It doesn’t take a lot to scare me; I have to be honest. Particularly as I’ve gotten older, I find that horror in TV and Film is affecting me much more. I still absolutely love horror films; I just find them more distressing these days. Is that because I am older? Or are current horror films just better at delving into what scares me? The idea of a man in a hockey mask walking after me doesn’t particularly fill me with dread. But the idea of being haunted by something vicious and inhuman does—as does being kidnapped and waking up surrounded by traps. And also ventriloquist dolls, they’re just plain evil.
So maybe that’s why I find the films of James Wan so disturbing. Has this visionary horror director found a way to torment the current generation of horror fans, who no longer fear what they did in the ’80s? And what is it about his direction style that works so well at scaring the living crap out of us? That’s what I intend to investigate, so join me as I look back at some of James Wan’s most terrifying films, whether he directed, produced, or helped artistically, to see if I can pinpoint what makes this horror icon such a triumph at the box office.
The first time I got to watch Saw, I was left feeling both physically drained and amazed. It felt like horror had become predictable and mundane at that time. Seeing this film with its twists and great effects was a breath of fresh air. I remember a lot of scenes from this film vividly. Adam using the flash on his camera to light up his blacked out apartment, the first time we see the legendary jaw ripping helmet, the barbed wire maze, and the final scene. My God that was great the first time. Tobin Bell as the Jigsaw killer is up there with the horror greats for me, alongside Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. There are people out there who claim they saw the twist coming, but I do not believe them. That reveal in the final scene was mouth open, eyes wide shocking. As that now iconic music builds to its crescendo, and John Kramer growls “Game over” and slams the door shut…I have goosebumps just remembering it!
Saw was an incredible start to one of my favourite horror franchises, and catapulted James Wan into the public eye. His vision of horror and the way he made us fear the man sat next to us on the bus, as opposed to the mask-wearing killer with the kitchen knife, was genius. He also brought a new feeling into horror: guilt. John Kramer only focuses his attention on people wasting their lives. Criminals, adulterers, drug addicts, he shines a spotlight on people self-destructing and makes them decide between becoming a better person or death. It leaves you asking yourself if he would target you. Wan had a vision of modern horror that was revolutionary. Saw delivered this vision with the clanging of rusted metal and blood-curdling screams. This was the first film of his that I watched, and since then I’ve always heard that heart-pounding music whenever I see ‘directed by James Wan’ at the start of a trailer.
Dead Silence (2007)
Now if there’s one thing that’s scared me since I was a child, it’s ventriloquist dummies. I know who to blame for that fear: R. L. Stine. Night of the Living Dummy was one of the only Goosebumps books to actually scare me as a child, and that fear has lingered in the back of my mind for all these years, just waiting for a reason to resurface. So when I saw the trailer for Dead Silence, James Wan dragged those memories to the forefront of my mind and made me face them all over again.
It was an incredibly creepy film, and the use of dolls in it just made me feel so uncomfortable. The main doll, Billy, is extremely creepy. When you couple him with the ghost of Mary Shaw (Judith Anna Roberts), a ventriloquist who was murdered by an angry lynch mob, you get a very intimidating duo. The film has some great scares, and while the plot may not be as ironclad as Saw, it’s still a great movie. Wan also manages to sneak in another twist, which keeps the story interesting.
What I love most about Dead Silence is the tension and atmosphere Wan creates. The scenes in which we feel something scary is about to happen build the tension well, to the point you feel like you can’t bear it much longer. One scene I remember in particular is where loveable old man Henry (Michael Fairman) is searching the space beneath his house for his wife. The small door closes behind him. As he bangs on it frantically with his fists, the music in the scene just stops; silence.
Hearing him banging the door with no score in the background is unsettling enough. But then we hear Mary call to him in Billy’s voice. Then your skin turns to ice. It’s a great scene that sets the tone for future Wan films, and looking back at it now it could easily fit into The Conjuring (2013) universe he has created. Dead Silence isn’t as good as Wan’s later supernatural films, but it’s still great. It’s good to see how he started to develop his filming style from this point onward.
Onto the first film in the James Wan collection to truly mess me up. I went into the cinema expecting something good when Insidious was released. I knew it was James Wan; it looked supernatural. And it was horror. What I didn’t realize was that it would leave me feeling like I didn’t want to sleep again. Ever. This film made me so paranoid about slipping into The Further, the place between life and death reached through out of body travel during sleep, that it was weeks before I could sleep properly again.
That wasn’t the only thing that stood out for me in this film. The scares were genuinely terrifying, and not just good old jump scares, more like WTF scares. The red-faced demon, the guy pacing outside the window suddenly being inside the room, and the dancing boy. Jesus Christ! That dancing boy was such a simple idea, but it truly terrified me. It also made me see Tiny Tim in a whole new light.
The Insidious franchise has gotten weaker in its later films I feel, but the world Wan has created within the films is a truly terrifying place. Having Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street), at its forefront was a great move. She’s a great actress, and her portrayal of Elise is fantastic. She is the light in this pitch-black world of Insidious. Without her ongoing role in the films, I don’t think they would have worked so well.
The ghostly woman Patrick Wilson’s character Josh has been haunted by since childhood is spookily similar to Mary Shaw from Dead Silence, which as a fan I loved. James Wan’s vision of The Further is horrifying; a pitch-black version of the real world, filled with the souls of the dead waiting for their chance to get back to the living. The idea of accidentally getting there through sleep still scares me to this day. I’m still hopeful that more Insidious films could come about and that they’ll explore the idea of The Further in more detail. Come on James, give us more of the dark stuff!
