Over the past 15 years, Leigh Whannell has become a major voice in 21st-century horror. First, he wrote the script that kicked off the wildly successful Saw franchise, which gave rise to the controversial "torture porn" subgenre. After penning two Saw sequels, the Aussie scribe re-teamed with director James Wan for Insidious, a haunted house hit that not only launched another thriving film series but also made Whannell a part of its cast as the ghost hunter Specs. Whannell went on to script Insidious: Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 and made his directorial debut on the latter. Now he's breaking new ground with the science-fiction-fueled horror Upgrade.
Set in a not-so-distant future, Upgrade centers on self-proclaimed technophobe Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), who sneers at self-driving cars and the implantable tech that's taking over mankind. But after a brutal encounter with a gruff gang throws his world into spin and leaves him paralyzed, Grey turns to a cutting-edge technology called Stem. This computer system allows him to kick ass while offering a souped-up Siri to aid him in his quest for revenge. The only thing that seems to be standing in his way is a tough cop (Get Out's Betty Gabriel), who is hot on Grey's trail!
Featuring graphic violence, grisly vengeance, and body horror, Upgrade feels very much in line with the kind of movies audiences have come to expect from Whannell and his recurring collaborator Blumhouse Productions. However, Upgrade is also stuffed with action, including graphic fight scenes, a highway chase, and crushing car crashes. That's a major departure from the Blumhouse model, which favors small budgets (often $1-10 million), limited locations, and precise practical effects. When presenting the film at its world premiere in the SXSW Conference, producer Jason Blum was effusive that Whannell's script urged the horror makers to take the risk on this outside-the-box project. The following day, Fangrrls sat down with Whannell to hear how he went from a sought-after screenwriter to Blumhouse groundbreaker.
Making the leap from screenwriter to director with Insidious: Chapter 3 felt like a natural progression for Whannell. "I loved the experience," he said. "But it felt very safe. I had written the first two Insidious movies. I had watched James Wan set up this world. So, as a directorial debut, it was a really soft landing."
The third film in the Insidious series was a hit, bringing in over $112 million worldwide. It also paved the way for 2018's Insidious: The Last Key, a prequel that Whannell was asked to direct. But for his follow-up, Whannell craved more of a challenge. "I sort of had to step off on my own," he said. "I was keen to do something different."
"I didn't want to do another sequel," he explained. "They asked me to do Insidious 4, and I said to Jason Blum, 'I don't know if I want my resumé to read 'Debut film: Insidious 3. Second film: Insidious 4.' Like, 'Let me guess what the third film is? I'm going take a wild guess that it's Insidious 5.' So I said 'Respectfully decline to direct the fourth Insidious movie and put all my energy into this film, into Upgrade.'"
"I really wanted to make a film in that Blumhouse world," Whannell said, "Because I love those guys and I love that they make these low-budget movies. But I wanted it to feel bigger." Blum was game to make Whannell's movie. But the writer/director knew there'd be some compromises, as Blum's reputation is one of ruthless thrift in his moviemaking. How do you make a gonzo action movie on a lean Blumhouse budget?
"Doing that was hard," Whannell admitted, "It was real Tetris and moving money around and conversations with the producers, where they would say, 'You know the car chase, in the script it says there's 10 car crashes. How about one?' I'm sitting there going, 'One? That's not a car chase. That's an insurance claim!' So it was a lot of that back and forth, and we just stuffed the film into this little Blumhouse box. Somehow we got it there."
Early reactions to Upgrade have been largely positive. Meredith Borders of Bloody Disgusting cheered, "Upgrade looks more expensive than it almost definitely is, and that’s to Whannell’s credit. He does a lot with a little and crafts a really cool look at the near future."
And Matt Donato of Slashfilm raved, "This midnight amalgamation of science fiction paranoia and gritty action face-bashing... puts Whannell in the same conversations of accomplished feature directors as his buddy, James Wan."
Horror fans definitely have something special to look forward to when Upgrade hits theaters.
Upgrade made its world premiere at the SXSW Conference. Its theatrical release date has not yet been announced.