According to Roald Dahl's "Charlie & The Chocolate Factory," an everlasting gobstopper is tiny, globular candy that changes colors and flavors. It does so ad nauseam. And it never gets smaller, never disappears, and never stops dispensing a whirligig of sensation. Which is why I'm thrilled to report that James Wan movies are, in my estimation, everlasting gobstoppers.
For the last 17 years, the Australian auteur has orchestrated tonal explosions of cinema, films that throw the proverbial kitchen sink onto celluloid and make art from the dregs left stagnant in its disposal. No genre is untouchable; no cliche is boring. In Wan's hands, the melodramatic reveal of surprise family ties can find the fresh flavor of knowing camp. A CGI-heavy set piece can feel earthy, grim, and strange. It's little wonder that Wan has become one of our most successful purveyors of blockbuster entertainment, not just artistically but financially — the everlasting gobstopper, after all, was intended for those with "very little pocket money," a way for any person to feel rich by way of a small and meaningful experience.
Movies can offer this too. And no matter what you make of Wan's work, it's hard to argue that they don't deliver on that promise. If you walk away from any of them feeling like you haven't gotten your money's worth, you weren't watching closely. Here, then, are all of James Wan's films, ranked from worst to best.
Insidious: Chapter 2
It isn't that "Insidious: Chapter 2" is James Wan's worst film. On any given day, one could argue that distinction belongs to several other pictures on this list. It is hard to argue, however, that "Insidious: Chapter 2" is anything less than the least James Wan film. Before its release in 2013, the director had never helmed a sequel, much less a picture that felt like a retread of his prior work. But "Insidious: Chapter 2" doubles back on itself by design -- good dad and square-jawed Josh (played by Wan regular Patrick Wilson) has been haunted from the get-go, decades before the twist that made "Insidious" so memorable.
And to be clear, that's a regular path for sequels to chart! But Wan is at his best when he genuinely guns for something new, and his joy when he does so is palpable. "Insidious: Chapter 2" lacks that spark. It's not the worst James Wan movie because it's bad; it's the worst Wan film because it's tired. Skip it at your leisure.
"Death Sentence" is essential James Wan, but that doesn't mean it's excellent. The frequently hackneyed plot — an ordinary dad (Kevin Bacon) sees his son murdered by gang members and goes full vigilante on the lot of them — doesn't distinguish its knowing platitudes from its worn ones. What's worse, the performances, usually a highlight of Wan's movies, are mostly swing and miss, even from reliable stalwarts like Bacon, Kelly Preston, and John Goodman. If you need a '70s-style revenge flick, there are loads more successful options.
Why, then, "Death Sentence" worth speaking about at all? Simple: the parking garage chase. For two minutes and 12 seconds, "Death Sentence" becomes both the best version of itself and a genuine, talent-stretching effort from Wan. Shot in a continuous single take, the sequence finds Bacon evading a score of angry ne'er do wells across multiple levels of a concrete parking structure. The camera weaves in and out of cars, even passing outside of the building itself at multiple points. It's showy and overly staged, but it's also an attempted moment of invention.
Upon its release, nothing like this existed on Wan's filmography. Years later, it feels like a burst of cinematic muscle-building that would allow Wan to power-lift the expansive action of "Furious 7" or go ham on "Aquaman" and its close-quarters combat. That makes "Death Sentence" important. It just doesn't make it good.
For my money, no James Wan film has depreciated more in value than "The Conjuring." Yes, "The Conjuring" is a horror staple. The seven films it spawned arguably comprise the most successful shared cinematic universe not named "Marvel," and the original balances tense set pieces, lush period details, and hackneyed franchise-expansion expertly. Saying "The Conjuring" has diminished in any sense is like saying "Candyman" into a mirror. It's a bad look. That said? I'm pressing on.
It's not that "The Conjuring" is bad, but this is a list of the best James Wan movies. We're evaluating each movie both by its overall quality and as well as how it encapsulates what the director sets out to accomplish. In the latter sense, "The Conjuring" now disappoints. Every element in it is more fully realized in "The Conjuring 2." Retrospectively, "The Conjuring" is a bit dull.
Furthermore, the film fails to make the Warrens (whose actual history is fairly checkered) little more than canvases onto which scares are projected. Where both the sequel and "Annabelle Comes Home" wisely make them goofy but sincere embodiments of strong Christian values, here they simply exist. "The Conjuring" is essential, but not the powerhouse it appeared to be during a first viewing. Just because something's a staple doesn't guarantee its greatness.
