The first horror film I ever watched came at 3 a.m., after I was shunted onto an overcrowded couch by a cohort of friends. As I watched the opening credits of “The Conjuring” play across the screen, I had no idea that I was about to be terrified by a movie for the first time in my life.
James Wan was born Feb. 26, 1977, and the world has been scared ever since. Although creative genius is hard to trace, it is worth noting that Wan came from a rather unique background, being born in Malaysia before moving to Australia at a young age. The box office extraordinaire broke out at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in 2000 when his first feature-length film, “Stygian,” won Best Guerilla Film.
Still far from a household name at the time, Wan worked with his friend, Leigh Whannell, to create a low budget film in 2004 called “Saw,” which was shot in an astoundingly short 18 days. Of course, the film would go on to become a pop-culture phenomenon and gross over $100 million worldwide. “Saw” won several awards, including the 2004 San Sebastián Horror and Fantasy Film Festival’s Audience Award and the 2004 Gérardmer Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize, and spurred seven more installments to the franchise.
“Saw” was also instrumental in inspiring a torture-movie craze, which was filled with films that failed to deliver the same nuances as Wan’s material and relied heavily on disturbing visuals. Eek.
Following the success of “Saw,” however, disaster hit in the shape of the 2007 horror film “Dead Silence,” which chronicled the story of a dead ventriloquist who steals the tongues of those he makes scream. The film was a financial and critical disappointment, and when Wan released another movie that year — this time not in the horror genre — called “Death Sentence,” it did not fare much better.
After taking a few years off, Wan reinvented his approach to horror with his 2010 smash hit “Insidious.” The first of his movies starring Patrick Wilson, “Insidious” featured distinctly different elements than his previous horror films: Gone were the days of excessive blood and gore, instead replaced with suspense and psychological thrills.
How different was this approach, you ask? Well, “Saw” originally scored an MPAA rating of NC-17 before Wan cut material to achieve an R rating. The new film, which tells the story of a boy who astral-projects himself into a sinister dimension and is haunted by a demon, was only rated PG-13.
“Insidious” was successful in its own right, securing just under $100 million. It was followed by 2013’s “Insidious: Chapter 2,” also starring Wilson, which garnered $161.9 million, proving that his unconventional approach to horror was not a fluke. Voila, Wan was here to stay.
However, it was Wan’s other 2013 film, “The Conjuring,” that cemented his status as a horror icon. The new film featured the supposedly real-life story of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s time with the Perron family, who were haunted by several malicious entities. The iconic poster, featuring a large, bent tree branch with a noose tied to it, quickly swept the internet. Almost overnight, the film was catapulted to the ranks of the horror elite, notching a place adjacent to all-time greats such as 1973’s “The Exorcist.”
Along a similar vein as the first two installments of the “Insidious” franchise, “The Conjuring” did not display obscene visuals. Instead, it was the almost the exact opposite; there was no nudity, no swearing and no gore to be found. Yet, it still managed to secure an R rating simply because the film was terrifying.
According to Netflix, the film is literally too scary for a significant amount of viewers to finish. Despite this, “The Conjuring” proved to be Wan’s most successful film at the time, raking in over $319 million.
The monumental film proved to be a catalyst for both Wan and the horror genre. Suddenly, a wave of knock-off movies were rushed into production, a trend that has continued to this day. Likewise, Wan became a hot commodity in the film industry: He produced “Annabelle” in 2014, which increased the scope of “The Conjuring” and featured the infamously creepy doll locked up in the Warren’s trophy room; and the following year, he took the helm on 2015’s installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “Furious 7,” which grossed a staggering $1.5 billion.
Although he took part in producing and directing several horror films after 2013, it wasn’t until 2016 that Wan took the world by storm again with “The Conjuring 2.” Once again, the new trademarks of a Wan horror film — no nudity, swearing or gore, just incredible pacing and a few well-timed jump scares — were at the forefront. The sequel beat its predecessor in the box office by a narrow margin, collecting $320.4 million. It marked the second time the Warren family, played by Wilson and Vera Farmiga, graced the big screen and promised much more.
Wan’s approach to “The Conjuring” universe was decidedly different than what other horror franchises had attempted. By including other films in the franchise, such as a 2017 sequel to “Annabelle” and “The Nun” in 2018, Wan displayed a conscious effort to creatively scare his audiences, instead of simply recreating the movie under a different name. While critics would agree that these installments did not match the level of intensity brought by “The Conjuring” or “The Conjuring 2,” they did provide the fans with better-than-average horror films to hold them over until a third movie is released.
Arguably, Wan has established himself on horror’s Mount Rushmore, beside legendary directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Although Feb. 26 will mark only his 42nd birthday, Wan has already been booked for numerous high-profile films. After the incredible success of his first superhero film, “Aquaman,” which made over $800 million overseas, Wan has shown his films can make vast sums of money, which undoubtedly will open the door for even more opportunities in cinema.
But Wan’s success with “Aquaman” does not mean he has any plans of forgetting the horror genre. A quick browse over his IMDb page reveals that he has several more terrifying exploits set to release in theaters, such as the upcoming “The Curse of La Llorona” and a third “Annabelle” film. He is also set to produce a movie on the haunting crooked man of “The Conjuring 2” and an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers,” in addition to his return as a director for “Aquaman 2.”
Since the release of “Saw” in 2004, Wan’s movies have sparked numerous cheap replicas that have oversaturated the horror market. After reinventing himself as a director and producer, Wan managed to revolutionize the industry with milestone movies such as “The Conjuring,” which spurred an impressive increase in haunting and possession movies. Thus, the evidence is in: When it comes to modern horror, look no further than the James Wan experience.