The Conjuring (2013)
Now onto my favorite franchise of the Wan collection, The Conjuring. This film has so many elements that I love; it is easily one of my top ten favorite horror films of all time. The retro filming style, stellar cast, and the absolute horror shown in some of the scenes. The Conjuring is a powerhouse of storytelling and scares. It was such a great story that it spawned multiple spin-off films focusing on minor characters like Annabelle the haunted doll and Valak (Bonnie Aarons), the demon posing as a ghastly nun. The Conjuring takes elements from previous films and blends them seamlessly into what I think is the perfect horror film. I also loved the sequel, The Conjuring 2 (2016) just as much as the first film, which is rare for horror. What I love most about these films though is the fact that they are based on real-life reported hauntings, and feature real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The Warrens were famous for their investigations, perhaps most remembered for being involved in the Amityville haunting, which itself led to a book and several film depictions. Played in The Conjuring universe by Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed), the Warrens are what hold these films together. I was already a huge fan of Vera after her work on Bates Motel (2013-2017), and seeing her in these films was a real treat for me.
Credit is also due to the families portrayed in both films, played by actors including Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol), Ron Livingston ( Office Space) and Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park). Each character is portrayed excellently, especially the children in both films, and this helps build the characters into believable people. Wan makes you care about these families, so it’s all the more distressing to see them tortured by malevolent spirits and demons. These kinds of films don’t work unless you care about the characters, and The Conjuring films are great examples of horror done right.
First appearing as a side story in The Conjuring, Annabelle has continued being the scariest doll in town. She has three of her own films so far with the third in cinemas right now. She is terrifying just to look at, making Billy from Dead Silence seem positively cute. The Annabelle films tell a very dark story, entirely separate from The Conjuring. We get to see how Annabelle was created, how the doll came to be possessed, and also some of the horrors she, and the demonic force attached to her, have caused over the years. While the Annabelle films never feel as deep or intense as The Conjuring, they’re still great movies. The scares come in by the bucket load. I think these films show how good Wan is at taking a small idea and developing it into a fully realised world. Annabelle was just a small part of The Conjuring but now has more films under her belt than the film she first appeared in.
What works best about the Annabelle series is how well they fit into the James Wan brand. He’s a master of making us fear everyday things like seemingly ordinary people, sleeping, and dolls. Billy from Dead Silence planted the seed, but Annabelle has sealed the deal. Dolls are something to fear. I remember some of the scenes in the first Annabelle film being just as shocking as Saw or Insidious. One scene, in particular, shows the main character, Mia smashing the doll against the side of her baby’s crib after the baby goes missing. She throws the doll across the room, but when she looks over at where it landed, her baby is laid there instead.
The viewer’s heart sinks as you believe she’s just beaten her baby to death. It turns out it was a cheeky prank played by Annabelle, but the first time I saw that scene I was speechless. Annabelle may not be as good as some of the other films in his catalogue, but Wan proves in these films that he knows how to grab your attention and keep a hold of it despite the terror you’re being made to look at.
The Nun (2018)
The most recent spin-off from The Conjuring universe gives us an origin story for the demon Valak, also known as The Nun. This demon was the dark force behind the hauntings seen in The Conjuring 2, and this film explains how it came to appear as a nun. The story is nothing to write home about, but it’s still a fun ride with the usual scares we have come to expect from a film associated with Wan. Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story) takes the leading role as Sister Irene, and as much as I love her, I did find it confusing to cast her. She looks so similar to her older sister, Vera, that I expected the film to imply that Sister Irene was a long lost relative of Lorraine Warren, who Vera portrays in earlier films. I almost expected them to reveal Sister Irene was Lorraine Warren. In the end, it turns out they’re not related at all. The pranksters behind the film pulled the old smoke and mirrors to a tee, explaining in an interview that the casting choice was intentionally misleading.
Valak is one of my favorite demons from Wan’s collection, because of the way it looks and because of the religious implications featured in The Nun. Nothing tickles my horror G spot more than a bit of religion. That’s why it’s a shame that Wan didn’t direct The Nun, as it doesn’t live up to the standard set by The Conjuring. I love the film, don’t get me wrong, it just didn’t have the same long-lasting effect on me that its predecessor did. To give Taissa her dues, she plays the part fantastically, as do her co-stars Demián Bichir (A Better Life) who plays Father Burke, and of course the wonderful Bonnie Aarons, who plays Valak herself. She’s a fantastic actress, and this isn’t the first time she’s played an iconic yet horrific character. As well as Valak, she played the infamous Bum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. A small part, but one that had a massive effect on viewers.
After looking back at some of the best James Wan films, it’s clear to me why he’s the master of modern-day horror. His casting choices are impeccable, and he understands the use of tension building. He knows when to show us a flash of something horrific and when to make the viewer stare at it for long enough to make us cringe with fear. His filming style is gorgeous.
He also knows a good score when he hears one. The music used in Saw and Insidious is wonderfully dread-inducing. He has an innate understanding of what today’s audience is afraid of, and he loves to push it to the limits. The Conjuring will always be my favorite, but I look forward to what else he has to offer. What else should we be afraid of? With Annabelle Comes Home in cinemas now, and rumours of a fifth Insidious film in the works, fans won’t be sleeping well for quite some time. But until any solid facts are revealed, I’ll just tiptoe through the tulips…