When James Wan and Leigh Wannell produced and created their 2004 film Saw, I doubt they could have foreseen the almost cult franchise that it would eventually grow into. With a budget of around $1 million, yet box office gross of over $50 million, film after film was quickly released each year around Halloween. The string ended with Saw 3D in 2010, but with confirmation of an 8th Saw film, Saw Legacy, it's clear the franchise is still going strong.
Not only has Wan focused on the Saw franchise, his most recent works Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) are phenomenal in their own right. The unique spin that Wan has, shines through in each of his films, and with each one, he changes the way horror is filmed and perceived. As a major game changer in the horror field, would it be too much of a stretch to describe him as the Wes Craven of this generation?
How SAW paved the way
The success of the Saw films, can be linked to the main stream popularisation of 'Torture-Porn' films in recent years. As Eli Roth (director of Hostel: part II) said "They [audiences] want to see people gettin' fucked up - BAD". Following the Saw films came the Hostel series where backpackers were kidnapped and tortured, The Collector in 2009 where a man breaks into houses, mercilessly tortures the occupants and keeps one alive for his 'collection' and, probably the most controversial, Human Centipede series.
The exact category of 'Torture Porn' did not exist before Saw or Hostel. Films in pre-2000s were often divided into slasher- high kill counts or splatter - gore (which torture porn is a combination of). Craven, himself, had directed the film The Hills Have Eyes which brinks on the torture-porn category, with a band of cannibals attacking travellers. In this sense, Saw meshed together, two previously diverse fields and created a film filled with death and gore. Building on the attempts of Craven and others, and ultimately enticing audiences.
James Wan vs. Wes Craven
One of the more interesting themes in Craven and Wan's works is the idea of alternate realities, projected or accessed via dreams. In Craven's 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger takes revenge on a group of teenagers. The teenagers are thrown into Krueger's dream world, and killed there. The line between reality and dreams becomes so thin during the film, that the main character is often not sure if she is asleep or awake. In a similar vein, Wan's work with Insidious (2010) also features the theme of dangerous dream travelling. One of the children in Insidious, Dalton, has the ability of astral projection while he sleeps. However he has traveled too far, into 'The Further', a place inhabited by the souls of the dead. There he is captured by one particularly demonic entity, and his body can be used by spirits who wish to return to the living.
What I appreciate most about Wan's work in Insidious is the almost fantasy aspects of 'The Further', the spirits are grotesquely comical and the whole story almost screens like an Alice through the Looking Glass - except what they encounter are far more dangerous. The film also marks Wan's changing styles, within 6 years, changing his focus from gore and carnage, and throwing back to the horror of old. Horror that keeps audiences up at night.
Giving back to the horror genre
Probably the most interesting contribution Wan has had to horror is the new interest in 'true' horror cinematic tales. Traditional horror movies, had focused on the fictional - purely from the minds of their directors and creators. Audiences at the end of screenings would sigh with relief "it's only a movie". Yet, the 2013 film The Conjuring, followed by Annabelle (2014) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), have created two new horror icons - Ed and Lorraine Warren. Ed and Lorraine are essentially the ghostbusters of the 1970s. While Wes Craven's films A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes are very loosely based on real events, Wan directly draws on the experiences of the Warrens. Wan doesn't need to sensationalise the story, as by itself, it is one that haunts audiences.
Ultimately, while James Wan is definitely a fantastic director, I don't believe it's appropriate to consider him like Wes Craven. Wes Craven was a visionary, who created whole new concepts inside the Horror genre. On the other hand, Wan has simply built on these concepts and taken them into the modern era. However, I don't doubt his ability to rise to the Wes Craven level. After all James Wan is just beginning his cinematic legacy.
So what do you reckon? Is James Wan's work going to be this generation's horror legacy? Or is his work a bit of a hit and miss? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments!