As one of the few people churning out consistently frightening horror films (an all-too-rare thing), before proving he’s no one-genre guy when he blew the box office apart with Furious 7, James Wan has become one of my favourite directors working today.
With the upcoming release of The Conjuring 2, I thought it would be a good time to rank his films so far.
7. Death Sentence
Hardly anyone’s seen Death Sentence. Featuring Kevin Bacon is a family man who goes all one man army on a group of thugs who murdered his son, It’s an interesting, if flawed, little revenge picture, An enjoyably nasty performance from Garrett Hedlund and a terrific single-take foot chase stand out, and the frolicsome approach to the direction gives the impression Wan was letting off some steam after the tight, controlled method he necessarily deployed in Saw, yet it’s sometimes too chaotic for its own good.
Still, it’s worth a look in as the one film in Wan’s back catalogue, excluding the upcoming Furious 7, which sees him depart from straight-laced horror.
6. Insidious Chapter 2
There’s a lot of great stuff in Insidious Chapter 2. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are on top form – Wilson is particularly great as a possessed husband descending into Jack Torrence levels of madness – and a little sequence involving Dalton (Ty Simpkins) speaking into a tin can telephone to who he thinks is his little brother, only to discover the other end is lost in a dark cupboard, is terrifically spooky. The whole thing is also rather cleverly tied into the events of the first film, but it falters through too much explanation, by giving an in-depth background to the scariest ghoul of the first film and treating large portions of the plot like an episode of Scooby Doo.
Chapter 3, helmed by writer and long-time collaborator Leigh Whannell, is set to focus on a different set of characters while bringing some of the existing ones across, and it looks to have potential. Hopefully it gets right the few things Chapter 2 gets wrong.
5. Dead Silence
2007 was a year of anonymity for James Wan, as his second least seen film released just a few months before his least seen film Death Sentence. Yet Dead Silence, rightly, has developed something of a cult following since then. True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten plays a recently widowed man who must return to his sleepy hometown in search of answers surrounding her death, only to discover that a creepy ventriloquist’s doll he mysteriously received shortly before her passing could have played a menacing part.
There are some creepy moments, but the reason Dead Silence has garnered the kind of love that Death Sentence could only dream of is its slightly irreverent and playful undertones. It’s a film which has fun with being a bit camp and overcooked, epitomised by the wonderfully hammy performance from Donnie Wahlberg as the cop who follows Kwanten around on suspicion of murder, but spends most of the time making fun of him. Hidden gem might be a step too far, but this is a really fun little flick.
4. Furious 7
Wan did such a brilliant job of not just finishing production on one of the year’s biggest movies after the death of the film’s biggest star, but finishing it so respectfully. Who would have ever guessed a Fast & Furious movie would move us to tears?
His first real foray into a new genre is also barrels of fun. Mad, bonkers, car-parachuting fun, with a bit of Kurt Russell for good measure.
The film that started the whole blood-splattered franchise is also the film that started James Wan’s career – and what a film it is. Saw gained plaudits for its originality and utilization of thrills and smarts in such a confined setting; the film largely takes place within one dingy bathroom as two characters, chained to opposing walls, try to figure out who put them there and why. As opposed to the increasingly desperate sequels, Saw is so much more about the ideas and subtext than the traps set out by Jigsaw; it doesn’t revel in the violence but deploys it as a grave last resort for thoroughly depleted characters. The twist too, somewhat spoiled by now, remains terrific and (at one time) unexpected.
Insidious arrived after a three-year hiatus and, not unlike Matthew McConaughey’s resurgence, re-established James Wan’s credentials in the genre (not that he was ever questioned). It instantly leapt towards the top of my favourite horrors list through its unbearable foreboding throughout; it’s a film with presence, where evil seeps through the walls and up through the floors, suffocating us like the mist of The Further, and we genuinely believe these entities haunting the Lambert family mean to cause them harm. We don’t know where they’ll come from next, we never feel secure, and it’s this displacement of safety that makes us feel so scared and vulnerable.
There is, admittedly, the odd misstep (the lipstick demon in his workshop strays a bit too close to Jeepers Creepers territory), but for the most part it remains on the right tracks. Malevolence pulses through the film’s veins, Joseph Bishara’s score is skin crawling, and it’s atmospheric beyond belief – a signature characteristic of Wan’s work. In fact, in one of my more embarrassing moments, the first time I watched it I bruised the side of my chest from gripping so fervently.
1. The Conjuring
Based on a real case of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring is Wan’s highest grossing film to date, and his most well received critically. It probably struck a chord with critics for hearkening back to the heyday of horror and films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Changeling with its retro 70s visuals and soundtrack, and it struck a chord with audiences for being genuinely scary. The case it’s based on was supposedly so freaky that neither the Warrens nor the Perrons (the family living in the house) had spoken of it for years after. Blimey, if half of what happens in the film happened in real life, I don’t blame them.
Witches lurking on wardrobes, cupboards locking people in and games of ‘clap, clap’ going awry are prominent, and with a smashingly good cast of Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor to provide firm grounding, The Conjuring is one of the most effective and enjoyable horror films in years.