Malaysian-born, Australian film director James Wan is most known for reviving the horror genre since debuting his short film Saw in 2003. After the 1990’s slasher craze wore off, it was Saw that encouraged horror enthusiasts to give the genre another try. Its simplistic plot, featuring moralistic ethos of righteous living and a madman’s intricate yet ghastly plan to control two individuals’ life choices, allowed Saw to earn the slogan: “If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.” The blood-soaked movie released instalments on the weekend before Halloween for 3 consecutive years – a feat no horror franchise had envisioned to be successful.
Wan’s next project sees him returning to revolutionize horror films through Insidious, a movie that elevates mainstream horror in the viewer’s eyes. Long thought to be an infantile genre for adrenaline-filled teenagers, Insidious made sure to cater to a wider audience demographic by boasting a tight family dynamic and maturity within its characters.
Insidious’s success does not stop there. Through its haunted house set, Wan turned away from his background in slashers and gore-centric horror to create a psychological element of horror. The film tapped into our primal human fear that someplace we thought safe and sacred can be violated by supernatural, uncontrollable forces.
Insidious reinvigorated haunted house films by addressing the most common critique of the subtype, “If a house was so haunted, then why would people stay there?” and thus, what initially starts as a haunted house film, turns to be about the fight for a child’s life from satanic forces. The film’s influence can be seen today in Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Ted Geoghan’s We Are Still Here (2015) and Jennifer Kent’s The Badabook (2014).
The movie’s purposeful sound design and slow suspenseful build-up was lauded by critics and attracted cinema audiences in their droves, making it the most profitable movie of 2011.
However, if the cinematography of Insidious was a 101 for directing horror, then Wan’s 2013 movie The Conjuring was a masterclass. The film was filled with jump scares that could only be produced through the exquisite practice of camera movement – each establishing shot had zooms and pans that displayed unsettling information to the audience’s psyche. Every single frame in the movie was intentional, and usually filling the audience with fear of the unknown to come. The Conjuring is Wan’s most successful release, making £85.5m in the box office, inspiring a world-renowned franchise.
Although there is a tendency to cast horror films as ‘lower’ culture than others, through Wan’s camera movements, editing techniques, sound design, and excellent casting choices, he makes clear that any director should be proud to work in horror as it provides them with challenges like none other.