With James Wan’s return to the horror genre, Malignant, hitting cinemas, now would make a fitting time to rank the director’s work to date. Wan is arguably the most influential figure in mainstream horror over the past two decades, launching the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring horror franchises, each offering a distinctive take on the horror genre. Based on his success, Wan has recently tackled bigger budget fare such as Furious 7 and Aquaman. Malignant reflects Wan’s return to the horror genre and has received a polarised reception, some completely dismissing it whereas others sharing an appreciation for its ambition.
Please note that I am yet to see Furious 7, therefore it doesn’t feature in this ranking.
9) Dead Silence
Wan’s follow-up feature after Saw, Dead Silence is by quite some distance, the worst film of Wan’s career. It was released off the back of many horror films of this type and Wan heavily leans into the camp territory. The narrative isn’t particularly interesting, it lacks a twist and the characters aren’t particularly well written, which are reflected in the stale performances. It’s not an outright disaster as Wan demonstrates he is adept with puppetry and there are a handful of creepy images but that’s about it.
There is now a sizeable step in quality…
Aquaman just about works as a film and it is a largely entertaining underwater extravaganza that is consistently visually stunning. I was frequently in awe witnessing the underwater world Wan created and there are many shots in the film that are wonderfully crafted. Even when the characters are on land, the visuals are excellent and a chase scene in a Sicilian setting is choreographed particularly well. As for Aquaman himself, James Wan certainly embraces the more corny aspects of the character but manages to inject a lot of heart and development to make him more likeable which is a relief. This cheesy tone Wan goes for isn’t entirely successful and the film is stuffed with formulaic dialogue and plot points. It’s also overlong at a whopping 143 minutes and although not to as bad an extent as other films, it does succumb to a CGI-fest in its final act. (My full review here)
Another large step up in quality…
7) Death Sentence
Death Sentence gets a bad rap from critics and audiences but I think this film is quite underrated. This is a lean and brutal revenge thriller that isn’t afraid of gore and violence. Kevin Bacon puts in a committed performance as a vigilante father with not much else to lose after his son is brutally murdered by a gang in an initiation ceremony. The villainous gang, headed by Garrett Hedlund, make for a particularly viable threat and Wan crafts some giddy action sequences. Ignore the reviews and give Death Sentence a watch as it is a total blast and has been somewhat buried compared to his other projects.
6) Insidious: Chapter 2
Insidious: Chapter 2 received mixed reviews on its release and granted, it does lose some of its originality that the first film had but there are some top rate scares here and a very interesting storyline, which Wan prioritises over the scares. It successfully expands the mythology and framework of ‘The Further’ which this series would go on to further develop in its further sequels. Patrick Wilson provides a sinister riff on Jack Nicholson’s Danny Torrance in his performance and ties in with the first film very neatly.
5) The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring 2 isn’t as strong as the first film – it is overlong which severely impacts the pacing and just isn’t quite as interesting a story as the first one was. However, Wan delivers in spades on the scare-front and the film has some truly frightening sequences and there are also some great performances from the cast. Only Wan could have made or been given permission to make this film as 134 minutes for a horror film is uncommonly long and whilst there is a lot of character development (and self-indulgence), 20 minutes could fairly easily have been chopped off and the film would almost be as strong as the original. This is definitely its main problem which is to its detriment. The film bears many similarities to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and there are a couple of moments where the film leaves a bit of a sour taste as it reiterates many of the clichéd elements of superior horror films. Coming off a near-perfect original, it’s a shame The Conjuring 2 isn’t a knock-out, but that was always going to be impossible and there is still a lot to like in this film. (My full review here)
Wan’s latest, Malignant is an ambitious risk and is the director’s interpretation of a Giallo horror. The narrative takes unexpected turns. The first act seems fairly generic on the surface, in the vein of Insidious, although Wan does establish an unsettling atmosphere. The film then morphs into a David Fincher-esque serial killer mystery, where it is at its best. A chase scene between the police and the assailant mid-way through is kinetic and heart-pounding. Its last half an hour or so is outrageous with a bonkers plot twist and is a cacophony of gleeful gore, body horror and John Wick-like ultraviolence, with a hint of Sam Raimi camp. As successful as Wan has been in establishing horror franchises, I hope this film remains a standalone piece, as I think it would be impossible for Wan to surprise his audience to this extent twice if he tackles a sequel. (My full review here)
And now for the top three…
On the face of it, Insidious seems to begin as a somewhat conventional supernatural horror but with a better quality of jump scare. However, Wan is original with the material in terms of where the story goes and the second and third acts are particularly exciting and take some unexpected turns. What’s particularly impressive is Wan’s variation of jump scares and he is not afraid of unleashing horror on the family in broad daylight, which many horror films are guilty of avoiding.
Wan’s directorial debut is by far and away the best in the franchise and its influence is somewhat diluted now by its cash cow sequels as most of them miss the point of this film to varying degrees. This is a gleefully nasty film, heavily influenced by Se7en but with its own parameters and character mythology. It has a knock-out twist at the end that if you were not aware of it going in, is jaw-dropping on a first viewing. What makes the film scary isn’t the gore and violence but it’s what Wan alludes to that you don’t witness on-screen. This is filmmaking at its most creative – Wan achieved this film on a very limited budget and he makes the most out of every dollar.
And the best James Wan film is…
1) The Conjuring
There was never any contention for the top spot. The Conjuring is by far and away the best film in the series and this film really helped to propel Wan’s career. The film is suitably scary, very atmospheric and has a fascinating narrative. Wan develops the characters superbly, in particular Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, who are great as The Warren’s. Although the scares aren’t the most original, it’s in the execution which allows this film to really deliver and some of the set pieces in this film are mesmerising. The Conjuring is a film that is even better on rewatches and when we come back to look on the horror genre in the 2010’s, this film is straight up there with its highlights. It is a masterpiece.
What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments or tweet @TheFilmMeister