Back in 2004, James Wan took the cinematic world by storm with his directorial debut, a little horror flick called Saw. Starring fellow Aussie and frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, the film launched a resurgence of horror films and created a sub-genre of torture porn—thanks to the devious and tricksy machinations of the inimitable Billy the Puppet.
Since then, Wan has become a blockbuster horror auteur, helming the wildly successful and critically acclaimed Insidious and The Conjuring franchises. He’s also a producer and mentor, putting his stamp of approval on the are-you-afraid-of-the-dark horror flick Lights Out, from David F. Sandberg. With the recent success of The Conjuring 2 and the release of Lights Out, here’s a look at some of Wan’s most memorable work.
With a buddy from film school in Australia and a million-dollar budget, Wan tackled Saw, his directorial debut. After premiering at Sundance, the film turned into a cult phenomenon, grossing $100 million worldwide.
Saw launched a series of films that followed Jigsaw, a sadistic serial killer who enjoyed putting his victims into terrible “would you rather” situations. The single setting of Saw featured two men who find themselves in a bathroom, ankle-chained to pipe, each equipped with a hacksaw. So… what do you do?
Shot in just 18 days, Wan used highly stylized post-production techniques to gloss over the film’s low-budget restrictions and create a unique look for Saw. But when you have a smart, scary and gutsy concept, that’s all it takes to draw an audience. People flocked in droves to the Saw series all the way through installment number seven.
After directing Saw, Wan handed off the franchise directing reins to Darren Lynn Bousman. He quickly churned out scary doll movie Dead Silence and hard-boiled revenge picture Death Sentence, but took his time with the indie haunted house movie Insidious, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Wan said Insidious was a reaction to the extreme gore and violence of Saw. This was a chance for him to prove that he could “make a very classic, old-fashioned haunted house film…without relying on blood and guts.” The film offered freedom for Wan to experiment with restraint in creating those scary moments, moving toward a creepier, unsettling sense that wouldn’t necessarily be found in a mainstream studio-produced horror film.
It also marks his first collaboration with Patrick Wilson, who also stars in The Conjuring series. The spooky possession movie was a runaway hit, and Wan helmed Insidious: Chapter 2, before handing it over to longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell for Chapter 3.
2013’s The Conjuring was Wan’s first film that universally received high praise from critics. This ghost story is based on real characters—paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, known for their work in the notorious Amityville case, among others.
Starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens, The Conjuring has a cool, 1970s feel, filled with analog recording devices, Farmiga’s impressive collection of billowing blouses and Wilson’s sideburns. Wan puts his camera to work in creating the spooks and scares of the film, eliciting a ghostly, otherworldly presence that is profoundly unsettling. Farmiga’s performance as the clairvoyant Lorraine is especially remarkable, and there was even some awards buzz around her—almost unheard of for horror these days.
The film demonstrated Wan’s evolution as a horror auteur, proving his mixture of restraint, virtuosic camera work and just enough high-octane scares to be a potent combination for audience.
When Wan took over the Fast and Furious franchise from Justin Lin, he never could have imagined that halfway through filming he’d lose one of his stars. Paul Walker, who played Brian O’Conner throughout the series, tragically died in a car accident, and the production was put on hold for five months while the story was reworked. Using Walker’s brothers as stand-ins and CGI help from Weta Digital, Wan was able to complete the film, which became a tribute to Walker, his character and his close friendship with the cast.
Wan’s work was able to shine through the tragedy, and he left his mark with his kinetic visual style and outlandish stunts, pulling off the infamous, sky-diving trick with a mix of both practical and visual effects.
In fact, Furious 7 is the highest grossing entry in the gasoline-soaked series, but Wan decided to toss the keys to director F. Gary Gary, who is behind the wheel for Fast 8.
As a producer, Wan has been able to champion new talent and offer his stamp of approval to smaller horror flicks. Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg, who was known for his clever online horror shorts, caught the eye of producer Lawrence Grey, and from there, Grey brought Wan on as a producer and Eric Heisserer as a writer for the feature film adaptation of Lights Out. The team of four collaborated to bring the feature to life, and the result is a very smart horror flick that draws on that universal, primal fear of the dark to illustrate what happens when the demons in your head come out to play.
Teresa Palmer stars as Rebecca, who fights to save her mother and brother from the terrifying demon Diana, who can only exist when the lights are out. It’s the kind of resourceful, cinematography-driven horror that Wan has demonstrated throughout his career. The pairing has been fruitful: Sandberg is directing Annabelle 2, with Wan, naturally, producing.