October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror films from the world of James Wan is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
In September of 2004, James Wan was just a would-be filmmaker from Australia palling around with his pal Leigh Whannell. A month later, he would become one of the biggest names in horror, and his legend has only grown since. When Saw hit theaters, modern horror wasn’t quite stale, but it had yet to find its footing in the 21st century. Wan’s gruesome little flick about a deranged killer punishing those who don’t value life with fiendish contraptions and deadly games quickly established the bar for where horror was heading.
In the twenty years since Wan has been one of the major players in horror. Saw has spun off into a major franchise that is ten films deep and counting. The latest entry has been in theaters a little less than a month and is already pushing $100 million. And that’s just one franchise Wan has created. In 2010, he released Insidious, starting a franchise that released its fifth earlier this year, with a sixth already in production. Then there’s the 2013 release of The Conjuring, which spawned an entire universe that now has eight films, the last of which was released roughly two months ago. To recap, since 2004, James Wan has started two separate franchises and one universe, all of which consist of at least five films, and all saw a new entry as recently as this year. That’s absurd, and it doesn’t even begin to touch on the fact that he’s directed and produced stand-alone films like Dead Silence and Mortal Kombat and entered the comic world by leading the Aquaman franchise. Oh, and he knows a thing or two about family.
Naturally, the smart thing to do is take everything Wan has directed, produced, or touched in the last twenty years and lump them into what we are collectively calling the Waniverse! Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly have taken horror films from this vast world and ranked our favorite ten. If you don’t like our list, make your own!
10. Saw II (2005)
James Wan was already carried away on Dead Silence when the Saw II dinner bell got wrung. He had to pass his baby off to Darren Lynn Bousman, and while few would argue the sequel’s superiority to the original, it is where the franchise took off and became its own weird thing. Saw sequels were rarely sequels but often prequels and sometimes sidequests. Saw II is maybe even meaner than the first, and its traps are more complicated and sometimes more visceral. The needle pit, folks. It’s not the gnarliest thing you’ve ever seen on screen, but its simplicity sticks. Shawnee Smith transforms a memorable turn from Saw into an essential franchise ingredient. She and Tobin Bell became horror’s Batman and Robin. (Brad Gullickson)
9. Lights Out (2016)
Stretching a successful short film into a feature-length effort is often risky. David F. Sandberg took on the risk with his 2016 directorial debut, and the results were quite positive. The premise of Lights Out is simple but very effective. A creature that appears to be a woman with claw-like hands appears in the shadows when the lights go out. In the dark, she can attack and be deadly, but turn the lights back on, and you’re safe. Sandberg has fun playing with the light and shadows to create a tight, 80-minute horror film perfect for younger fans looking to transition to something more adult. (Chris Coffel)
8. Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
Unlike my cohorts here, I am not the biggest fan of Insidious. It feels incomplete to me… that is, until you watch it with the sequel that acts as a nice rug and ties the whole story together. This film hinges entirely on the performance of Patrick Wilson. After being possessed at the end of the first film, we slowly watch Wilson’s Josh descend into madness, overcome with a desire to kill his family. Chapter 2 takes the audience back and forth between “The Further” and the real world, upping the scares and filling in the details hinted at in the first film. It’s a nearly perfect sequel and another stellar example of James Wan’s horror films. (Chris Coffel)
7. Saw III (2006)
While Saw II expanded on Jigsaw’s backstory and provided some motives for his actions, Saw III set out to add a little more emotion and weight to the relationship between our game-obsessed killer and his young apprentice, Amanda. The film succeeds in that regard, with Amanda becoming jealous of the relationship between Jigsaw and a doctor they kidnapped to help keep him alive. That jealousy resulted in some of the most brutal traps and games the franchise has seen to date. The harness that explodes poor Kerry’s ribs? That’s an all-timer. Saw III is also the film that provided us with Jigsaw’s moral code. This seems weird since the man kidnaps people and puts them in death traps, but he has rules, and he sticks to them, dammit! (Chris Coffel)
6. M3gan (2022)
