Like a modern-day Wes Craven, James Wan has swiftly become one of the most successful horror directors of his generation. Already the co-creator of the successful Saw franchise, Wan, 36, has exactly what Hollywood wants: the ability to turn low-budget independent shockers into box-office smashes. His last film, Insidious, in which evil spirits trap a child in a demonic realm, was made for just US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) and took $97m around the world.
So it’s no surprise that the Malaysia-born, Australia-raised Wan was courted by the studios for his latest film The Conjuring – and he was more than happy to play along. “When you ask someone what their favourite scary movie is, inevitably they will say that it’s The Shining or The Exorcist or The Haunting or Poltergeist or Jaws,” he says. “And here’s something they all have in common – they were all studio films. I wanted to make a classic studio horror film.”
Already, the film has taken $121m in the US alone, once again justifying Wan’s title as Hollywood’s current King of Horror. Featuring the real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by the Insidious star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the 1970s-set story sees this intrepid couple attempt to exorcise a demon that’s terrorising a husband and wife and their five daughters after they move into a lakeside farmhouse with a history of suicide and Satanic rituals.
Like The Exorcist crossed with The Amityville Horror, it’s unquestionably one of the year’s most terrifying movies – building from seen-it-before door slams to nerve-shredding chaos. While it may lack the spiritual dimension of The Exorcist, Wan’s ambitions go beyond simply giving us nightmares. “With The Conjuring, I really wanted to move away from the cheeky things I usually do in my films,” he says. “We wanted to make a movie about a family unit that’s trying to stay together.” Despite this positive studio experience, Wan hasn’t entirely turned his back on the independent world; he’s just completed Insidious 2, again with Wilson, which is due out next month.
“I love the characters that we’ve created, so the chance to come back and visit them again was awesome.”
The first sequel of his career, Wan admits this came about as a reaction to his Saw experience. In 2004, after he and his co-creator Leigh Whannell saw the original take $125m, he took a back seat and let others direct the six sequels.
“There’s always this little thing in me that said: ‘If I hung around, I would have done it a bit differently,’” he says.
While the first film was a neatly executed puzzle-piece horror in which a sadistic killer put victims in gruesome morality-baiting traps, critics carped that the follow-ups became convoluted and repetitive. Did he think they made too many? Wan simply shrugs. “It’s Hollywood, it’s America, it’s the capitalistic system. There’s nothing you can do about it. If it makes money, they’ll keep doing it.”
Smartly, unlike Craven, who is typecast as a horror director, Wan has just signed on to direct Vin Diesel and co in the action sequel Fast & Furious 7, to be filmed in the UAE.
“In Hollywood, you get put into a box and you have to work very hard to break out of the box,” he says. “I’ve had so much success in the scary movie world that people think that’s all I’m good for or good at. I love big action movies. I wanted to go to Hollywood to make big blockbuster films and it’s taken me 10 years to get there.”
Now he’s in that position, it will be a different set of pressures – delivering high-octane stunts, dealing with A-list egos and managing the expectation of fans in a franchise that has steadily grown in popularity. “It’s like being invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. I come in late, everyone is carving the turkey, and I’m like: ‘Hey guys, I’m here! Where do I sit?’” Given his reputation in Hollywood right now, it would seem he belongs right at the head of the table.
• The Conjuring opens in UAE cinemas today
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