4. Insidious (2010)
Wan came back from a self-imposed exile after the failures of 2007 with a low-budget horror film from the then-burgeoning Blumhouse label that lit the world aflame. It was a massive hit and signaled to the world that Wan was back and he wasn’t a fluke. So while it may be a low-budget horror movie like “Saw,” this is nothing like “Saw.” On any level. This is a family-friendly haunted house movie that is filled with eye-popping visuals. “Saw” was a grimy little movie filled with brutality and nihilism. This is a movie filled with humanity and existential terrors.
On its surface, this is sounds like a shameless “Poltergeist” ripoff. And that’s fair. But what Wan and Whannell did is acknowledge that any haunted house movie in the wake of “Poltergeist” is going to be inspired by “Poltergeist.” But what they do here is twist the narrative and make it a haunted house movie that isn’t a haunted house movie. That it’s the child at the center of the narrative that is haunted is a wild and fresh twist.
There’s this whole mythology at the heart of this movie that makes it “Poltergeist” adjacent while doing it’s own thing involving astral projection and interdimensional monsters. The biggest difference here is that this movie is scary. “Saw” was not scary in a traditional sense, as there is no scare set pieces. It’s a blunt force movie whose power comes from the brutality and demented morality of its killer. This has scares that build and use the camera to build the tension until it explodes.
Wan shows a killer sense of filmmaking that was hinted at in “Dead Silence” and built upon in “Death Sentence.” The three years off proved that he was really trying to right the ship and he did. He’s been on a roll since, getting better and better. Here he has a killer script with a killer idea, a strong visual sense of the narrative, and a hell of a cast. We are lucky to have this movie in our world and lucky that it launched Wan back into the stratosphere.
3. The Conjuring (2013)
Wan showed a real talent for haunted house thrill rides with “Insidious” and he went back to that world in 2013 with decent success. But the fact that he made two movies in 2013 that are both haunted house movies, yet are both so different, is a real testament to his craft.
“Insidious” is this wild, color thrill ride, but “The Conjuring” is a more classic haunted house movie, feeling like a Hammer movie or one of those old school British flicks drenched with atmosphere and dread. Yet this one claims to be a true story, although it is quite clearly done as a ‘what if’ kind of movie. What if the Warren’s really were what they claimed? The collection of trinkets in their house is an ingenious bit of world building that makes them seem like superheroes who have gone on all these adventures.
There’s a heightened sense to the movie’s narrative with regards to the Warrens. They’re a great couple, but they aren’t the focus in this movie. It’s the family being terrorized and they’re great. Filled with great actors and given great grace notes to make them all too real and human, we care for them and want them to be fine. So when they are being beset by the masterfully executed set pieces, it’s all the more terrifying.
This is a movie that was so scary, the MPAA gave it an R rating just for that reason and said there is nothing that can be cut to garner anything else. Wan came in to make a more classic piece of cinema with a decent sized budget and made it feel bigger than that. It’s masterful filmmaking.
Much like “Insidious,” there’s a nice twist to make it different than a simple haunted house movie. It’s more an ‘exorcism’ movie. And that there are no deaths in the movie would seem like a cheat for a horror movie, but it goes to show how strong this is that no one dies and it is bloodcurdling.
There’s a stretch of this movie that is top tier horror. It’s when Lili Taylor ends up trapped in the basement to the moment the demon jumps off the top of the bureau. Wan made the best big budget horror movie with seeming ease. There’s no way he’d be able to top that, right?
2. Saw (2004)
The movie that started it all. James Wan’s debut and the movie that lit the world on fire. It came on the scene and turned the tide from mediocre remakes of greasy Japanese ghost girl movies to brutally realistic horror. For better or worse, it changed the course singlehandedly. It was a shot to the heart of horror that had been stumbling along since “Scream” came around in 1996 and crippled the genre.
Now, for as game changing and classic as this movie is, it’s a little rough around the edges. Technically speaking, it isn’t that surprising to find out that it’s the filmmaker’s first movie. It’s a movie of a very small scope and has to do what it can to hide how it’s reusing locales. The acting is pretty rough from Elwes and Whannell. It’s not amateurish as a movie, but it’s a bit rough. You can see from the sequels and from Wan’s future endeavors that Wan was not in complete control yet. But from a storytelling perspective? He seemingly came here fully formed.
This isn’t a movie that is a one-off from a uninspiring music video director. A lesser storyteller would have fumbled the big reveal and it wouldn’t have been as mind blowing to see that “dead” body stand up. It’s a truly unique movie that Wan came and killed it with. Its power overcomes the roughness. A true horror classic.
1. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Somehow, Wan managed to make a sequel to his horror classic and one-up it on almost every level. He never returned to “Saw” and he did one sequel to “Insidious” that was pretty good. But “The Conjuring 2” is unreal. There is an awe-inspiring quality to this movie; it’s even more visually luscious than the lush original. It’s split between the US and the UK and he has a different visual palette to signify the differences between them.
The story at hand is more emotionally investing and well told than the well-told original. Its handling of character is even better. It triples down on the horror set pieces of the original and seemingly never goes five minutes without a masterfully done set piece. It’s a weird structure to a movie, but one that never becomes unbearable and never loses sight of the humanity at the center of the story.
There’s a slight shift in narrative focus this time out. The first one split time between the haunted family and the Warrens with a lean toward the family. This time out, it leans more toward the Warrens and it makes the movie feel unique.
The Warrens are great characters and the true love they have for each other is palpable. Their journey gives this movie its charge, more so than another ‘family being haunted’ story, and these people are so good and pure that they do more than they need to in helping this family. There’s a truly iconic moment that has nothing to with horror – the Warrens trying to bring a little peace and warmth back to this family by singing an Elvis tune. Where else would you see that? Horror movies usually don’t have these little character moments.
It doesn’t hurt that the movie is damn near two and a half hours long, so it perfectly balances the horror and humanity. And what may be the most insane part of this whole thing is that everything with the demonic nun was all reshoots. That’s a good chunk of this movie and a good chunk of the narrative. Any other filmmaker wouldn’t have been able to wrangle the movie together with that much reshooting/restructuring to do. That he was able to turn it into this next-level horror movie is wild.