James Wan broke onto the cinematic scene in 2004 with his new-wave splatter horror film, Saw. Since then, Wan has seen great success as a director. In the realm of horror, Wan has made a career of making movies that are terrifying, yet artistically made. He has also been regarded as one of the great horror directors of the 21st century. Outside of horror, Wan has also been able to make a mark in franchise blockbusters, having directed two films that have grossed over $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Wan has proven he is one of the most exciting directors working today, regardless of scale and budget.
Wan is not only one of my favorite horror directors working today, but one of my favorite directors in general working today. I get excited every time he has a new movie because he is always reinventing himself and coming up with new ways to scare us and giving us visually interesting films. With his new film, Malignant, coming out soon, I took the time to watch and rank the movies of James Wan. One thing I loved about this list was that there was no film that I truly disliked. In fact, even the lower-ranked films have some interesting things in them, which only shows just how good of a filmmaker Wan really is.
NOTE: I was unable to see his debut feature Stygian, as it is unable to stream anywhere and it did not have a proper theatrical release.
9. Insidious: Chapter 2
Insidious: Chapter 2 lands at the bottom of the list because this movie feels the least like a James Wan movie. The film takes place immediately after the events of Insidious where Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has been possessed and now the family must free him from the possession.
There are some solid jump-scares and Wan gives Wilson more to do than he did in the first Insidious, but the film and its horror get lost between the crossing of different dimensions and time traveling and a backstory about the ghost that’s haunting the Lambert’s home. The scares are mostly jump-scares and while some are effective, none of them stay with you for longer than a few minutes. The film also lacked a visual style that we’ve come to know from Wan’s films, making Insidious: Chapter 2 feel more like a generic Blumhouse horror movie than a horror film made by one of the great modern horror directors.
8. Death Sentence
The second of two films Wan released in 2007, Wan went a different direction from the horror of his first two films and made a dark, gritty, brutal revenge thriller. Based on the second book in the Death Wish franchise, Death Sentence looks at mild-mannered Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) who has his seemingly perfect life shattered when his son is murdered in a gang ritual. Stricken with grief, Nick transforms into a violent, vengeful man who will protect his family at all costs.
Bacon gives a committed and intense performance and we get a really fun and hammy performance from John Goodman. The first two acts of the movie are an interesting look at grief, guilt, and the effect of tragedy on a family. Unfortunately, all of Death Sentence’s interesting themes are thrown out of the window in the third act in place of over-the-top violence and brutality. Wan did, however, show some stylish flare that would become more prominent in his later films. I was most impressed by the parking garage sequence where Nick is being chased by the gang responsible for killing his son. The sequence is shot in one long take, moving up and down on different levels of the garage as we watch Nick try desperately to get away from the gang. It is one of Wan’s most impressive moments as a filmmaker and though Death Sentence may not entirely work, moments like this showed that Wan was a gifted filmmaker.
7. Dead Silence
Following the success of Saw, there was a lot of hype around Wan as a director. Much like audiences awaited for M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, many eagerly awaited Wan’s Saw follow-up. But when it was released, Dead Silence disappointed audiences or at least the ones that went and saw the film (it made $80 million less worldwide than Saw and barely broke its $20 million budget worldwide), and critics alike and looked like the director who rocked everyone’s world in 2004 may have been a fluke. It also didn’t help that two non-Wan directed Saw films had been released between the first film and Dead Silence, both being massively successful at the box office.
But the thing is, Dead Silence is good. I would argue that it is Wan’s most underrated film and one that deserves a rewatch. It is a fun and creepy horror movie revolving around a possessed ventriloquist dummy. Wan showed his mastery of sound mixing and editing while also giving us plenty of jump-scares to keep us on our toes. Is Dead Silence a genre game-changer? Definitely not. But it will creep you out enough to make you want to keep the lights on at night and avoid ventriloquist dolls at all cost.