The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines "critical faculties" as "the ability to make judgements about what is good or true," and I find that surprising. That definition breaks the critical binary that would suggest, for example, that James Wan's "Dead Silence" can't be good and almost breathlessly bad all at once. "Good and true" allows for camp — and "Dead Silence" is blissful camp.
Much like Wan's recent "Malignant," the Leigh Whannell-penned "Dead Silence" was initially met with some confusion. Its plot, which centers on a killer ventriloquist dummy, suggests a pivot from the gritty mind-games of "Saw"; in practice, it was that and then some. This is a film that features Donnie Whalberg embracing 1940s noir detective tropes while inexplicably always shaving, swathes of Shirley Jackson small-town Gothic, and a legitimately confusing scene involving the geographic placement of row boats. Is it good? Yes. Is it truly bad at moments? Sure. Does Wan seem to know both these truths? Yes, although he'll better execute that dichotomy in future projects.
In retrospect, "Dead Silence" is the skeleton key to Wan's aesthetic. A camp lens renders "Dead Silence," with its paint-splatter dialogue and utterly wild final plot twist, far more purposeful. It is good; more importantly, it's true.
Wan was, in many ways, secretly the formative filmmaker of my 20s, a talent whose work was not only memorable but almost omnipresent. His signature style lingered over the Saw series, which released an installment every year from 2004 to 2010; he dropped two movies in 2007. So, by the time that Wan made "Insidious," it was easy to have a sense of him. Even the most casual theatergoer could go "Oh, yeah, the 'Saw' guy," and sink back into their recliner seat.
"Insidious" ripped the roof off that notion. The fourth collaboration between Wan and Leigh Whannell has a bona fide evil streak. Minutes into its run time, when Rose Byrne slowly closes the door to her child's attic bedroom, you are overwhelmed by the sense that this will be the easiest part of the movie to sit through. And you are right. Daylight scares. The shocking dispensing of major characters. "Insidious" does it all.
"Insidious" makes Wan's predilection for abundance a sort of self-imposed challenge: How many singular ways can I terrify an audience? And then it vaults the bar it sets over and over. Wan's films are worth writing about because they lodge themselves within your mind. "Insidious" takes room in your most vulnerable cortexes and hums. I saw it at age 24, and I'm still buzzing.
The Conjuring 2
At some point in 2016's "The Conjuring 2" — not long after a demonic nun is shoehorned into the Amityville horrors, but before Patrick Wilson covers Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" — it becomes the work of a singular artist. It's not that James Wan's movies weren't distinctive before, but they hadn't cohered so completely. "The Conjuring 2" is more than scares and musical numbers. It's a globe-hopping, marriage-espousing, franchise-launching rollercoaster that actually works as a movie. Why? For starters, on a technical level, Wan is on his A-game.
Take this simple jump scare. The build is all ecstatic camera motion, a menacing glide that approaches Dutch angles as Lorraine Warren threads her way through a spirit-filled basement. When the movement finally stops in front of a sheet-covered mirror, we know exactly where the danger is. Then, Wan keeps us on the hook for 30 more breathless seconds. That's impeccable construction.
There's also Wan's trust in himself. The parking garage sequence from "Death Sentence" was a step in the direction of gonzo filmmaking, and the intricate scares of "The Conjuring" revealed a passion for the nuts and bolts of his craft, but "The Conjuring 2" is where Wan starts sprinting with unchecked zeal. This movie's set pieces have set pieces. It leaves nothing on the table, which feels like a core tenet of the movie's identity, not simply injudicious editing. "The Conjuring 2" is the first film of James Wan's second era and it fires, shrieks, and sings on all cylinders.
"Saw" shouldn't exist, not because it inadvertently gave birth to a slew of lesser imitators and spawned the unfortunate term "torture porn," but because, even by indie film standards, it barely made it past the finish line.
As James Wan told the A.V. Club, "The film I ended up with was more gritty and rough around the edges, due to the lack of time and money." Wan literally could not get all the footage he needed during filming. "We did a lot of things to fill in gaps throughout the film," he said. "Whatever we cut to newspaper clippings and stuff like that, or we cut to surveillance cameras, or we cut to still photography within the film, which now people say, 'Wow, that's such a cool experimental style of filmmaking,' we really did that out of necessity."
