James Wan’s Horror Legacy: The Movies That Launched Iconic Franchises

James Wan is a modern horror master, who has directed some of the most successful and critically-acclaimed horrors of the past two decades. Finding the perfect balance, he integrates accessible, well-developed characters into eerie and unsettling stories, retaining mainstream horror appeal with a degree of finesse. Wan’s able to swathe audiences in a suspenseful atmosphere whilst creatively reinvigorating classic genre elements and familiar settings. Having been in the game for many years, it’s worth taking a retrospective journey of Wan’s horror film career, touching on the best movies to have bubbled up from the darkness.

Born in Malaysia, Wan moved to Western Australia, where he attended attended RMIT University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Media in 1999. His first feature film was a low-budget horror film called Stygian about a couple who find themselves trapped in another realm known as Exile. Five years later, he landed his first major success with Saw, signalling a new horror filmmaker on the rise and setting a major horror film franchise in motion. Since then, Wan’s managed to spawn several films worthy of franchise, including Insidious, The Conjuring and given the reins to DC’s Aquaman series.

The Conjuring

Widely considered as one of the best horror films in the last 25 years, The Conjuring is the horror movie that shattered any illusion of getting lucky with Saw and Insidious. The Conjuring is based on the real case files of two paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who documented their experience of a haunted farmhouse in Rhode Island in the early ’70s.

Starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who offer utterly convincing and steely-eyed performances, the film’s haunt is enhanced by its “based on a true story” nature. Wan knows how to create suspense, ratcheting up the creepy atmosphere without cheap scares, using effects sparingly. This eerie and disturbing horror led to a rare feat for sequels with The Conjuring 2, a horror that matched the high level established by the first movie, detailing an earlier case of a haunting in North London. Slipping to a producer role for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the third film by Michael Chaves was effective, even if unable to match the quality of its predecessors.

Saw

A low budget movie, Saw is one of the most influential horror movies of the 21st century. Co-written and directed by James Wan, the visionary film-maker set a major horror franchise in motion, spawning nine sequels and several spin-offs culminating in Saw X. Brandishing a high concept with strong repeat value, this iconic series also created the enigmatic and elusive Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell opposite Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Monica Potter.

Saw centres on two men who wake up chained to a pipe, who start to realise they need to escape from the bathroom before it’s too late. Using deadly games to get hostages to make life-altering ethical decisions to ensure their survival, Wan’s smart and grisly horror has breathtaking shock value with a classic twist ending designed to haunt you long after the closing credits. Gruesome and realistic, this modest production gave audiences a taste of Wan’s ability to generate suspense and surprise with creative traps and a tense atmosphere.

Insidious

Insidious is an eerie horror from James Wan that tracks a classic horror story set up, the haunted house. Starting much like other films in the genre as a family moves into a new home, Wan uses this conventional and familiar concoction to lean into another realm called the Further. Centred on their son’s sleepwalking, the family try to rescue the boy before he’s consumed by the mysterious paradigm. Starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, Wan crafts another suspenseful and scary horror with many memorable and unsettling scenes bound to haunt you.

Investing in a slow-creeping sense of dread, Insidious works especially well thanks to its earnest performances as Wilson and Byrne being a great deal of emotion and realism to their role as parents of a possessed child. Based on the film’s critical and commercial success it led to Insidious: Chapter 2 as the sequel finds the Lamberts relocate to a new home, quickly discovering that they’re unable to shake the evil spirits that continue to haunt them. Unable to match the tension and suspense of Insidious, the sequel did enough to prompt Insidious: Chapter 3 under the direction of Wan’s longtime co-writer and collaborator, Leigh Whannell.