I’ll never forget the first time I saw John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. I was five years old and stuffed to the brim with my trick-or-treat haul when my mom turned on AMC and told me I could stay up late and watch her favorite scary movie. A year later, we had the same routine, but this time swapped for Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. I think, for many horror fans, we all remember the first time we saw these films. Sure, I was barely old enough to tie my shoes on my own, but I had seen Freddy, Jason, Michael, and Leatherface on commercials, t-shirts, and costumes for as long as I could remember. Considering I was born in 1990, I recognized the faces long before I saw the movies that made them famous. I’ll never know what it’s like to genuinely see one of those horror staples for the first time, because they were already iconic.
There’s something magical about seeing what spawned a cultural phenomenon for the first time, but it was impossible for me to truly go into these films blind. I fortunately grew up with Ghostface in SCREAM, but he was the brainchild of Wes Craven, a man I already knew as a horror master. John Carpenter and Wes Craven are arguably the two biggest game-changers in horror history and their godlike status has remained untouchable.
James Wan is an undeniable tour de force when it comes to horror filmmaking. In less than fifteen years, Wan successfully ignited the spark of three horror franchises with SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING. I’ve been a horror kid my entire life, but SAW was the first film I ever snuck into seeing in the theaters. I had been watching R-rated films for over a decade, but at 14 years old, I snuck my way into an opening weekend screening of a film that would sincerely change the way I looked at horror for the rest of my life, and the lives of a generation.
SAW completely reshaped the direction of horror in the new millennium; inspiring the “torture porn” craze that absolutely dominated horror until found footage shaky-cammed its way into our lives. The same way the previous generation can excuse the less-than-stellar latter installments of FRIDAY THE 13TH, many millennials find ways to love the latter SAW films. I’m calling it now, twenty years from now my generation will all be talking about the brilliant social commentary of the health insurance industry in SAW VI the same way we talk about the homosexual social commentary of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET II. The first SAW film is a powerhouse of epic proportions and became the most profitable horror film since SCREAM, which was no easy feat, but Wan did it with a handful of credits to his name.
Hot on the heels of SAW, Wan delivered us the creepy puppet film DEAD SILENCE. It may not have blown people away the way some of his other films have (and would continue to do), but the film still has a cult following, much like those that love Craven’s DEADLY FRIEND or Carpenter’s VAMPIRES. That same year, Wan delivered DEATH SENTENCE, arguably his most underrated and unknown feature film. A continuation of the Death Wish books-turned-films series, Wan proved that he could handle a star-studded cast (Kevin Bacon, Aisha Tyler, Kelly Preston, and John Goodman) as well as handle brutally dark action sequences. This is where Wan aligns a bit more with Carpenter over Craven, in the fact that he was able to make a film in the same year as DEAD SILENCE that looked and felt absolutely NOTHING like what came before. His ability to switch between two incredibly different genres within a year is similar to Carpenter’s jump from CHRISTINE to STARMAN.
However, Wan would strike gold again (along with longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell) with INSIDIOUS. Where SAW made waves for its combination of suspense and gore, INSIDIOUS was a more classically executed spook-fest crafted perfectly for the short attention spanned audiences of 2011. The film tiptoes on traditional ghost story conventions, but still felt fresh and original. Only six years after SAW, and Wan had created another iconic horror franchise…something that took Craven twelve years to accomplish with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and SCREAM.
His horror magnum opus would come just two years later with THE CONJURING. While INSIDIOUS was sharp and filled with plenty of nightmarish visuals, THE CONJURING was quickly regarded as one of the most genuinely tarrying films in years. Released during a time where twitter reviews are quick to dismiss seemingly every fucking movie released, ever, THE CONJURING took audiences by storm and scared the absolute hell out of us. This was our HALLOWEEN, our NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. This was the film that would solidify Wan as a master of horror for the rest of his life. INSIDIOUS would spawn two more sequels while THE CONJURING would inspire the spin-off film ANNABELLE, the recent release of THE CONJURING 2 and an announced spin-off about the ghostly nun featured in the aforementioned sequel.
There are more critically acclaimed horror films that have been released during Wan’s career, but we’d be foolish to think that anyone has been able to hold a candle to the success and impact his films have had on the genre as a whole. He makes films that throw film studies classes in a frenzy trying to analyze. He makes films that force the direction of all the independent folks trying to make something studios want to buy. He makes films that come out consistently strong and interesting, and he makes films that forever act as a benchmark for a generation growing up. I can’t look at SAW without thinking about being fourteen and hiding behind my hands in a theatre, the same way I can’t think of THE CONJURING without remembering stealing money out of one of my college graduation cards to buy a midnight ticket. Just as my mom couldn’t wait to share the films of Carpenter and Craven with me, I cannot wait to induce nightmares into my future children through Wan’s filmography.
*Promo Shots: Blumhouse Productions, Lionsgate Entertainment, New Line Cinema