Whannell's work. At least harder than that of a typical director, let's say. As such, it really becomes much more about thematic through-lines to be found in his scripts. And yet, like a good writer, Whannell doesn't often repeat himself too much in terms of overarching themes. He did co-write the first three SAW movies, which had many themes, not least of which ones dealing with the fragility of life, or the breaking point of humanism seen through a weird, sadistic Darwinian survival contest. And I guess if it were to all end for the young man today (god forbid), I guess Leigh's lasting legacy would be introducing the world to Jigsaw, the de facto powerhouse super-horror-villain of the 21st century. Quite the feat indeed. Of course, Whannell will try to 3-peat once more, this time with INSIDIOUS 3. You think he can make as lasting an impression with that franchise and its villain(s) as he did with Jigsaw and the first 3 SAW pictures? If so, Whannell's long term trademark might be still yet to come.
Just by virtue of being the only film NOT attached to a highly publicized franchise, it seems only right to tag DEAD SILENCE as the hidden gem in Whannell's writing resume. It's funny though, DEAD SILENCE is a movie I scoffed at when it was first released. I was like, what's this, a killer dummy? Ventriloquists? What is this a goddamn Goosebumps episode? But then, years later, I caught the film late one night, alone in the dark, and yeah...I was practically pissing myself. So if nothing else, consider this is a self-serving apology for overlooking a sly horror gem at the outset. It really deserves more love!
In a story hatched with his pal James Wan, DEAD SILENCE is about a man who returns to his hometown to find answers regarding his wife's relatively recent death. What he discovers his far more harrowing though, as he learns via local lore of a famous ghost story that a creepy ass old ventriloquist bitch and her bevy of Vaudevillian dolls are wreaking havoc from the grave. Shite's no joke!
Actually, the arduous back-story and fleshed out "ghost story" mythos of the film are really done with a lot of thought behind them. So much so that we sort of roll our eyes with all the exposition early on, but because it becomes so rich and deeply detailed, as the flick moves along, we start to fully accept and even believe that very lore. It feels like a classic ghost story in that sense, winning the audience over with its paranormality...scaring this piss out of us in the process. If you were as easy to wrote DEAD SILENCE off when it first came out, do yourself a favor and give it another day in court. It's a solid underrated horror gem!
While it was recently announced Leigh will ink a third chapter to the INSIDIOUS saga, the man is already putting the finishing touches on a couple of other writing projects. One is a drug trafficking thriller called MULE, which is a sort of anti-horror change of pace for Whannell. The other though is COOTIES, as you might guess, a horror comedy about germ-spreading epidemic that hits a small elementary school. How sweet is that? A deadly virus flick meets a killer kids flick! What a perfect vehicle to comment on the icky, disgusting nature of snot-crusted little tykes who run around with all abandon. Or a commentary on how we're becoming sicker from birth in this day and age. Definitely could be more than just a silly comedic horror B-movie.
Co-written by Ian Brennan and directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion - COOTIES transmits when:
A mysterious virus hits an isolated elementary school, transforming the kids into a feral swarm of mass savages. An unlikely hero must lead a motley band of teachers in the fight of their lives.
Elijah Wood, Alison Pill, Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer and Whannell himself star in the flick, which is due October 10, 2014. F*ck yes, I can't wait to catch COOTIES!
Clearly, Leigh Whannell is a budding horror scribe with the brightest of futures. At 36 year old, dude has already authored two mega-successful 3-part horror trilogies, not to mention a diverse dash of out of genre writing projects. Since 2003, Leigh has been inextricably linked at the hip with fellow Aussie filmmaker James Wan, but as Wan recently announced his departure from the horror realm (we'll see if that lasts), Whannell is poised to step out from the shadows and make an even greater mark for himself. INSIDIOUS 3 is already in the works, and COOTIES is currently in post-production for an October 2014 release. Put simply, Leigh Whannell is one of the super talented, hungry young horror minds of his generation. Can't wait to see what he has up his sleeve in the future. Or should I say, The Further!