James Wan has been successfully thrilling American audiences for the last decade. Starting his career with the low-budget-turned-mega franchise Saw, Wan went on to craft iconic horror series like Insidious and The Conjuring before destroying box-office records with the decidedly not-horror movie Furious 7.
Now he’s at the helm of DC’s upcoming Aquaman film. And in a recent statement, he says it’ll be obvious how his version of Aquaman will share a tone and asethetic with his previous films. So, what’s the deal there? Based on Wan’s filmography, what exactly can we expect from his first superhero film?
The first Saw movie turned a $1.2 million-dollar film into a $103 million-dollar success. The film launched a multi-million dollar franchise and made the horror subgenre “torture porn” a viable niche in mainstream cinema. As the intensity of the films, and the gross-out factor multiplied exponentially with each new sequel, it’s important to remember that the first film was a genuinely low-budget, psycho-thriller.
The only film in the series directed by Wan, Saw is interesting from a design perspective. The idea of a man who invents these intricate deathtraps is a twisted idea, but a fun one. While the politics of the character’s “I don’t kill them, they fail to save themselves” idea is bullshit at best, Saw is a thrilling idea that mixes pulp sensibilities with a deadly game of Mouse Trap.
As the co-writer on the film, Wan shows a real knack for turning played-out tropes on their heads to make fun films. If any character deserves a serious re-imagining in the public imagination, it’s “I can talk to fish and splish-splash water” Aquaman.
Wan followed Saw with the one-two punch of Dead Silence and Death Sentence. Both of those films turned out to be more generic horror outings that failed to really make a big impression on audiences. Insidious changed that pattern.
The haunted house/demon possession story reminded audiences that Wan can mix slow, building tension, and blow it up with sheer insanity when all hell breaks loose. For a film that begins fairly slowly, the film’s third-act is a carnival of chaos, combining high-intensity scares with a dissonant soundtrack and vibrant demons. Insidious is fantastically manic film in its own right, but felt like a practice-run for his next film.
Based on real-life paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren’s encounter with the haunting of the Perron family, The Conjuring is one of the best horror films of the last five years. Wan built The Conjuring around the same, methodical tension that made classic horror films like The Exorcist and Amityville Horror (the latter was based on the story told in this film) feel so intense, even today. Wan approaches horror films with an amazing understanding of how to build and release tension. Each scare in The Conjuring was primed like a single shot, and the impact of each horror was perfectly aimed at audiences’ hearts.
What kept The Conjuring from feeling like a cold exercise in horror? The same pulp flourishes Wan enjoys throwing into all of his films. The game of clap scene in the film, easily one of the scariest scenes of all-time, is built on a children’s game, and slowly morphs into genuine dread. Aquaman will need to be completely remade into a new character for the upcoming film to work, and Wan has proven horror-wise that he can turn dated and kitsch into genuinely exciting thrills. And he can also do big action.
Frankly the best superhero team currently with their own franchise, are the badasses of the Fast and Furious series. Since the fourth Fast & Furious, the franchise that used to be about street racing now features some of the most exhilarating action scenes ever choreographed on film.
They truly are some of the most amazing fight scenes ever put to film, and Wan’s Furious 7 didn’t disappoint. Wan is the sort of director who turns a street fight between Vin Diesel and Jason Statham into a samurai duel, only instead of swords, they use wrenches and car irons. Furious 7 proved that despite all the control Wan showcases when planning out his horror films, he can design fight scenes that will surely do justice to Jason Momoa’s hulking Aquaman — already an action star from his role as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones.
Aquaman is in dire need of reinterpretation. While the image of Momoa’s very serious, very dreadlocked Aquaman previews what kind of hero we’re going to see in the film, audiences have proved to be turned-off from characters who wallow in their own “grittiness”.
But Wan is different than Snyder in that each of his films have proved to be playful, even at their most terrifying. While there’s no way Aquaman will be an overtly humorous film, we can expect Wan to turn the hero into, perhaps, a pulp action star. The ocean, already ripe for terrifying and alien imagery, could be the perfect setting to stage hugely imaginative scenes, in an environment no director has utilized since James Cameron’s Titanic. We can expect Aquaman to be heavy on action while taking full advantage of the ocean depth’s dark atmosphere.