How James Wan Became the Horror King

He's come a long way since Saw.


With the new movie Annabelle Comes Home having just arrived to theaters, a question emerges: how did the Conjuring universe become so successful? After the massive success of the first two Conjuring movies, many spin-offs of the horror franchise started popping up. The Nun and Annabelle released to box office success, and there’s even rumored to be a Crooked Man movie in the works.

In terms of horror movies, this series is reaching unprecedented heights of success, and it’s all because of one visionary filmmaker: James Wan. The director of the first two Conjuring movies, Wan has since been a producer on every instalment to the franchise since.

James Wan’s skilful directing was what made the franchise what it is. Not only does he have the Conjuring series to his credit, James has made a successful career from creating many iconic horror movies.

What really makes Wan stand out amongst the rest is his use of the camera. Digital zooms that slowly move in on a creepy image. Slow panning shots that reveal something mysterious. Quick jerks of the camera that reveal a ghost/ monster and scare the audience. Many of these tricks had been done before on camera, but never to the same effect as a James Wan movie.

His camera skills were so on point that he has been offered multiple blockbuster franchises since his initial horror run. Since directing his many horror movies, Wan took on an installment of the Fast and Furious franchise as well as DC’s Aquaman.

Despite the massive success that Wan has had in recent years, he still manages to be an important producer on the most popular horror franchises coming out each year.


Saw (2004)

Saw 1 best horror movies

Wan first showed his ability to create a successful horror franchise with Saw. Working with a longtime writing partner in Leigh Whannell, Wan created the first Saw movie with almost no budget. The film ended up grossing over $103 million worldwide.

In order to pitch the movie, Wan and Whannell created a short film based on one of the scenes in the movie. This Saw 0.5 was so impressive that producers felt compelled to immediately greenlight the project.

Not only did Saw’s unique style redefine the horror genre, it also set one of the most popular Hollywood trends. After the film’s release, many studios picked up on the fact that while horror movies budgets could be minimal, if written and directed creatively enough, the return could still be enormous. Blumhouse Productions has become very successful from cashing in on this pattern, financing low budget hits such as Get Out, The Purge, Happy Death Day and Sinister.


Dead Silence (2007)

After Saw, it was several years until Wan experienced similar levels of success. In the meantime, he and Whannell made Dead Silence, a creepy movie featuring the ghost of a ventriloquist. While Dead Silence may not have been quite the box office heavy hitter that some of his other films were, it was a solid addition to the horror genre.

Starring Ryan Kwanten and Judith Roberts, Dead Silence serves as a good precursor to Wan’s more successful franchises, Insidious and The Conjuring. First off, the feel of the movie is very dark and brooding, with an underlying sense of anxiety that builds up over time. It also has a lot of lore, dealing with the scary “folk tale” of Mary Shaw: an old ventriloquist. Wan and Whannel’s next few movies had a good amount of past lore surrounding the events of the films, providing terrifying context to what was going on. It seems that this movie was a good proving ground for their method.

Although it was a dud upon release, in the years following its 2007 debut, the movie has gained a much bigger following. It went on to double its profits from home media sales.


Insidious (2010)

His next big hit was Insidious. Independently made so Wan could maintain control over the production, this film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to wild critical success. Taking a spin on traditional “haunted house” horror movies, Insidious instead features the main characters’ child as being haunted. A commonly used tagline for the film’s marketing was “it’s not the house that’s haunted.”

This movie set the bar higher for horror in general; the design of the ghosts is especially creepy. Standing out among these is the Lipstick-Face Demon, a character which has since become a bit of a horror icon.

The lore behind the ghosts, the Lipstick Demon and the ghost hunters is what really made this franchise stand out. Insidious 2 even brought a time travel element to the franchise, which has been rarely seen in horror but was used to excellent effect.

It was here that Wan first started gaining notoriety for his impressive cinematography. Between slow panning shots and creepy digital zooms, watching Wan’s movies became a 101 for directing horror after Insidious.


The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring best horror movies

Once The Conjuring was released, James Wan officially established himself as the horror king in Hollywood. Featuring the real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, this first installment to the franchise was a massive success. Wan then went on to direct The Conjuring 2, which received similar critical and financial accolades.

If the cinematography of Insidious was a 101 for directing horror, The Conjuring was a masterclass. He really perfected his craft here. The jump scares are earned with great camera movement. Each establishing shot has a zoom or pan that reveals unsettling information. Every single frame serves a purpose, usually to give us fear of what is to come.

Since The Conjuring 2, Wan has gone on to produce various successful horror movies of all different kinds. He has produced the foundations for The Conjuring Universe, which is quickly becoming the second most successful movie universe outside of the MCU. With Annabelle Comes Home’s successful opening one thing is clear: James Wan is the horror king.

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