Both Dead Silence and Death Sentence were critical and financial duds upon their releases in 2007, but Wan made a swift comeback in 2011 with Insidious, a terrifying possession film starring Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as the parents of a family who just moved into a new house where their son becomes possessed. Wan doesn’t hold back the terror in this one, starting from minute one and not stopping until the very end. Wan’s films previously had dealt with a torturous maniac and a haunted ventriloquist doll, but Insidious takes us to a new spiritual world. The otherworldly aspect of Insidious took Wan to new levels of horror beyond the real world and into something more dark and sinister.
Though the non-stop terror of Insidious is a lot of fun to watch and keeps your heart rate up for over an hour-and-a-half, the characters in the film are pretty thin, which is surprising coming from Wan, a director that has shown a great deal of care for his characters throughout his career dating back to Saw. Still, even with thinner characters than usual, Wan solidified himself as a stylish filmmaker who could scare the hell out of us.
5. Furious 7
Furious 7 was new territory for Wan. Up until this point, Wan had never worked on a movie with a budget over $20 million and he was directing an entry in a franchise that had already been established and had just seen the franchise hit its peak. It was a lot of pressure on Wan to continue the success the Fast and Furious franchise had seen with its previous two installments, Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6.
Wan’s work on Furious 7 is some of the most impressive of his career. As far as the film goes, Wan took the franchise to a new level in terms of scale and insanity. Furious 7 features some of the biggest action sequences in the franchise and one of the series’ best villains in Deckard Shaw (an ultra-badass Jason Statham). Though Wan had worked mostly on much smaller scales previously, he showed that he understood scale and scope, ensuring that Furious 7 wasn’t just as big as the previous film, but bigger. Furious 7 is non-stop fun and one of the best in the franchise.
But it was Wan’s handling of the tragic and untimely death of Paul Walker that was most impressive. Using archival footage of Walker from previous films to complete his character arc, along with using CGI to digitally add Walker’s face on to his brother’s body, who was used as a stand-in, upped the budget and only added more pressure to Wan on how he was going to handle the ending of the film. Wan gave Walker a worthy sendoff. A poignant, moving finale to one of the franchise’s biggest players and an actor many loved. Led by the Wiz Khalifa ballad “See You Again”, it was a perfect, heartbreaking goodbye to an actor taken from us too soon.
Aquaman is a big, bold, silly, visual stunner full of action, spectacle, adventure, and world-building. This movie proved just how great Wan understands spacing and scale in his movies. He understood that the depths of Atlantis could be endless and he gave us an awe-inspiring new world that features magical cities, gladiatorial battles, drum-playing octopi, and, to quote the great Dr. Evil, “sharks with fricken laser beams attached to their heads!”. The underwater work is excellent, the visual effects are masterful (the fact that this movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination is a travesty), and the film features an epic, Lord of the Rings-like battle at the end between giant crabs, vicious seahorses, said laser-ready shark, and other sea creatures that will slap on a smile on your face in amazement and audacity.
Arguably the most genius aspect of Aquaman is that, besides the movie being a classic superhero origin story, is that it is a movie about this new Aquaman becoming the Aquaman everyone knew from the comics. When Zack Snyder introduced Aquaman in 2017’s Justice League, it was a very different take on the character everyone had known from the comics. Instead of it being the classic suit, trident, and blonde hair, we got a brute, long-haired, biker bro who wielded a five-point staff rather than a trident. Wan lets Mamoa’s personality and physicality shine in equal parts as Aquaman goes on a journey to become the true king of Atlantis, which includes wearing the orange and green suit and holding the mythical trident. This stroke of genius elevated Aquaman to one of the best films in the DCEU.
3. The Conjuring 2
The most terrifying aspect of The Conjuring 2 is that Wan sets moments of horror and terror during the daytime. In most horror movies, all of the horrors take place at night, giving the daytime scenes a moment for the audience to breathe a little bit. But in The Conjuring 2, Wan unleashes terror no matter the time of day. Wan flirted with doing this in Insidious and The Conjuring, but never fully committed to this idea and set most of the horror sequences in those movies at night. The effect of having the scares be set in the day, as well as the night, is endless tension. You never know when something is going to move or jump out. You sit on the edge of your seat knowing that no time of day is safe for our characters. Couple that with Wan’s brilliant use of sound and score, and you have a movie of non-stop suspense and horror.
