James Wan is one of the best horror directors working today. He has absolute command of the craft and has proven himself capable of jumping from big blockbusters to smaller genre fare with ease. Not many filmmakers are able to make their debut in such a massively explosive way as he did, jumping into the game with the game-changing “Saw.”
Making a movie that changes how movies are made and what kind of movies are made is rare for even the most professional of filmmakers, but to do so the first time out is wild. After a commercial stumble in 2007 with two movies that weren’t too well received, he took time to realign himself and come back full bore. And that he did, not stopping since 2010 with movie after movie that just kick ass.
A horror wunderkind that is now a go-to blockbuster filmmaker, he has staked one hell of a claim for himself in Hollywood as a jack of all trades. With the upcoming release of “Jigsaw,” the eighth entry in the iconic franchise he kicked off 13 years ago, it seems like a perfect time to look back at his work and see where they land in his overall oeuvre.
8. Dead Silence (2007)
This is the only one of Wan’s movies that could be argued as bad. Everything else he has is inarguably at the very least good. This one, even by his admission, is a weak flick and that’s thanks to jumping into production without a script or a real sense of a story.
Wan and writing partner Leigh Whannell wanted to do something involving dolls that would feel like a Bava movie. That was all they had, and after the heat of “Saw,” they were given the go-ahead to do whatever they wanted. But they had to do it quickly, and it shows. Not in the filmmaking itself, which is pretty stellar from Wan. The atmosphere is rich and the visuals are gorgeous. The acting for the most part is pretty good too. What keeps this movie from being anything more than a visual treat is the script.
Regardless of the reasons why the script isn’t good, the movie has to be judged on its own terms and it’s not strong. Nonsensical plotting and a dopily perfunctory twist at the end just make it feel as half-baked as it really was. The movie isn’t unwatchable and it isn’t without merit. You can see Wan grow as a filmmaker and he wouldn’t be who he is today without going to war on this movie. The visuals are on point. Some of the scares are pretty good too. But on a whole, the movie is too rickety to be anything more than an outlier in a career of otherwise strong storytelling.
7. Insidious Part 2 (2013)
This is a good movie. I just have to get it out of the way because of its low placement here, but it’s really good. It could have been lacking, as horror sequels aren’t always a guarantee from a quality perspective. Yet in Wan’s continuous trek to dominate Hollywood, this one succeeded from commercial and critical points.
It doesn’t hurt that the first movie ended in such a way that a sequel was all but necessary. And it picks up almost immediately after that movie ends, so this plays more like a continuation than a retread. Where that first one played like this wilder version of “Poltergeist,” this one is like “Poltergeist” by way of “The Shining.” It’s more about the war at play in the mind of Patrick Wilson’s patriarch, as he is being possessed by the entity he was hidden from as a child. Rose Byrne searches for the reasoning why this is all happening and how it came to find Patrick.
It’s a really well done sequel that builds and folds upon that original movie in some weird and wild ways. By tackling this entry in this way, he made a sequel worthwhile of the original. It doesn’t hurt that the characters in it are great and we care about them, so we truly are worried for them and want to see them survive this supernatural onslaught of crap. The only reason it isn’t higher on this list is because it doesn’t have that special something.
There is no truly iconic or masterfully executed moment that makes it stand out the way the rest of these movies on this list do. Its highs don’t reach the highs of his other works, but they don’t hit the lows either. It’s consistent and competent. So in a career of taking big swings, it doesn’t land as hard. But come on, this is a really good movie and a nice little piece he made in tandem with a horror classic that he would also release in 2013.
6. Death Sentence (2007)
This movie was part of that one-two punch in 2007 that put Wan on the ropes. It, like “Dead Silence,” did not light the world on fire. It didn’t do too well at the box office and its reception wasn’t that much better than “Dead Silence.” But something has happened. Over time, it has grown in esteem.
The movie’s failure of not being like “Saw” isn’t being held against it anymore, so it can be looked at on its own terms – and the movie is really goddamn good. Revenge movies of its ilk are hard to nail down these days, as the politics at the heart of them are very poisonous, usually playing off the fear the white middle class has of minorities. There’s a fantasy element of it to certain crowds and it usually plays as ugly.
Just look at the recent reception to the trailer for the upcoming “Death Wish” remake, itself a series that has not aged too gracefully. So Wan tackling an adaptation of a book by the author of that series is a dicey proposition. But since the author himself found that the movies of his work in the past have immensely misunderstood the point of the books, there was a chance for a smarter and more thoughtful filmmaker to really get to the heart of it.
And Wan does. This is not a movie that glorifies violence and goes to great lengths to showcase how revenge is a disease that destroys everyone. This plays more like “Death Wish” if it was thrown together with “Taxi Driver,” but less gritty and more stylized. Wan’s tackling of this material is great and is why it’s aging quite well. Not everything in here works.
The stuff with the family can be a little cheesy and Hollywood feeling, and there’s a good chunk of the stuff with Kevin Bacon and his family. Thankfully, though, as the movie progresses, there is less of that and more of the narrative so this portion doesn’t hinder it too much. And the stuff with Bacon and the revenge narrative is great. Wan really bites into this meal and gets everything he can out of it. He stages some real next-level set pieces and makes the violence mean and painful.
There’s nothing fun about this. The parking garage set piece is great and is a down-to-earth dry run for a set piece in “Furious 7.” The home invasion is horrifying. The final shootout in the gang warehouse is wild stuff. And all the while, it never loses sight of the point and ends on a truly down note. This whole ride was pointless for Bacon and he loses it all. It’s a great little movie and one that is rightly being reevaluated.
5. Furious Seven (2015)
Wan was an inspired choice to take over the Fast and Furious franchise when Justin Lin decided to step away from the series. But halfway through filming, a massive tragedy occurred.
Paul Walker died in a car accident and the whole movie had to be restructured to deal with that. Some judicious editing and cutting-edge tech had to help finish the movie. So there is some definite roughness to the movie with some obvious cuts and weird narrative propulsion. Jason Statham is added as the villain here and there’s a weird slasher movie feel to his plot, as he just shows up at inopportune moments and tries to kill them. It doesn’t feel exactly like they planned this.
There’s some just an odd feel to the movie that is unmissable, even if it doesn’t make it bad. Because this isn’t a bad movie. It’s a damn fine entry into this series with some great action beats and, as mentioned, Jason goddamn Statham.
The mountainside action set piece is a stunner, a real testament to how good Wan is in the action genre. He understands cinema to his core and it extends outside of horror. It’s a messy movie thanks to the off-the-set tragedy, but Wan’s strength as a filmmaker helps to overcome it and deliver one of the better blockbusters of 2015.