Horror legend James Wan is back with Malignant, but how does the Giallo-inspired outing rank among his many beloved blockbusters? Released in 2004, the grimy and brutal Saw launched Wan into the mainstream; the low-budget movie was a breath of fresh air for horror fans, combining a mystery-thriller plot with a claustrophobic premise. Saw eschewed the Japanese-inspired supernatural stories dominating the genre at the time to offer a gory, realistic chiller that reveled in gruesome life-or-limb violence.
Director James Wan made a name for himself with the indie hit, which became a massive success at the box office. However, his next few movies earned less critical acclaim and outsized commercial success, and it was not until 2010 that the director found himself back in the good books of horror fans and mainstream audiences. 2011’s Insidious and 2013’s The Conjuring saw Wan perfect his signature jump-scare heavy horror stylings, and both movies were hugely successful hits that soon spawned a franchise apiece.
However, Wan was not content to stick with horror alone. By 2015, the director had helmed Furious 7 and, in the process, helped the Fast & Furious franchise transform from the relatively grounded racing movies they began as into the madcap, over-the-top heist movies the series is now famous for being. Shortly after this, Wan returned to The Conjuring franchise before moving on to an even bigger and more ambitious blockbuster territory with the DCEU entry Aquaman. Aquaman proved a huge hit upon release and Wan was not heard from again until the recent release Malignant, a Giallo-inspired return to supernatural horror for the helmer. So, how do Wan’s ten movies rank in comparison to each other, and which (if any) are worth skipping?
Starring a slightly miscast Kevin Bacon (who has too much intensity and barely-hidden menace to pass for a sweet family man in the opening scenes), 2007’s Death Sentence is a gory Death Wish knock-off that stands as Wan’s weakest release thus far. Credit where it’s due, Death Sentence is far from terrible. The thriller is markedly less reactionary than both the original Death Wish movies and Eli Roth’s risible remake thereof, and like its source novel, Death Sentence manages to give its antagonists a modicum of humanity and complexity, unlike many over-the-top R-rated vengeance thrillers. That said, horror legend Kevin Bacon never quite gels as a mild-mannered executive turned cold-blooded killer, the political commentary is both wrong-headed and paper-thin and, aside from one or two bravura sequences, Wan’s talent with a camera is barely on display in this atypically inert outing from him.
Insidious: Chapter 2
There is a good reason that sequels are the bane of even the most forgiving horror fan’s existence. Insidious: Chapter 2 boasts some impressive shocks and a few memorable villains, but the sequel struggles to match the intensity of the original sleeper hit primarily because, while it was a struggle to believe that Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, or their lovable kid would be killed off in the first film, the stakes are all-but nonexistent for the returning characters in this one. The next outing of the franchise wisely moved on to other characters, but this remains Wan’s least engaging horror effort.
The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring franchise has gradually grown less scary as the first movie’s subtle, atmospheric horrors gave way to gradually bigger and more explosive scares, but the second outing still chills viewers to the bone even if it can’t match the effectiveness of its predecessor. Transplanting the action to England means the Warrens are attempting to solve the infamous Enfield haunting in this one, but it is the memorable monster Valak who steals the movie in its most effective scenes. A possessed nun, Valak pops up inside a painting during one heart-stopping sequence that makes up for this sequel’s flaws in its brutal efficiency as an elegant scare delivery machine.
Although fellow series director Justin Lin was also responsible for turbo-charging the larger-than-life silliness of the Fast & Furious franchise between sequels, Furious 7 marked a tonal departure for the series. Wan gave Paul Walker’s swansong a surprisingly elegiac feel, and many fans of the admittedly goofy franchise found themselves unexpectedly moved by the ending of this 2015 action extravaganza. It is always difficult for a series as inherently silly as the Fast & Furious movies to address real-life tragedy gracefully, but Wan’s Furious 7 managed to be a moving tribute to Walker and a fun, fast-paced, and endlessly inventive thrill ride at the same time and remains an artistic high point for the series.
Wan would return to the fertile territory of possessed demon dolls with the Conjuring spinoffs of the Annabelle franchise, but before that series, the director helmed a still-underrated flop that saw the creepy toys taking center stage as the villains of a small-town horror story. Dead Silence was next to ignored at the box office and dismissed by critics despite the movie reuniting Wan with Saw/Insidious writer Leigh Whannell. However, despite its abysmal reputation, Dead Silence is a clever and fast-paced horror that outstrips some of Wan’s more critically acclaimed and financially successful efforts. Starring Ryan Kwanten as a luckless hero who returns to his hometown to unearth the cause of a curse dooming his family, Dead Silence is a deeply creepy bit of southern gothic that deserved better than its ignominious reception upon release.
The divisive new release Malignant sees Wan at his most over-the-top, abandoning Ed and Lorraine Warren to focus on a more gonzo, gruesome style of horror. Viewers who can’t stand the genre’s more lurid and grotesque elements will admittedly hate the story of a heroine who sees gory murders in her sleep but can’t work out how to stop them from occurring in reality. However, anyone with an appreciation for Giallo’s grossest excesses will love this twisty, jaw-dropping horror’s shocking plot and inventive direction.
When Wan was announced as the director of Arthur Curry’s first DCEU movie, fans were understandably skeptical. Was this horror helmer really a good fit for one of the campiest heroes in comic lore? Luckily, Wan nailed the movie’s sunny summer blockbuster tone while finding the perfect titular hero in Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. Fast-paced and dramatic, but first and foremost a fun, goofy thrill ride, Aquaman eschewed the self-seriousness of the DCEU in favor of a lighter tone and won over both fans and casual viewers as a result.
Released in 2010, Insidious blended elements of fantasy, horror, and family drama in a story that was as chilling as it was simple. Centering around an undeniably effective central pitch —“It’s not your house that’s haunted, it’s your son”— this thrilling flick saw Patrick Wilson launch his career as a horror movie leading man with a nervy, compelling central turn. Rose Byrne is superb and there isn’t a weak link in the supporting cast, but it’s Wan’s direction that stars here. Insidious is a chilling combination of A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Exorcist that marked him out as a serious talent in the genre.
Still as gruelingly effective as it was upon release, the surprisingly restrained Saw is a more subtly brutal exercise in genre storytelling than many critics gave it credit for. With none of the grotesque excesses of the sequels and their many “torture porn” knock-offs, Saw’s simple but effective tale of two men trapped in a cell with a corpse and a ticking clock is a viciously clever, brutally bleak psychological thriller that deserved the hype it received upon release. Neither the many knock-offs, nor the recent reboot Spiral or the Saw sequels were able to recapture the magic, but that is only another testament to the effectiveness of Wan’s killer vision for this grim chiller.
Still the strongest directorial effort from Wan, The Conjuring is an undeniably slick, scary, and intense haunted house that proves the potentially tired sub-genre can still produce authentically effective outings. The cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s ghost hunting had been seen on film already by 2013, but The Conjuring’s slow-burn horror and unbearably tense atmosphere made the movie an exercise in peerless genre filmmaking. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are stellar as the two loved-up paranormal investigators, the pacing is impeccable, and even Wan’s jump scares are more authentically scary than annoying. From the terrifying opening until the closing credits, The Conjuring is as solid a haunted house horror as Hollywood has ever offered, and remains Wan’s best movie to date.
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