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21st Century Horror: James Wan is Taking the Horror Genre Further

June 15, 2016

If you had $1,000,000 and could recruit any director to make a horror film who would you pick? I would go with James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring).  Ever since Saw exploded in 2004, Wan has constantly reinvented himself and found a way to make horror films that unite mainstream audiences, critics and horror hounds. His world building (or borrowing in the case of the Conjuring films) is second to none, and he and his co-writer Leigh Whannell have found a way to make movies featuring nice people doing what they can to rid the world of evil. Most importantly, his movies are scary and introduce the world to pure nightmare creations (check out Collider’s breakdown of his scariest moments).

Insidious gif red demon

 The lipstick demon jump scare is perfect in Insidious. It is one of the best moments of 21st century horror.

Starting with Saw, Wan’s films have grossed close to $900,000,000 million worldwide (excluding Furious 7) on budgets that range from $1,500,000 (Insidious) to $40,000,000 (Conjuring 2). There have been some missteps (Dead Silence, Death Warrant), and profitable sidesteps (Furious 7 but since 2011’s Insidious, Wan has been on a horror tear of epic proportions that pushed Blumhouse productions (Sinister, The Purge, Unfriended, Creep) into the stratosphere and opened the door for many horror films. Proof of his great run is evident in the three 21st century horror posts I unleashed last year. I collected audience/critic data from Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and Metacritic and compiled a list of the horror films with the highest combined critic/audience averages. Then, I took two polls that readers were able to vote on. What I found out is critics, mainstream moviegoers and horror lovers appreciate James Wan.

  • Saw and The Conjuring were #2o and #21 according to Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb and Metacritic users. The Conjuring placed at #22 with combined audience/critic scores.
  • The Conjuring was voted the 12th best horror film of the 21st century.
  • Insidious was voted the #1 21st century horror film that doesn’t appear on “best of” lists

James Wan is interested in having fun, creating likable characters (with help from writers Leigh Whannell, Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes) and scaring audiences. There is a sense of humor to the jump scares and you can tell Wan relishes in absurd moments, cheeky vibes and great cardigans.

Patrick Wilson Insidious 2


He understands horror, and audiences have flocked to his films because he gives them what they want. The fact that they’ve made so much money is not a fluke. Wan has a winning formula (small budget + good script + solid actors = quality)  and that is why his films make money. A great example of giving the audiences what they want while creating a superb scare is in The Conjuring. The “clap” scene works on many levels because it familiarizes you with the house and has fun with the audience. Chad and Carey Hayes wrote a fantastic set piece and Wan directed it expertly.


The success of Wan’s micro-budget movies (Saw, Insidious) got me thinking about the lack of audience support for some of the recent horror hybrids that received theatrical releases (The Witch, It Follows). The horror hybrids have all been solid films but they’ve failed to attract larger audiences because they are a sensitive lot that put emphasis on dreamy moods and realistic settings.They build towards slow burn endings that can alienate the masses while thrilling critics and genre fans (read this great article by Jason Coffman). Mark Harris started the indie horror boom discussion in 2015 when he wrote Scared Senseless: The Indie Horror Boom and What Frightens Us Now. In the article he talks about the lack of scares in recent indie horror films and had this to say about It Follows:

It Follows sometimes becomes an extremely clever glossary of horror, which is not the same thing as being scary.

The main difference between Wan’s films and the critically loved recent horror films are the usage of likable characters, jump scares and set pieces. It Follows fills you with a constant state of dread while The Conjuring and Insidious films feel like a roller coaster ride built on top of an active volcano. Wan makes good films that also appeal to people looking to be scared. I liked The Witch, but I feel terrible for the random first daters who casually strolled into it. I can only imagine the people’s faces as that poor baby is smooshed into goo and used as a moisturizer. Wan’s films have a warmth to the terror whereas art-house horror keeps you in the cold.

Recent horror films have kept you at a distance and you haven’t been able to connect with the characters. When looking at the The Witch, The Babadook or It Follows you don’t bond with the characters and that is why they won’t be considered classics (please don’t go crazy, I like these movies a lot). When looking back at horror classics like Frankenstein, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, Dawn of the Dead, The Thing and Silence of the Lambs the story was built around the characters and not vice versa. In many horror films the characters are moot points and simply created so they can die (Final Destination) or be a pawn in the story (Unfriended). In an interview with Den of Geek, Wan discussed his world building and characters.

Well, I mean you know you kind of fantasize about building a world and having the opportunity to expand down the line, if the first movie works but you know, I try not to think about stuff like that too much because it’s almost like saying to the universe to screw things up for you! But I definitely always plan and think hopefully that we’ll have the opportunity that we could expand on it more and it gives us, gives me as a film maker, places to grow and, like the characters, grow and expand and just leave more stories and places to take it. I always say, what is cool for me with The Conjuring, is it’s not just another scary set piece, or another scary case, it’s more about what I can do with the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren

In The Conjuring and Insidious you begin to genuinely like the characters because the films are built around them. There are copious scares, but they revolve around good people doing what they can to help others. Audiences have somebody to root for and that makes the scares exciting. I love Elise in the Insidious series because she is so kind, brave and different (listen to our podcast. We love her).

Insidious Lin Shaye


I always say, bottom line, the most important thing for me is the script. If it’s a good script, it doesn’t matter what genre it is. James Wan to Indiewire.

James Wan has conquered the horror genre because he knows and respects it. He creates likable characters and bases worlds (or their true stories) around them. Thus, there are endless possibilities because the world’s are rife with stories to tell.

If you liked this post make sure to check out our podcast where we wax poetic about a whole lot of horror.











6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2016 11:16 am

    There are many different kinds of horror and James Wan seems to be going the Spielberg route and that’s not a bad thing. Poltergeist and Jaws are movies that still scare audiences to this day but I wouldn’t consider him to be a horror director and neither do I with Wan I loved the first Conjuring and agree that it is a horror classic. But I was disappointed with the 2nd one. I did not care for the characters as much as the first one and I found the ghost to be comical and not very scary. Conjuring 2 was more fun then The Witch but I would put both films along with Other Side of The Door and The Darkness as my least favorite horror films of 2016. It’s unfair to say movies like It Follows or The Babadook have lower appeal with audiences because those movies were not in many theaters or had much advertisement. Everyone I talked to loved those both of those movies and I found those to be more scary then what Wan has made. The thing I hate most is that The Conjuring and Insidious could have been just one movie and that would be fine. You don’t need to turn these movies into franchises to make them good. Sorry about my long rant there. Just had to say a few things about your post.

    • June 15, 2016 11:53 am

      I love the rant! I should’ve been more clear about the audience reaction to It Follows and The Babadook as compared to The Conjuring. They are very good films that had didn’t have super wide releases. However, the audience scores on RT and IMDb are higher for The Conjuring. I think that is because it is more mainstream and less artistic. It appeals to a wider audience. I like the Wan/Spielberg connection. I think Wan’s horror films are good because he just tries to make good films that are fun. You aren’t a fan of The Witch? Have you watched Hush? I love that movie.

  2. June 15, 2016 1:37 pm

    Hush was good. I really enjoyed that one even if portions are a bit ridiculous.


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  3. The 10 Best Horror Films of 2016 | Movies, Films & Flix

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