There’s no question James Wan is one of the most influential horror filmmakers of the last two decades. From directing the movie that helped launch the so-called “torture porn” sub-genre to co-creating the most lucrative shared cinematic horror universe in modern times, Wan has made quite the impact. He’s enjoyed equal success helming nine-figure tentpoles, to mention nothing of his output as a producer.
Wan’s latest horror/thriller, Malignant, marks a return to the director’s low-budget roots, as well as the first non-sequel and/or non-adaptation he’s called the shots on since 2013. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a ranking of his first nine films based on an average of their critic scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes (save for his feature debut on 2000’s Stygian, which isn’t listed on either website).
9. Dead Silence – 27.5 Percent
The first of two movies directed by Wan released in 2007, Dead Silence is generally agreed to be his weakest horror film, if not his worst directorial effort at the time of writing. Starring Ryan Kwanten as a widower who journeys to his hometown to uncover the truth behind a creepy ventriloquist doll linked to his wife’s gruesome death, the film was a critical and box office flop that screenwriter Leigh Whannell denounced in a 2011 entry on his personal blog titled, “Dud Silence: The Hellish Experience of Making a Bad Horror Film.”
The Guardian‘s Mark Kermode had one of the kinder responses to the film, calling it a “quaintly charming” and affectionate ode to “old-fashioned, Hammer-teurish devil-doll” movies, but admitting that “none of it is in the least bit scary — a fatal flaw for a horror flick.”
8. Death Sentence – 28 Percent
Death Sentence arrived just five months after Dead Silence and saw Wan try his hand at a gritty 1970s-style revenge thriller in the vein of Death Wish. In fact, the movie began as an adaptation of Brian Garfield’s sequel to his original Death Wish novel, with Garfield writing the early script drafts. However, the Death Sentence screenplay by credited writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers is heavily removed from Garfield’s source material and doesn’t even feature Paul Benjamin, the protagonist of the Death Wish books.
Instead, Wan’s film centers on Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon), a family man who transforms into a vigilante after a gang murders his son. As the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Steven Winn wrote in his review, “[Death Sentence is] far too busy with its sledgehammer plot and mighty gunplay to waste time on the main character’s inner life.”
7. Insidious: Chapter 2 – 39.5 Percent
Shortly after the critical and commercial success of the first Insidious movie, Wan and Whannell set to work crafting the story for a sequel. Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up right where its predecessor’s cliffhanger ending left off, revealing more about not only Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his ability to astral project but also the backstory for the demonic old woman who’s haunted him since his childhood.
While some critics voice their appreciation for the way the Insidious sequel fleshes out the mythos of the first movie and sheds light on the surprising mechanics of The Further, a lot of them also felt it was simply not very scary. Entertainment Weekly‘s Chris Nashawaty criticized the movie for its “messy story and cartoony performances” while accusing Wan of “recycling the same old tired tropes with diminishing returns.”
6. Saw – 48.5 Percent
After so many sequels, including this year’s Spiral: From the Book of Saw, it’s easy to forget how shocking audiences found Jigsaw’s twisted survival “games” and the carnage his traps inflict upon their victims when the first Saw movie came out. A feature-length version of Wan and Whannell’s short film of the same name, Saw was produced on a budget of only $1.2 million and grossed over $100 million at the box office. This not only led to a string of yearly follow-ups until 2010, but it also helped popularize the idea of “torture porn,” a sub-genre blending aspects of slasher and splatter horror movies.
Despite earning mixed reviews upon its initial release, Vulture‘s Jordan Crucchiola argued the original Saw holds up in her 2017 ranking of the series’ films, writing, “The sound of Jigsaw’s gravely voice pouring out of the tape recorder is still as ominous a sound as one could imagine, and the big reveals still come as a genuine shock. Saw holds a deserving place in horror-film history.”
5. Insidious – 59 Percent
Insidious served as Wan’s rebound after his back-to-back misfires with Dead Silence and Death Sentence, giving rise to another profitable low-budget horror franchise in the vein of Saw. Tonally and stylistically, however, the movie is a far cry from Wan’s breakout hit, swapping out its gore and morality lessons for a haunted house thriller that sustains a quiet sense of dread in between the moments where (usually pale-faced) demons are springing out at the camera.
Wan has admitted that his goal with Insidious was to prove he could make a genuinely scary horror film without R-rated violence and, for the most part, critics agreed that he succeeded. As Perri Nemiroff wrote for ShockYa!, “the results certainly honor genre expectations all while delivering an exhilarating, unique and horrifyingly unpredictable experience.”
4. Aquaman – 60 Percent
For those who weren’t keen on the desaturated visuals and morose temper of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s DC Comics movies, Wan’s Aquaman was a breath of fresh air for the DC Extended Universe, between its vibrant imagery, extravagant spectacle, and swashbuckling adventure story. Critics and audiences were both receptive to the film, which ended up becoming a billion-dollar hit, as well as the highest-grossing movie in the franchise so far.
In her review for Chesapeake Family Life, Roxana Hadadi described Arthur Curry’s solo film as “an uneasy mixture that doesn’t always work, but the movie is also enjoyably ridiculous and turn-your-brain-off fun.”
3. The Conjuring 2 – 72.5 Percent
Unlike Insidious: Chapter 2, Wan managed to impress critics when he returned to the same well a second time for The Conjuring 2. (Very) loosely inspired by the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren’s infamous investigations of the supposedly haunted houses in Amityville and Enfield during the 1970s, The Conjuring sequel also introduced the world to Valak, a malevolent entity whose sacrilegious attire was given its own backstory in the aptly-titled spinoff/prequel The Nun.
For One Room With A View, Kambole Campbell wrote, “The Conjuring 2 may be haphazard and over-the-top in places, but it is by no means a dull experience,” calling it the “most sentimental horror film of recent years.”
2. Furious 7 – 74.5 Percent
Interestingly, one of Wan’s best-received movies isn’t a horror film at all, assuming you find the sight of cars being airdropped out of a plane more funny than terrifying. The director’s first foray into the world of big-budget moviemaking seemed to be going well too, at least until star Paul Walker’s tragic death part-way through production. However, thanks to the efforts of his crew and Walker’s real-life brothers, Wan overcame this massive obstacle to deliver not only the highest-grossing Fast & Furious film to date but also one of the most well-regarded ones.
Vox‘s Alex Abad-Santos wrote that “The chemistry between Walker and his costars [in Furious 7], his friends, gives this muscled sledgehammer of a film some surprisingly gentle moments that you’ll think about hours later.”
1. The Conjuring – 77 Percent
Few directors can claim they co-created not one, not two, but three long-running horror franchises, but Wan is one of them. The quality of The Conjuring‘s sequels and spinoffs is all over the place, yet the original movie remains an elegantly crafted haunted house thriller that features some of the most memorably upsetting moments in Wan’s entire filmography, as well as excellent performances by Vera Farmiga and the director’s trusted collaborator Patrick Wilson as the heavily-fictionalized versions of the demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.
In her review for USA Today, Claudia Puig wrote that The Conjuring “brings to mind ’70s supernatural horror films such as The Exorcist with its stillness, steady build of suspense, and handsome cinematography.”
KEEP READING: How The Conjuring Universe Became the Top Horror Series of All Time – in Just 8 Years
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