Like all great sequels, The Conjuring 2 is bigger in every way. It brought us to a new location, gave us wilder set pieces, and it upped the terror to a new level. The Conjuring 2 brought Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to London to rid a house of a demonic spirit. The film features some truly terrifying sequences, but the Crooked Man scene is one that I will never forget. The Conjuring 2 is one of the best horror sequels I have ever seen.
Saw introduced a new voice in the cinematic universe in Wan and his voice was heard loud and clear. There was never a movie that looked or felt like Saw before it and, though many have tried, including the sequels, there has never been a movie that has looked or felt like it since. Wan’s intricate mystery plot is meshed with his hyperactive editing and unique camera movements to give viewers a unique horror experience that will have your head spinning and your heart pounding. This was our first glimpse at a filmmaker who understood spatial awareness, horror, sound, music and creating interesting characters and Wan would only get better from here.
Saw is an iconic movie for several reasons. It reintroduced the splatter horror genre into the mainstream, a subgenre that was huge in the 60s, 70s, and 80s that was known for its bloody, gory, and horrific violence. Following the release of Saw, the splatter genre would eventually turn into the “torture porn” subgenre, a subgenre that is still popular to this day. Saw also shook cinema-goers with one of the wildest and most shocking twists I have ever seen and one that still plays well after multiple rewatches. Saw would also go on to become one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, something I can’t imagine Wan or anyone would have ever predicted would have happened from this $1.2 million indie Sundance hit. Saw is one of the most important horror films of the 2000s.
1. The Conjuring
The Conjuring 2 might be one of the greatest horror sequels I have ever seen, yet it pales in comparison to the sheer brilliance of The Conjuring. Based on true events, Vera Farmiga and Wan-favorite Patrick Wilson star as Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators who look into terrifying happenings at the Perron family’s farmhouse in Rhode Island in 1971. Wan’s fifth feature film is a chilling and terrifying mixture of haunted house and exorcism movies, while also being immaculately made and smartly written.
The Conjuring is a horror movie that was made for every horror fan. People who want to go into a horror movie just to get scared will love it. Wan perfected his use of jump-scares and lingering suspense by using sound, editing, and knowing exactly the perfect time to drop the scare and the perfect time to cut to the next scene. As soon as the hauntings start and things start to get weird and scary for the Perron family, Wan has us in the palm of his hand, pulling the strings when he wants and stretching the tension until we couldn’t take it. Some images and sequences haunt you long after you’ve finished the movie, like the demon who is haunting the house vomiting blood into Carolyn Perron’s mouth, or the final exorcism scene, which is as intense and unsettling as the finale of William Friedkin’s masterpiece The Exorcist.
The Conjuring is also loaded with more than just scares. You have to marvel at how Wan uses the camera, keeping a lot of shots in deep focus so that we are seeing everything happening in the frame, which only heightens the suspense and tension because you never know where or when something can happen. Wan also has rounded, interesting characters that give the film an emotional center that makes you connect with them and root for them to get out of this situation. Wan even makes the Rhode Island home a character, allowing us into the home and know every room, hallway, and closet in the house.
The true testament of a great horror movie is how scary the film is on repeated viewings but also the ones that offer more than just scares. Classic horror movies like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and Halloween are terrifying no matter how many times you watch them, yet are also impeccably made with interesting themes and characters. The Conjuring is in a class with those greats. Masterfully made and scary as hell, The Conjuring is one of the great horror films of the 21st century and the best movie of James Wan’s career.
One of the true testaments to Wan as a filmmaker is looking at the Saw series and the latest Conjuring film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Wan only directed the first Saw film and did not direct the latest Conjuring film and you can feel his presence missing, None of the subsequent Saw films were as good as the first one and the recent Conjuring film failed to reach the heights of the first two that Wan directed. This just shows that there is something special about Wan’s filmmaking. Whether it be his use of space, understanding of scale, empathy towards his characters, or the crafty way he uses his camera, Wan is as special and exciting as any director working in Hollywood today.
So that’s my ranking of the movies of James Wan but I want to hear from you! What is your ranking of the movies of James Wan? What is your favorite James Wan movie? Let me know in the comments below!