At only 35 years of age, James Wan has a lot of years ahead of him in the movie business, yet it seems as if he has been around a while already. He already has a string of impressive horror movies under his belt and the next few years promise more of the same. Wan was born in Sarawak, Malaysia in 1977 but moved to Western Australia as a child. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Whilst studying at RMIT, he met Leigh Whannell and shortly after finishing their studies the pair began collaborating on a screenplay. This was, of course, Saw, a film that would catapult them both to horror stardom and re-invigorate the genre.
With a dead body laying between them, two men wake up in the secure lair of a serial killer who's been nicknamed "Jigsaw". The men must follow various rules and objectives if they wish to survive and win the deadly game set for them.
After several unsuccessful attempts to harness interest in their screenplay, Wan and Whannell utilised one of the latter’s contacts (who was a manager) who in turn, circulated the script around Los Angeles. An agent showed some interest and a meeting was arranged.
To seal the deal, the pair made a short showcase version of the film and it clearly impressed as they received production approval within days. An impressive cast was secured too – including Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Dina Meyer.
The production schedule was hectic and the film was shot in only 18 days. With a relatively small budget of $1m, Saw was expected to be a straight to DVD release but the buzz it created at both Sundance and Toronto film festivals meant that it was destined for bigger things.
Saw was a huge hit at the box office. For a film that only cost $1m to make, it’s worldwide gross of over $100m meant that it was destined for a sequel – something that was green lighted within days of Saw’s release.
Although critics gave a mixed response (44%) on Rotten Tomatoes, the fans lapped it up (7.7 on imdb). It was fresh, it was original and it had a great twist at the end. And it had some very inventive death scenes – something that would be a regular theme throughout the franchise. Wan and Whannell have since commented that several scenes were inspired by nightmares they both had.
As well as co-writing the screenplay, Wan directed the feature himself – and did it with some panache. A quite remarkable feat for someone who was just 27 years of age. The success of the film meant that a franchise was very much in the pipeline, although James Wan had his eyes on other projects…
The Saw Franchise Although Wan’s involvement in the following six Saw films was mainly as a producer, he also helped develop the story for Saw 3. Instead he handed directorial control over to Darren Lynn Bousman – who would go on to direct Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV. Leigh Whannell penned the screenplay for numbers II and III. The fourth instalment of the franchise saw a new writing duo take over – Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton – the guys who went on to create “The Collector”.
Suffice to say the franchise became a bit of a cash cow. Storylines were sacrificed for more blood and more traps and the films became one dimensional. Sure there was some level of entertainment to be had in all of the follow-ups and they made a shed load of money – a combined worldwide gross of over$850m – but Wan effectively jumped ship after the first. A decision that allowed him to develop a career away from Jigsaw and his sick games.
2007 was a big year for Wan. Three years (and two sequels on) from Saw, he had the unenviable task of trying his hand at something new. Ultimately it was always going to be a tough ask as the pressure to recreate a smash hit like Saw was easier said than done.
Dead Silence (2007) A widower returns to his hometown to search for answers to his wife's murder, which may be linked to the ghost of a murdered ventriloquist.
Some of those nightmares that Wan and Whannell had back at College must have involved dolls as their next project, Dead Silence, tapped into most people’s fears of those inanimate plastic objects.
Wan described the project as 'an old school tribute to the old school ghost stories' and as a 'feature film episode of The Twilight Zone' Their budget was much bigger this time, an estimated $20m and they assembled an exciting cast of talent to star in the movie – Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg and Amber Valletta.
This time round, the box office was not as kind, although it still turned in a small profit. Critics were even harsher with Dead Silence than they were with Saw (20% on Rotten Tomatoes) and accused the film of being predictable, boring and having a daft ending. Sure, the film was flawed but it still manages to offer a certain level of hokey fun and some decent scares. An opinion that is shared by audiences who seem to be more receptive to this kind of movie (6 rating on IMDB).
Nevertheless, plans for a sequel were quickly shelved and Whannell later revealed that the film was a largely negative experience for himself and that the idea was only concocted because of pressure from agents to follow up Saw with another horror movie A.S.A.P. *As usual. Wan littered his film with film references - during the climax, in the storage area with all 101 dolls, you can see Jigsaw's doll from the "Saw" films sitting on the floor.
Death Sentence (2007) Nick Hume is a mild-mannered executive with a perfect life, until one gruesome night he witnesses something that changes him forever. Transformed by grief, Hume eventually comes to the disturbing conclusion that no length is too great when protecting his family.
Death Sentence was a strange film. Quite emotionally engaging in parts, ultra-violent in others, it was developed from a novel by Bryan Garfield. Although Wan did not write the screenplay, it obviously attracted him enough to take the directorial reins. Although it was not strictly horror, it was a visceral and full-on revenge story. Wan must have felt that as a first attempt outside the genre, Death Sentence ticked all the right boxes. Wan himself described the film as "a raw and gritty, 70s styled revenge thriller ... It's my arthouse movie with guns."
