No genre has changed as frequently and drastically as horror. It seems that each decade brings in a new trend. Things start with a great movie and go downhill from there. For better or worse that tends to be how it works, but one of the great things that can happen is seeing a filmmaker rise to the top. Creating his own success with longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, there was no doubt that James Wan would rise to the top.
Known for smartly written, beautifully filmed scares, even the weakest of Wan’s filmography is still stronger than most attempts in the genre (pick almost any film from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes). While his recent films have strayed from horror, he owes his success to the genre, and it owes a lot to him. He has written, directed, and produced some of the best horror films in recent memory, so we’re taking a look at the movies he’s directed from the worst, or I should say weakest, to the best.
6. Dead Silence (2007)
Following the massive success of Saw, Wan would direct and cowrite his weakest horror film. Weakest doesn’t mean bad, and in fact Dead Silence is definitely scary to the right audience. It’s well made, even if it’s somewhat predictable, and while there isn’t too much to add to the scary doll premise, Wan and Whannell are able to find some clever turns in a story about a ventriloquist’s ghost. Boasting a plethora of creepy dummies and an impressive attention to detail, there’s just enough to forgive the weak script. For the people who have a fear of dolls, there is a lot to be afraid of here, but for the rest of the audience, there is plenty to appreciate.
5. Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
Wan tried something different and original with 2010’s Insidious and with Insidious: Chapter 2 he went even further. He took what was unique about the first movie, “the further”, and continued to explore that world. It is decidedly not as scary, or focused, as the original and tends to feel more like a thriller than it does a horror film. There are a lot of interesting pieces moving around, and I enjoyed seeing the creative connections to the first movie. It felt like there were a few exciting ideas and scenes for a sequel that were expanded to into a full movie leaving the resulting film a little choppy. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a nice follow up to Insidious, but it should have been better.
4. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Speaking of sequels, Wan absolutely nails what a sequel should be with The Conjuring 2. The film follow established, well loved characters through a different set of events without relying on the original film. This time we follow the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) across the pond as they help a family who is being tormented by a spirit. Chapter 2 brings more complexities and we are treated to character doubts, misdirections, and a welcomed focused on the Warren’s relationship. In fact, there are two things I remember most about this movie that I believe display its success. The first is a very effective scene where Ed Warren interviews a possessed girl. With Ed in focus in the foreground, the girl/spirit in the background is just out of focus enough for it to be unclear and very unsettling. The second is a moment of calm where Ed picks up a conveniently placed guitar and sings while Lorraine looks on. The deep emotion that comes across Farmiga during that scene speaks volumes and Patrick Wilson’s singing had me questioning my marriage.
3. Insidious (2010)
Around the time Insidious was released, most of the horror landscape was polluted with terrible remakes and there hadn’t been a fresh horror movie in years that managed to find success. Wan changed that with a refreshing and unique take on the haunted house. The lipstick demon in Insidious was a type of scary reminiscent of The Exorcist’s Pazuzu. The haunted house portion of the film was more universally liked than the divisive second half when they enter “The Further”. Did everything in “The Further” work? On second examination, not completely, but the chaotic, disorganized world was unsettling. It works best with less exploration (the problem with the sequels), but overall, Wan was near the top of his game with Insidious.
2. Saw (2004)
It’s not often that a horror movie comes along that changes the entire landscape of Hollywood. Movies like Psycho, Halloween, and Jaws undoubtedly changed the movie business and in 2004 Wan, along with Leigh Whannell, brought the world Saw. Thanks to its many sequels, people look back on Saw as being an overly gory movie about a guy whose idea of a game is to torture people. However, unlike the escalating sequels, the gore in Saw is pretty tame by today’s standards. Although its success can be held responsible for the explosion of over the “torture porn” subgenre, it is actually a smartly written, twisted crime drama. Horror was stalled in the early 2000s and Saw was enough to jolt it back into the public eye.
1. The Conjuring (2013)
Saw may have helped direct the modern horror genre, but our top spot today goes to The Conjuring. Wan took every bit of knowledge, appreciation, and experience from his ten years making horror movies, and created one of the best films of the decade. It had been years since we had an intelligent, scary and fun ghost story, and that is exactly what The Conjuring is. In fact, it was so popular and well made that we now have the Conjuring Universe. Whether or not that’s all necessary is a conversation for another time, but the first film is deserving of its own franchise. A lot of its success rests on Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as Lorraine and Ed Warren. Through each terrifying scene, like that clapping game, we are pulled back to Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. There is a heart there that you don’t get with other horror films and it helps make The Conjuring not only countlessly rewatchable, but James Wan’s best film.