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Film

How James Wan revolutionised modern horror three times

@Russellisation

If Alfred Hitchcock changed the face of horror in the 1960s and Wes Craven infused the genre with a fresh dousing of creativity in the 1980s, then James Wan can certainly be attributed with revolutionising the subversive form of filmmaking in the new millennium. Crafting the genre to his own liking, Wan has had a profound effect on modern horror, influencing its every turn with the release of each and every one of his new projects. 

Pioneering the torture porn obsession of the early 2000s before leading horror down the path of the haunted house later in the decade, Wan became known as the genre filmmaker who was bringing class back to a genre that had long become cheap and trashy. The Malaysian-born Australian filmmaker didn’t do this through elaborate, high-brow horror, however, instead, he brought the thrilling terror of the carnivalesque haunted house to audiences across the world. 

Embracing originality without shying away from ‘jump scares’ that had long been considered ‘cheap’ by general audiences, Wan created a unique brand of horror that helped movie lovers embrace the genre once more. As the director told That Shelf, “Great jump scares are difficult to pull off and to do them well. To be able to do it with a very cynical audience today is an amazing achievement if you ask me”. 

Mixing genres and questioning constructs of modern horror, like a movie making Willy Wonka, Wan has consistently reinvented the medium of filmmaking through three definitive films.

Saw (2004)

Having only released the unrated film Stygian in 2000, by the time he came to helm the influential horror film Saw in 2004 with his friend Leigh Whannell, Wan didn’t have a foothold in the industry. 

Despite taking only 18 days to shoot, the low-budget horror flick that followed a maniacal serial killer who placed his victims in elaborate deathtraps was created for just $1.2 million took over $100 million worldwide, with the film’s shocking ‘torture porn’ elements helping it to become a viral pop-culture phenomenon. Inspiring eight sequels and reimaginings (none of which Wan would direct), Saw became a major horror franchise that became the face of violent American cinema throughout the 2000s. 

Inspiring a craze in torture porn, a subgenre of horror that focused on disturbing sequences of emotional distress and graphic bloody violence, Wan’s film led to the likes of Eli Roth’s Hostel in a gory revival of The Hills Have Eyes series in 2005 and copycat film The Collector in 2009. For a considerable amount of time horror was focused on this discriminatory subgenre, until Wan came in to change the genre once more in 2010.

Insidious (2010)

Blending several subgenres of successful horror eras, James Wan’s peculiar film Insidious was a carnivalesque haunted house featuring a theatrical showcase of varied ghouls and barbaric monsters all within the confines of a suburban American home. 

Having made two critical and commercial failures in 2007 with Dead Silence and Death Sentence, Wan reassessed his position before he returned to the horror genre in 2010. Having taken three years off, the director had once again reinvented his brand of horror, replacing the gore of the Saw films with the strange, visceral terror of the supernatural. Telling the story of a loving couple whose young son becomes the lure for evil spirits, trapping him within a dark otherworld named ‘the further’, Insidious once again became a popular commercial success for the filmmaker. 

Creating a new brand of horror that was both terrifying yet also somehow suitable for younger audiences, Wan earned the film a PG-13 rating in America, giving eager teenagers and curious children their first experience of thrilling terror. Despite its lavish appearance, Insidious was no bank-breaker either, made for just $1.5 million whilst hauling in just under $100 million at the worldwide box office. 

Bringing the haunted house mysteries of the likes of Amityville Horror and Poltergeist to modern audiences, Wan was also inspired by classic slasher villains like Freddy Krueger as well as the success of the supernatural low-budget thriller Paranormal Activity in the creation of Insidious that toys with the genre to its advantage. 

The industry took note too, with Sinister, Oculus and The Pact each being inspired by Wan’s 2010 gamechanger. 

The Conjuring (2013)

As the Marvel and DC superhero universes sparked into action, James Wan was planning a surprising movie universe of his own, emanating from the release of his influential 2013 horror movie, The Conjuring

Once again enlisting the help of Patrick Wilson who had collaborated with the director for Insidious, Wan’s latest film was similar to his previous effort in its rejection of gore, nudity or profanity, accessing the very root of terror itself. Allegedly based on the real-life accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the film follows a family who are terrorised by a dark entity in their farmhouse. 

A catalyst for major change for the career of James Wan, the critical and commercial success of The Conjuring would lead to multiple sequels and spin-offs, each exploring the wider world of the Warrens. Including the Annabelle films following a haunted doll, the ancient terror of The Curse of La Llorona and the nightmarish visuals of The Nun, Wan has managed to craft a pioneering horror universe that has fans baying for more films and content. 

This is a far cry from the seemingly endless conveyor belt of nonsense that fuelled the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for so long, with Wan instilling a (fairly) consistent mark of quality from film to film. Industry copycats crept out the woodwork too, including Veronica, Ouija and The Taking of Deborah Logan, though no film could match Wan’s originality. 

Despite moving away from the horror genre, helming Fast & Furious 7 in 2015 and Aquaman one year later, Wan has found the time to return to his beloved origins, releasing the loving genre-mashup of Malignant in 2021. Bizarre and brutal, Wan’s ode to Italian Giallo horror wasn’t appreciated by fans and critics at the time, though has since galvanised support as yet another game changer that refuses to adhere to modern genre conventions.