When Patrick Wilson was first approached about reprising the role of Josh Lambert — the patriarch of a family terrorized by ghouls in James Wan’s haunted-house chiller, “Insidious” (2010) — he was unenthusiastic.
“Another sequel? I thought, ‘Oh boy, what new ground is there to even cover?’ I’m good. I’ve got my other horror franchise,” Wilson said.
The “other” franchise refers to “The Conjuring,” also conceived by Wan, which began as a 2013 paranormal horror tale that led to a separate universe of sequels and prequels in which Wilson plays one half of a team of married demonologists. Between “The Conjuring” and the first two “Insidious” movies, Wilson has established himself as a bona fide scream king. Still, he’s a classically trained actor who has starred in big-budget superhero movies (“Watchmen,” “Aquaman”), indie dramas (“Little Children”) and musical theater productions (“Oklahoma!”). The prospect of a new “Insidious” didn’t seem all that exciting.
Then, Wilson was asked if he’d consider directing it, too. That got his attention.
“I’d been trying to direct a movie since 2015,” Wilson told me over coffee at a West Village bistro. “TV didn’t appeal to me. And I’m not the kind of guy who wants to make a tiny indie that nobody sees just to prove that I can do it. I want my movie to play well in theaters, so to have this half-a-billion-dollar franchise supported by a studio come my way — that’s rare for a first-time director.”
“Insidious: The Red Door,” the fifth movie to fly under the “Insidious” banner, wisely skips over the lackluster third and fourth installments and returns to the events of “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013). After nearly ax-murdering his entire family, Jack Torrance-style, Josh retakes control of his body from a psycho-biddy demon, and — with the help of a mind-scrubbing hypnotist — completely represses all memory of his possession. The Lamberts are free and the credits roll.
“No offense, but that’s not how you deal with a problem,” Wilson chuckled.
“The Red Door” confronts the trauma of that earlier film from the perspective of a father-son relationship. Ten years later, Josh has separated from his wife, Renai (Rose Byrne), and is the quintessential absent dad, haunted by a past he can’t articulate. In “Insidious,” it’s revealed that the couple’s eldest child, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), has inherited his father’s ability to astral project, which renders him vulnerable to the ghosts hanging out in a netherworld called the Further. Dalton, too, had his memory erased. Now, the prickly teenager rejects his father, though he’s stuck with him on the drive to his first year of art school.
I asked Wilson if his sons — one is heading to college soon — send him curt one-word texts. “Nah, we have a great relationship,” said Wilson, who since 2005 has been married to the actress Dagmara Dominczyk (Karolina in “Succession”).
Wilson accepted the offer to direct “The Red Door” under the condition that it would “make sense with my life.” In practical terms, this meant shooting near his home in Montclair, N.J. (“It was almost like a regular job, coming back to the family after work,” he said.) But he was also keen for his debut to reflect him as a person.
Before shooting the Roland Emmerich disaster flick “Moonfall” (2022) and the forthcoming “Aquaman” sequel, Wilson sat down with the screenwriter Scott Teems (“Halloween Kills”) and, essentially, bared his soul. Teems took these raw materials and shaped them into a story about inherited trauma and artistic vulnerability — with jump scares and creepy-crawlies, of course.
The film marks a return to form for the “Insidious” franchise, recapturing the original’s pretentiousless thrills and fun-house charms, approaching the Lamberts’ grim history with the silliness and sincerity of throwback horror from the ’80s or ’90s.
“The best kind of horror movie makes you feel unsafe,” Michael Koresky, the co-founder of the Museum of Moving Image’s house publication, Reverse Shot, wrote in an email. Koresky is a fan of the “Insidious” movies, explaining that watching the original was like “a breath of fresh air amid the fetid field of reactionary early-21st-century horror, which had become reliant on gruesome torture. Every time a face appeared after a shock cut, I remember feeling played like a piano — thrillingly so.”
Wilson wasn’t an especially big fan of the genre when he first signed on to “Insidious.” He considers himself a generalist. “I grew up with Indiana Jones and ‘Star Wars,’” said Wilson, who just turned 50, adding that his taste in film was shaped by outings to the multiplexes around Tampa Bay, Fla., where he was raised with his two older brothers.
“I was into horror movies that transcended genre — ‘Salem’s Lot,’ ‘Jaws.’” His eyes widened: “‘Poltergeist.’ I remember when I was a kid, our house was robbed. Absolutely no connection to the ‘Poltergeist,’ but the way my brain processed that event, the terror I felt when we got home and realized our house had been invaded, my memory embedded the two things together.”
For “The Red Door,” Wilson knew he wanted Dalton to be an artist, invoking the horror archetype of the gloomy kid drawing morbid images in crayon — only Dalton, at 18, has decided to make a career out of it. “Going to any kind of arts school is spiritually taxing,” Wilson said, recalling his years in Carnegie Mellon University’s acting conservatory. Under the tutelage of a demanding professor (Hiam Abbass from “Succession”), Dalton is encouraged to dig into his inner life to fuel his work, which teases the Further’s fiends out of hiding.
Wilson routinely travels to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to lead acting workshops. “I’ve always been comfortable with instructing others,” he said, explaining that he may not be a “film school guy” but he does know a thing or two about how the camera creates images.
“I’m always conscious of my relationship to the camera when I act — what is the lens size? How is it moving? I made my actors watch themselves because what you feel and what the audience sees can be different things.”
Josh, terrified that he’s perpetuating the mistakes of his own father, tries desperately to find the cause for his instability. In one eerie sequence, he gets an M.R.I. When he’s in the machine, the lights cut off, and the camera approximates the patient’s woozy point of view — total vulnerability, meaning something’s just around the corner.
Set primarily on a college campus, the film also pokes fun at the fragility of men who try incredibly hard to seem, well, masculine — like the toxic fraternity brothers floating in Dalton’s orbit. Wilson’s own statuesque appearance — I told him I still think of him as the “prom king,” the name given to him by the lusty neighborhood mothers in “Little Children” — might seem to group him with this lot. With “The Red Door,” Wilson made a point to engage with the cultural conversation about masculinity. Being a father to two sons means he’s constantly thinking about what it means to promote a healthy identity for young men.
“Men have a hard time sharing how they feel, me included,” Ty Simpkins wrote in an email. He and Wilson have something of a longstanding father-son bond: Simpkins’s first role was as the prom king’s jester-hat-wearing toddler in “Little Children,” and Wilson “even shared a beer with me on my 21st birthday,” Simpkins added.
Wilson perked up when I asked him about his love of rock music, another personal touch he weaves into his directing debut. Listen closely and you’ll hear him singing over the end credits to the heavy-metal stylings of the Swedish band Ghost. Wilson seemed giddy to join the small ranks of directors who sing songs in their own movies. He cited John Carpenter and “Big Trouble in Little China” as an inspiration.
When Mike Nichols cast him in “Angels in America,” Wilson said the director talked to him about Paul Newman’s career. “Being a movie star is hard, he told me. You go where it takes you. To enjoy doing one of the opportunities given to you — that’s a privilege.”