Excess out of necessity is more than an ingenious approach that saved "Saw" as a movie, and it's the root of what makes Wan a brilliant filmmaker. That "Saw" is Wan at his leanest and meanest and yet still contains surprising diversions speaks to his inherent instincts about stylistic pivots, which later became the secret weapons of both "Aquaman" and "Malignant." "Saw" combines nauseous cinematography, nihilistic plot twists, and a schadenfreude-laden sense of humor, making it the emblematic horror film of the aughts. That speaks to both its effectiveness as well as how adeptly Wan has tapped into the zeitgeist since his career began. "Saw" shouldn't exist, but because it does, pop culture was irrevocably altered.
I'm begging you, watch "Malignant" twice. No, it's not impossible to understand on first viewing or dense with mythology, but until you've reached its conclusion, it's impossible to know what type of movie you've been viewing. "Malignant" was sold as giallo. It's trailers were spine-tingling. But the final film? Not so much. "Malignant" is a campy horror soap by way of "John Wick" and '80s VHS tapes. It is, unquestionably, the most James Wan film ever made.
Does that make it great? Not inherently. But what's fascinating about the criticisms lobbed at "Malignant" — that it doesn't make sense, and that it's tonally all over the place — is that they echo the praises offered to Wan's marquee work. But where "The Conjuring 2" makes sudden diversions from naturalism with stylistic accents and "Aquaman" adds drum-playing octopi as a flourish, "Malignant" makes the ridiculous its primary currency.
This movie invites you to feel silly and confused while you watch it. It's closer to "Sorry To Bother You" or "Dr. Strangelove" than "Insidious"; in its startlingly singular blend of entertainments, it becomes one of the richest crowd-pleasers of the last several years. Watch "Malignant" twice. Doing so won't just make more sense, but will reveal just how riotously fun the movie really is.
Seconds after Brian Terretto (Paul Walker) screams "Dom, cars don't fly!" near the midpoint of the ecstatic "Furious 7," a cherry red muscle car bursts through the window of an imposing Dubai skyscraper and plows through the window of another. It's a burst of awesome delivered with a wink and nudge. But the ecstatic set pieces of Wan's massive contribution to the Fast and Furious franchise are all ostensibly set up for its gut-punch of an ending.
Let's talk about that ending. There's no way around it, just as there's no way around the loss of Paul Walker, or the quiet and terrifying truth that -- at some point -- the highway every human travels comes to an end. For a series whose second act is focused on realizing the impossible -- cars dragging safes through the cities of Rio De Janeiro and fighting armored tanks -- the death of its original North Star was both ironic and irrevocably awful. How on Earth does a movie, much less the artists who made it, begin to process Walker's absence?
Wan's solution: use the director's gift for bringing subtext to the fore to heart-shredding effect. The final moments of "Furious 7" are too special to spoil, but suffice it to say that they both ensure the series' penchant for escapism while acknowledging why it's necessary. They're a reminder of why we go to the movies and why we love -- maybe even need -- movie stars. They are the most vulnerable stretch of images Wan has ever committed to film, and make "Furious 7" one of this century's most successful and satisfying action films. Cars do fly; heroes ride into the sunset. Maybe, someday, we'll see them again.
"Aquaman" is a fairy tale. That might seem counterintuitive if you haven't seen James Wan's most successful film to date, but it's made clear from the jump. If a fairy tale is a children's story about magical beings and lands, then the story of a man who can talk to fish returning home to fight for his honor, his family, and his underwater kingdom sure sounds like it fits the bill. It's this fantastical approach that distinguishes "Aquaman" from every other comic-book film released this century.
In retrospect, widescreen folklore was always the best approach for stories about Arthur Curry. Magic doesn't concern itself with being cool. Magic is entertainment (and, occasionally, spiritual transformation). While Aquaman was once a punchline, he is reimagined in Wan's film as a titanic travel guide through the annals of Atlantis, booby-trapped desert temples, and the deepest reaches of the Trench. And Wan (whose films have almost always dug deep into layered, frequently silly lore) was the ideal director to shepherd that journey.
"Aquaman" gets to be goofy, badass, and awe-inspiring in equal measure; it makes room for Julie Walters to voice an underwater beast and for Patrick Wilson to give his most theatrical on-camera performance to date. It transcends its comic book origins, becoming an actual addition to the modern fairy tale canon.
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