When the first trailer for M3gan dropped, heads everywhere exploded on the internet. An AI-infused, life-like doll with killer dance moves? Could this possibly live up to the hype? Remarkably, yes. Gerard Johnstone‘s science fiction thriller effectively plays on our modern reliance on technology and the emotional bonds small children build with the most unusual things. But more importantly, it’s a movie about a killer doll. Yes, the PG-13 rating prevents some iconic moments of bloodshed, but the ending is a little bit Aliens and a little bit Robot Jox. And for that, I tip my hat. Now, just gives a few sequels and the eventual Chucky crossover. (Chris Coffel)
5. Insidious (2010)
After Saw, James Wan’s horror films tried to break away from his torture porn past with the doll-centric supernatural chiller Dead Silence. Despite that film’s intriguing premise and cheesy execution, it languished in the post-9/11 horror landscape when audiences were still craving something a little more extreme to match the tenor of the times. However, the seeds Wan planted in Dead Silence would finally come to fruition with Insidious. From its dour usage of light and shadow and its mix of emotional storytelling beats with full-throated horror, Insidious effectively debuts all the artistry Wan would utilize in his filmography moving forward, further distancing himself from the aesthetics of the series that initially made him a new master of horror in the 2000s. (Jacob Trussell)
4. The Conjuring (2013)
A bunch of kids running around in a creepy old house with spooky trees all about and hidden rooms is a surefire way to create a successful horror film. And that’s precisely what James Wan did when he took the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren to the big screen for the first time ten years ago in The Conjuring. Based on an allegedly true story, Ed and Lorraine take a trip to Rhode Island to assist the Peron family with ghostly happenings at their newly purchased farmhouse. They discover that dark forces have latched onto the family, and the only solution is to perform an exorcist. The Conjuring succeeds in being a scary film oozing atmosphere highlighted by memorable moments — claps will forever haunt me. But more importantly, it launched a franchise and mini-universe, a staple of modern horror. (Chris Coffel)
3. Saw (2004)
On October 29, 2004, James Wan changed the landscape of modern horror with the release of Saw. While critics at the time were disgusted and outraged by such a film, it did huge numbers at the box office, putting Wan on the map and creating the blueprint for the next decade of horror. Haters will write it off as simply gore for the sake of gore, or worse yet, slap it with the embarrassing label of “torture porn,” but Saw is the highest caliber of low-budget filmmaking. Wan can take a simple premise of two guys locked in a room with no idea of how they got there and turn it into something big. Yes, some of the flashbacks overcomplicate things, and yes, Cary Elwes yells a lot, but nearly twenty years later, the film is just as effective and impactful as ever. And the twist ending, even when you know it’s coming, still hits hard. (Chris Coffel)
2. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
The second installment in the “superheroes, but for Catholics” universe, The Conjuring 2, reunited audiences with ghost-hunting couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). Loosely adapting the alleged Enfield poltergeist incident, the sequel sees the Warrens going overseas to jolly old England, where yet another large family is being terrorized by a malicious supernatural presence. While it doesn’t quite reach the tightly choreographed heights of its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 excels at balancing crowd-pleasing shmaltz with some genuinely memorable scares. Where else can you find this level of married couple chemistry and child possession? What other horror film makes time to let Patrick Wilson sing Elvis with an acoustic guitar? What other film with a shark-mouthed seven-foot-tall nun could also double as a Valentine’s Day and a Christmas movie? No matter how you slice it (or exorcize it), The Conjuring 2 has something for everyone. It’s the best of both worlds (including the nether ones). (Meg Shields)
1. Malignant (2021)
James Wan is a rarity in the horror genre in that he’s directly responsible for kicking off not one, not two, but five film series — Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Annabelle, and The Nun — and he shows no sign of slowing down. Several of his films as director or producer have already or are likely to get sequels down the road, but one that isn’t (as of now, anyway) is his wildly entertaining slasher/giallo/action movie romp, Malignant. It lands at our number one spot here despite being his lowest-grossing film since 2007, and that speaks to the amount and degree of horror-loving fun that he packs into its fast-moving running time. Gory killings? Check. Stylish set-pieces? Check. Wickedly good action sequence? Check. Gleefully bonkers third act reveals? Check. Wan’s ghostly sequels might make the most bank, but when it comes to James Wan horror, this fantastically freaky one-off is the film that makes us most happy to be horror fans. (Rob Hunter)
Looking to step outside the James Waniverse but still get your horror fix? Then check out more 31 Days of Horror Lists!