I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 14 years.
James Wan’s newest horror movie Malignant opened on September 10th, 2021, after a delay due to COVID-19. Since the theatrical debut of Saw in 2004, James Wan has built a reputation as a “Master of Horror,” though he has branched out into other genres (Aquaman,Death Sentence). As of this writing he’s currently directing the Aquaman sequel.
Before Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom is released (scheduled for December 2022), let’s take a look back and rank James Wan’s previous 10 theatrical films.
1) Saw (2004)
Halloween 2004. The first Saw movie is quietly released to little prerelease fanfare. It had a solid cast of character actors (Danny Glover, Cary Elwes) and an interesting trailer. For better or worse, Saw has become a franchise littered with mediocre sequels and unnecessary reboots (really, Chris Rock?) that sometimes overshadow the fact that the original Saw was exceptionally good. Especially compared to the insipid sequels. Making the best of its low budget (that bathroom is the scariest thing about the move), you can practically feel the grime on every frame. I’m guessing very few people, um, saw that twist coming (though I do always wonder why Jigsaw just decides to lie facedown for so long in blood on that bathroom floor). There are logic flaws and some mediocre acting (cowriter and future The Invisible Man director Leigh Whannel is particularly bad). But that ending solidifies Saw as a horror staple. James Wan balances the gore with genuine suspense as Jigsaw did feel like a formidable villain before the sequels turned him into a rambling joke. You never forget the first time you saw Saw.
2) The Conjuring (2013)
This is by far the best film from the Conjuring Universe (not that that’s any great feat). There’s a debate as to whether this or Saw is Wan’s best film, and the margin for error isn’t large at all. While The Conjuring has improved acting and looks better in every way, it’s that slickness that makes Conjuring a slight step below Saw. With known actors and a decidedly higher budget, The Conjuring looks and feels like a movie while there are times Saw looks like something you shouldn’t be watching as it feels less manufactured. Having said that, there are well-executed “quiet” scares in The Conjuring as Wan sets the viewers expectations against them. It also helps that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson make a very believable Ed and Lorraine Warren. Because you believe them, you believe it when they are terrified.
3) Malignant (2021)
This movie is bonkers. An over-the-top swing for the fences full of camp, gore, and James Wan wanting to act out and let his Henenlotter flag fly. You either hate this movie after 20 minutes or love it all the way. As if this writing, Malignant has only been released for a couple of days, so no spoilers are discussed, but suffice to say, the movie you thought you were watching becomes something entirely different in its final act. It’s hard to take some of it seriously, but you’re still enjoying its gruesome fun. Is Malignant ranked a little too high for such a new release? Possibly, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that Malignant is a Madison-sized lot more memorable than most of the bottom seven on this list. You might hate it. You might love it. But you won’t forget it.
4) Insidious (2010)
Another low budget gem in which James Wan uses the DIY aesthetic to benefit the movie. A well-crafted ghost story with some of the best executed scares of Wan’s career. Featuring excellent child acting and a scene-stealing performance from horror veteran Lin Shaye, Insidious builds its suspense deliberately, but the audience is never bored. Yes, The Further itself doesn’t look all that scary after the credits roll, but in the moment, Wan has you in its grip. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are more than believable as the harried couple with the unfortunate child. They’re genuinely scared, so you are. When it was released in 2010, the title felt lazy, almost generic. Like the movie, the title also grows on you with repeated viewings. Insidious isn’t the first horror movie whose sequels diminish the first movie, but at least you still have the wonderful, eerie original.
5) The Conjuring 2 (2016)
If you liked The Conjuring, you liked The Conjuring 2 almost as much. Though the stories are different, The Conjuring and its sequel feel like the same movie. The beats are in the similar places. The scares have the same timing and share the same angles. The Enfield case gets the Conjuring treatment, a mixture of real life terror and Hollywood artifice. To what degree you believe the events of the movie doesn’t matter. You see it for Ed and Lorraine, and they don’t disappoint. The end credits are the scariest part of any Conjuring movie, but you still have an enjoyable time before you reach the end.