The film was certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Whilst some praised the performance of Kevin Bacon and gave Wan his dues for helming an intense and action packed movie, many rounded on the chaotic frenzy of violence and the themes of vigilantism that it served up. As so often, Wan’s film divided the critics and the general public who on the whole, gave a positive response to the film. Some critics were suitably impressed - Justin Chang of Variety called the film "well-made, often intensely gripping" and Roger Ebert said the movie was “very efficient”. Ultimately it only gave a 50% return at the box office compared to its budget and must be considered a commercial failure, despite it’s almost cult status amongst some fans.
After completing Death Sentence, Wan announced plans to take a break from movies for a while and concentrate on writing.
A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.
That break lasted about three years although Wan would not return with a screenplay, but once again, he’d find himself behind the camera directing a screenplay from his long-time friend and collaborator, Leigh Whannell. The film in question was Insidious. If anyone had any doubt that Wan could create money spinners like Saw again, then those doubts were vanquished here.
Insidious premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival, as part of the "Midnight Madness" programme, and was sold to Sony Pictures Worldwide for a seven-figure sum within four hours of the premiere's conclusion.
Despite a strong cast, featuring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, it was made at a relatively modest cost of $1.5m. Not bad considering it made nearly $100m worldwide. Insidious is a film of two halves really. The first being a very taut and intense ghost movie and the second (and inferior half) being a fantastical, poltergeist like experience. For all it’s faults, and there are a few, Insidious created a buzz within the horror genre once again. And the hype appeared to be justified. Unlike the majority of Wan’s other movies, Insidious was well received by both audiences and critics alike (receiving a 6.7 score on imdb and 66% on Rotten Tomatoes). Wan proved that he wasn’t all about gore and violence. The movie, especially the first half, is filled with an almost tangible sense of dread and there are several scenes that linger in the memory long after they have been witnessed on screen. It’s been compared to Poltergeist but apart from a few similarities (a medium and an investigative team appearing in the third act) it is a stand out film in it’s own right.
Movies such as Paranormal Activity indicated that audiences were big fans of supernatural scares and Insidious added weight to the idea that there was a shift in direction within the horror genre, away from full-on violence and gore to a more psychological form of horror.
Indeed, this would be the the case for the next few movies Wan planned to make
Icon mega-deal In February 2011, Wan signed a deal with Icon Entertainment that assured that he would be a prolific figure within horror for a few years to come. That deal was for eight horror movies to be produced at a rate of two movies per year. Great news for Wan and good news for horror fans too. We already know what a few of those movies will be and they are all highly anticipated.
The Conjuring Coming to our screens soon and already creating a lot of hype amongst the horror community is The Conjuring. It recounts the apparent true story of the Perron family who encountered spirits living among them in their New England Farmhouse. With a budget of $13m and a cast list that includes Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, a theatrical release is a certainty. The only trailer so far indicates that audiences can expect a nervy, unsettling experience and audience reactions to early screenings have been hugely encouraging. Fingers crossed it won’t disappoint.
Insidious: Chapter 2 There has been a big demand for a sequel to Insidious – and it was always a real possibility based purely on how profitable the first movie was. Well fans have got their wish as shooting is currently underway with a September release being mooted. Interestingly, this is Wan’s first sequel so it will be interesting how he handles trying to replicate the success of the original movie. Leigh Whannell one again provides the screenplay whilst cast members Barbara Hershey, Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson and Lyn Shaye are all returning too. Wan himself had this to say to Dread Central concerning the concept of a sequel to Insidous. “I think the sequel to ‘Insidious’ is kind of my reaction to Saw where for my own reason I wasn’t as involved in the sequels, and so I felt with Insidious, think it would be good to shepherd it and keep it more in track to the version I had when I made the first film so that it doesn’t detour too far. So yeah, I’m kind of working with Leigh on the story and the script.” House of Horror / Untitled James Wan thriller James Wan collaborated with fellow screenwriter Max La Bella to create the script for this, as yet, untitled horror/thriller. Will Canon directs and the shooting wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. Wan is also producing the flick. The synopsis is as follows “A police psychologist and a detective investigate the mass killing of a host of ghost-hunters in a house plauged with paranormal activity”. An impressive cast list includes Maria Bello and Cody Horn. Expect a late 2013/early 2014 release. The future Wan’s deal with Icon Entertainment means that we are going to see a few more horror films over the next couple of years. But what after that? Wan himself has stated on several occasions that both he and friend/collaborator Leigh Whannell want to move to other genres at some point in the future. In one recent interview he said "I definitely do want to experiment in other genres, or make films in other genres I love. Leigh and I we’re not just horror fans. We’re film fans. I love action films. I want to do action films. I want to do romantic comedies. I love all this stuff. So, if I find the good material, I’ll do it." If Wan decides to escape from the horror genre then it will be a big loss, there’s no question. Indeed he has recently been chosen to helm the movie version of “Macgyver” which is a far cry from his horror roots. Nevertheless his films have rekindled interest in horror and have, on the whole, been huge successes in terms of profit and audience ratings. If his future releases are as good as the movies he has produced thus far, he will be remembered as a horror great.