James Wan: A Retrospective


 Editor’s Notes: The Conjuring is now opened in wide release. For our thoughts on the film, read Julian Wright’s review.

James Wan has been around for a while and started a long famous franchise that gave us a story that satiated everyone’s inherent need for gore. When you debut with Saw which turns into a seven film franchise that rakes in millions and millions then there’s obviously a talent there waiting to be harvested. After Insidious was released, Wan became a big name in horror along with writer Whannell who have now done a sequel due for release this year. Along with that, Wan has been snapped up by the Fast & Furious franchise after Justin Lin dropped out of the seventh one to have a break and focus on other projects. This is a huge deal for someone who’s only ever directed a small action film and mainly horrors. It’s all coming up Wan but why has it taken almost a decade for everyone to pay proper attention? Looking back at his back catalogue shows that he’s a talented indie director who looks to finally break into the top tier of blockbusting directing.


It originally started back in 2000 with a feature named Stygian. Its lack of release saw it only go to Melbourne Underground Film Festival where it won “Best Guerilla Film” but it didn’t gain distribution. Where his career really gained traction was with the 2003 Saw short film which was then turned into a feature film from there. As we know it exploded in popularity with the studio doing six successful sequels. This was the beginning of a man with a talent who, at first, hyper stylised his worlds. In Saw, we witness extreme colours and set designs which are slightly overdone to the point of cartoonish. This was due to the rather timid budget of $1.2m that saw make-up effects on a Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) in the late third of the film distracting from the previous quality of the special effects. There, Wan and Whannell found a way to amplify gore without being gory for the sake of it. They came up with clever ways to kill that were interesting challenges which were sick thoughts basing thoughts on how they’ll go and why they’re the chosen ones. Not only is it an effective horror film but it’s a film with a different and intriguing narrative that leaves you dumbfounded by its climax. Interesting enough to have him and Leigh to executive produce 2, 3 and 4 but not the rest due to other projects seeing the franchise go downhill until its eventual 3D spattering finale.

Wan’s style was going to become more refined in the year of 2007 where he tackled two different films; a supernatural thriller and a violent action film starring Kevin Bacon. The first was a story about a man who loses his wife after a ventriloquist dummy shows up at his front door. This prompts him to return to his home town closely followed by Donnie Wahlberg as a detective who has him as his prime suspect. This is where the director found his talent for making every single object in the house eerie and creepy - never has a kettle seemed so spooky. It would’ve been much more effective if it wasn’t filled with boring characters and overly coloured which detract from an inherent creepy horror film. If only there was someone who could come in and clean up the dialogue and add a little more to performances which are less animated than the ventriloquist dummies. It incorporates a great story which is overdone with the final reveal that isn’t explained properly enough in terms of the supernatural rules it has set up. If Wan was maybe a bit better casting wise or Whannell had perfected his dialogue like his storytelling ability then Dead Silence would be a lot, lot better. There are times where it’s difficult to watch without clinging to a pillow for dear life. It does pull on the fear and mistrust we have in porcelain dolls and their frozen haunted faces that stare but it manages to elevate it above a cheap scare tactic.


Death Sentence is a low-key action film about a man transformed by grief after witnessing the murder of his son by a man initiating himself into a gang. It was a gritty thriller that’s held together by an amazing performance by Kevin Bacon and without that probably would’ve faded a bit into nothingness. This memorable turn completely elevated the flick into a good violent action piece with a love of showing the gory end of a life. One scene in a multi-story car park has some outstanding and interesting camerawork which shows Wan is innovative and different in his shooting style. It plays out like a sequential shot even moving from floor to floor seamlessly. It then climaxes with a completely different but completely great action sequence which is easily the highlight of the film. The film isn’t as tight as his others and the running time drags on a little bit too long but it even makes scenes within it too short because of the time spent on superfluous ones. One that don’t reveal too much about the characters or any significance. There’s even a theme that could be explored when Garrett Hedlund explains how the media works for the social classes which could’ve been explored a little deeper and been a bit more prevalent to have a real message come from the violence in the film. It’s by no means a bad film but it isn’t a great film; it has the promise of a talented, different director willing to explore. It has a few chases - one which involves falling over too much - and it leads to a finale much like Taxi Driver in hyperrealism. All of this point towards a pretty decent choice for the man tackling the giant hyper actioner of the Fast franchise.

The year 2010 saw James and Leigh collaborate once again with the successful Insidious which features a divisive third act. Although the third act may seem a little convoluted or out there it’s hard to take it away from a film that is ambitious which is refreshing to see in a genre that’s often criticised of being stagnant or typical. It took it to new interesting depths by telling a story of a normal family that have their problems that move into their new house and are then tormented by a demon. For those who haven’t seen it, there’s more to it which is answered in the third act which is definitely worth seeing as it is a good reveal, one which was a bit of a surprise on a first viewing to enjoy it fully. It’s a side you appreciate much more when you realise the filmmakers attempts at doing something new which does pay off. It must have since the audiences crammed the theatres, loving every scare. This was by far the definitive film which has now cemented his style. The dolly establishing shots in skewed angles to show the distorted world we’re about to inhabit. Then there’s the empty rooms with slow zooms, lingering camerawork, silence, clever sound mixing, all blending together and lending a hand in crafting an atmosphere for effective earned scares. It’s also where the colouring isn’t overly saturated and he has good performances from his cast which successfully inhabit their characters. Previous films were stunted by stilted scripts but that was no longer the case as practice makes perfect. They’re real characters which have more of a backing but it’s more the able performances of a successful cast that can really dig their nails into a horror character to add loss in the conflicts.


Wan has an appetite for violence, there’s no doubt about that. From the gore heavy Saw which sees buckets of blood, limbs detached, squirming and interesting, intriguing ways to pass on. This is the most violent of the films but even when he cuts the rating down there’s bloodless violence. Insidious contains violence which was tamed down from the script to gain a lower rating. The script contained a lot of profanity which was recurring but got cut down to a vampiric scream. Demons beat, claw and terrorise houses which ends in throat-gripping rage. Patrick Wilson is entirely fascinating as a family man learning of a horrified past that he had suppressed beforehand. His journey, spiritual and physical, is one of the most interesting arcs in a Wan film which mostly focuses on story rather than people. Even Saw - which revolves around a character torturing ungrateful people with disturbing pasts - focuses on the cleverness of the story instead of the characters who inhabit which are basically plot devices alone. They may have intriguing back stories but it’s all about the cleverness of Jigsaw who is a manipulative murderer with means but seemingly no reason. It’s all about the murderer’s ingenious ways of massacring. Wan strips everything down to almost by-the-numbers but somehow making its strength and not is weakness. Every piece of violence isn’t for the sake of it but out of necessity; to hammer a point or to affect the viewer in a genuine way.

The Conjuring has been touring the festivals so far and received great reactions which are overwhelmingly positive. They say he takes the clichés, the tropes, and makes them effective as well as own. This will be the first we see of this year in a period set chilly horror based on the “real” events of psychics Ed and Lorraine Warren and the case they never revealed because it was too devastating… until now. This makes everything that is tired and has been tried and tested in the horror genre by rejuvenating it with a skilled man helming the moments who earns his scares, who creates an atmosphere, who has the talent to explore new and old. Then, after that, we have Insidious: Chapter 2 out September which gives us a double helping. We return to tip toe around the window of the Lambert family’s house to explore the demonic possession angle once again which one hopes is a calculated extension rather than simply a financial one. The first trailer has proven effective with audiences and critics alike, the first even hinted towards a sequel, but whether or not it is a natural one remains to be seen yet. With Wan and Whannell going from strength to strength, there’s no doubt that this will be an effective addition to the story which may even top the original. Alas, time will tell. Then we have him behind the wheel of the Fast franchise and pitting the crew in its final confirmed outing - for now - which pits the team against The Stath, the brother of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who is out for revenge. The crew then face off probably somewhere exotic with cars, destruction and a grandiose ending to the franchise. Maybe. Regardless, the next two years are coming up Wan and who knows what project he’ll jump to next. Whether it’s horror or something different, there’s a talent and a keen intellect to create an atmosphere and a style to his films that will surely penetrate more and more genres successfully as he gains more experience. On IMDb, MacGyver is listed as a project in development and that is something no one wants to see because he was a parody character that had a decent television run. He is not a cinematic character - even with talented people creating the story it’ll struggle. Regardless, we should look forward to his next three films and anything else that may be confirmed between then and now. James Wan is a young talent whose success is marvellous and brilliant to see; a talented indie filmmaker breaking through even further by telling a story well. Here’s to many more stories.

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I'm a twenty year-old film-lover, full-time procrastinator and rambler. There's too little time to accomplish everything.