6) Furious 7 (2015)
It’s a wonder this movie makes any sense at all considering how the death of Paul Walker in the middle of filming threw a monkey wrench in the production. You forgive the incoherence of the story because you never watch a Fast and Furious movie for “plot” anyway. What differentiates James Wan’s entry into the long-running series from the others is its sense of style. You know what you’re getting into when you watch the seventh movie in this series, but the chases and the action in general don’t feel as repetitive as in the previous entries. Wan said making this movie (understandably) took its emotional toll on him, and he turned down doing another sequel. At least Furious 7 stands out in a series full of spectacular action and ridiculous dialogue. Plus, that ending.
7) Dead Silence (2007)
James Wan’s second movie actually works better the second time around. Wan and writer Leigh Whannell lamented the studio interference that made the movie so mediocre (and a box-office failure) during its initial release. During its running time, there aren’t a lot of scares you can’t see coming, and even then they aren’t that effective. So much so that the audience reacts in dead silence instead of being frightened. The film is a triumph of production design, and Mary Shaw is an imposing figure that deserved a better movie around her. Having said all that, the ending redeems (for the most part) a lackluster experience and does enrich a repeat viewing. There are shots and character motivations that mean different things a second time around, which does hold the movie together better. But does that make the movie scarier? No, but it’s easier to forgive its weaknesses
8) Death Sentence (2007)
James Wan’s second movie released in 2007 with a derivative of the word “dead” in the title. Death Sentence is a violent, shallow, but entertainingly efficient revenge movie to be enjoyed only at a surface level. You know exactly why you see something like Death Sentence and get what you expect and nothing more. Sentence almost wastes the excellent lead performance by Kevin Bacon by being too facile. Like Dead Silence released months before, the main character is more compelling than most of the movie. It’s not a death sentence to sit through Death Sentence, even if it disappears from your memory as the end credits roll.
9) Insidious Chapter 2 (2013)
Insidious Chapter 2 feels like a very talky trailer to the future mediocre Insidious sequels. Insidious was an effective enough horror movie that ended on a solid note. Chapter 2 feels like a bunch of disparate ideas thrown at a dartboard that only intermittently stick, but you have to get through a ponderous first act. There’s so much dull backstory to the first 45 minutes that if it weren’t for the fact that you recognize the characters from the first Insidious, you’d wonder if you were really watching a horror movie. Wan does his best to get through those setup scenes as quickly as he can, but you could have walked into the movie 30 minutes late and not missed much. The final act does contain well executed frights, but you have to wade through mountains of tedious exposition to get there. At least Chapter 2 isn’t as bad as the subsequent Insidious sequels. So there’s that.
10) Aquaman (2018)
James Wan’s entry into the clown car that is the DC Extended Universe made so much money that it let Wan do whatever he wanted. Out of that came Malignant, which feels like a win. Aquaman is two and a quarter hours but feels like another hour was added because there are chunks of time when nothing actually happens. I guess we should be thankful Zack Snyder has nothing to do with this or else there would be another 90 minutes added to the running time. Aquaman is both overcooked and underwhelming at the same time. Patrick Wilson yells a lot but provides no menace as the movie’s main villain. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Manta feels unnecessary to the story and only adds to the running time. Jason Momoa’s charisma is the only reason you don’t fall asleep as his performance carries this waterlogged production. Do we hope for improvement in the sequel? No, but we’ll see it anyway.
An excellent horror director that dabbles in other genres with commercial if not artistic success, James Wan keeps audiences guessing as you what he’ll do next. Like the majority of the scares in his horror movies, Wan draws you in before blindsiding you with surprise. While you wait for the Aquaman sequel, revisit some of James Wan’s earlier movies and witness a solid stylist, even if Wan sometimes jumbles actual human emotion.