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How James Wan reshaped modern horror with Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious

Lili Taylor holds a match up while staring down into a dark basement.
Lili Taylor in The Conjuring Warner Bros. / Warner Bros. Pictures

The original poster for The Conjuring is quite striking. A house, obviously haunted, sits in the distance, half-submerged in a patina of ghostly fog. In the foreground, a mighty tree curls in and out of view, its gnarled limbs framing the ominously bucolic scene. Look closely, and you can see a supernatural shadow of a dangling body on the leaf-strewn ground below as an empty noose hangs from a limb of the tree above. With this one image, Warner Bros. perfectly captured the elegantly spooky atmosphere of the movie it was selling, a slick throwback thriller of paranormal activity and investigation that gusted into multiplexes a decade ago this month, scaring up big business in the summer of 2013.

Is there something else visible there in that poster? Maybe the twisting, looming shape of a career? Ten years on, The Conjuring remains the finest spine-tingler from Aussie director James Wan — an expertly crafted haunted-house thrill machine that doubles as a handsomely mounted print-the-legend biopic of two enterprising charlatans, Ed and Lorraine Warren. It’s also the sturdiest branch on a filmography with the reach of a cursed oak. These past two decades, no one has thrown a wider shadow over horror than Wan. At the young age of 46, he’s reshaped the genre a couple times over.

Wan is everywhere these days. The anniversary of The Conjuring last week is just one circled date on a release calendar bearing his perpetual mark. Earlier this month, moviegoers ponied up for Insidious: The Red Door, the latest installment in his other hit franchise — engineered with longtime collaborator and regular screenwriter Leigh Whannell — about angry domestic spirits and their ghost-hunting foils. Come September, we’ll get The Nun II, another entry in the ever-expanding Conjuring Universe, which is now officially the most commercially successful run of movies in horror history. And a couple weeks after that, Saw X will take Wan’s very first hit franchise, the one he started with Whannell way back in 2004, into the double digits. Not since Wes Craven has one filmmaker launched this many horror-sequel machines.

The Conjuring - Official Trailer 3 [HD]

A major influence

Looking beyond his empire of original, still-running series, Wan has exerted a clear influence over the shifting trends of mainstream fright flicks, including how they look and sound and move. So many of the scary movies that make their way to multiplexes these days owe a debt to his formula of old-new thrills, the way he’s repackaged classic ghost story fun for the 21st century. His Insidious and Conjuring movies — he directed two of each, then pivoted into producing the sequels that followed — are essentially savvy upgrades of the supernatural box-office triumphs of the 1970s and ’80s: They do Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist for a new generation.

Wan is well-versed in the sleepover fundamentals of horror, the simple joy of shouting “boo!” at just the right moment. His apparitions come spring-loaded, launching out of the shadows with impeccable timing. The jump scare, long derided as the lowest form of horror — a mere cheap assault on the nerves — becomes an art form in Wan’s hands, an advanced game of tension and release. His Conjuring movies give amusement park thrills an extra oomph of virtuosity and the gleam of respectability provided by sleek period production design and slumming first-rate actors like Lili Taylor, Vera Farmiga, and Wan’s most dependable leading man, Patrick Wilson. They’re pretty tastefully constructed for clattering big-screen funhouse rides.

You don’t have to look hard to see how pervasive the director’s approach has become in the aftermath of The Conjuring‘s box-office success. Wan’s fingerprints are all over studio horror of the 2010s and beyond, especially in how they set up scares in advance. You can see his grinning phantom whenever a movie, like Don’t Breathe, glides over an entire house in a single fluid shot, familiarizing us with the layout in order to enhance the fun of how the film will turn the space into an obstacle course of giddy fear. And Wan’s predilection for building set pieces around props and toys and devices has proved especially influential. For the most recent example, look at how minor summer hit The Boogeyman deploys a glowing ball of light as a MacGuffin of terror, establishing how it works so it can later exploit it.

There’s even a little of the Wan touch in the celebrated art-house horror of the past decade. Maybe the most acclaimed entry in that “elevated” movement, Ari Aster’s bloodcurdling trauma dump Hereditary, deploys some popcorn-spilling tactics from Wan’s horror playbook. When Toni Collette perches in the upper ceiling corner of a darkened bedroom, in a trance state of maternal unholiness, what we’re seeing is a variation on the peekaboo parlor tricks of the extended Conjuring family.

Insidious Trailer (Official) - James Wan (2010)

The new and the old

When they arrived, Insidious and The Conjuring seemed like deliberate antidotes to the grisly “torture porn” that was in vogue in the years leading up to them — a trend that Wan’s own death-trap moneymaker Saw was, of course, partially responsible for popularizing. In a sense, the filmmaker had already remade the genre with that hugely profitable hit. With his two new franchises, he helped remake it anew, steering the studios toward a more old-fashioned kind of horror. The Conjuring, especially, felt like a tack in the opposite direction: suggestive instead of explicit, polished instead of grimy, concerned with the soul rather than the vulnerable, gruesomely mutilated flesh. (That said, the dorky youth minister wholesomeness of the Warrens isn’t so far removed from the moralistic Old Testament motives of Jigsaw.)

Wan’s body of work suggests a constant push-pull between his desire to try new things and his leading role within a lucrative Hollywood franchise machine. At this point, it’d be easier to count the films he hasn’t been able to parlay into a hit series. The similarly titled Dead Silence and Death Sentence were early, critically panned bumps on his road to success — one a creaky update of ventriloquist-doll horror, the other a grim modern spin on the Charles Bronson revenge-thriller kicks of Death Wish. Both established how Wan would go looking for inspiration in the Hollywood pulp of yesterday. Simultaneously, they also suggested the ways that this populist architect of fear would resist going back to the same well; though his name remains attached to the franchise, he’s yet to direct a single sequel in the unkillable Saw series.

Saw – Unrated 4K (2004 Movie) Official Trailer – Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover

To that end, his forays outside the bounds of horror look as much like working vacations as mere paycheck gigs. There are glimmers of liberated joy in the workmanlike marshaling of big-budget spectacle that defines his blockbuster assignments, Furious 7 and Aquaman. Neither plays to the director’s strengths as a carnival showman of suspense, but his voice comes through here and there: The escalating stunts of the former spring from the same boyish enthusiasm that fuels the all-ghosts-on-deck finales of his Conjuring movies, while the latter takes a telling break from weightless CGI skirmish to unleash some creepy sea monsters. You can take the man out of the haunted house, but can you take the haunted house out of the man?

Though he’s headed back to Aquaman’s turf next, there’s little evidence that Wan plans to shut the door to the funhouse. Not when audiences have signaled a nearly bottomless appetite for snakes in the brittle can, and a willingness to come out for any number of spinoffs starring Annabelle and malevolent company. But that doesn’t mean Wan will stop trying to find new ways to send hairs on end and concessions airborne. After all, his last movie, Malignant, felt like another change of pace — a nutty, twisty 180 from the Catholic earnestness of The Conjuring. And as a producer, he’s already launched his next franchise, trading supernatural superstition for technological anxiety in the horror comedy M3gan and its forthcoming sequel. It seems there are still plenty of new branches on that spooky old tree he’s planted in the soil of Hollywood horror.

The Conjuring is currently streaming on Max. Wan’s other movies are available to rent, purchase, or stream from various services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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