Does Conjuring Director James Wan Really Know What Terrifies Us?

The Conjuring 2, out this weekend, is the latest horror offering from James Wan. And though his name doesn’t necessarily command household recognition, maybe no other filmmaker has dominated the last decade of pop horror more. Wan broke through in 2004 with Saw, the smash hit indie horror film in which disaffected everymen were forced to prove their will to live through acts of self-mutilation. For better or worse, Saw defined a generation of horror; it inspired multiple sequels and a slew of gory off-brand piggy-backer Hostel, The Human Centipede, etc.—that would come to be known as torture porn. But if Wan could have exclusively tied himself to theSaw series for the better part of a decade and still seen success, instead his career has been a step-by-step climb from the torture basement to the top of the industry—giving a clue to the potential rewards and restrictions that can come to a creative mind in Hollywood with an eye for both craft and business.

A decade after its release, Saw’s bone-crunching reputation seems premature. Instead, Saw is a puzzle of mechanical manipulation closer to thrillers like Speed or Memento than to the traditions of low-budget horror, which generally rely on simple plots to get to the promised sensory experience of slaughter. Saw is convoluted; even the killer’s identity is itself a clue to the film’s structure: Jigsaw. The victim is trapped in a puzzle, and so is the audience. As the protagonists desperately try to figure out the path to freedom, the audience is engaged in trying to figure out the plot. Despite Saw’s infamous reputation as the kickoff to the gore horror revival, the gore is limited to adrenaline bursts—a maiming for each act break, starting with Amanda’s cuts into the stomach of her cellmate and ending with the infamous saw to the leg.

Those glimpses of gore in Saw captured the public imagination, but Wan’s creative imagination wandered. While his writing partner Leigh Whannell took on writing the Saw sequel that followed, Wan took a backseat, settling for a producer’s credit and moving on to new ventures. As Whannell put it in an interview with the A.V. Club in 2010, “I think James and I were thinking more of the first Saw film as a demo reel for our next film than anything. Far from thinking of what should the sequels be about, we thought that we would probably make the film and then be carting that around on a DVD trying to get people to watch it.”

But if Saw was meant to be a demo reel for their next venture, Wan and Whannell would have to wait as their post-Saw follow-up—Dead Silence, a doll horror film that replaced the complicated plot of Saw with complicated lighting setups—suffered from studio interference and eventually flopped on release. It was only with their next project, the PG-13 haunted-house flick, Insidious, that Wan and Whannell were offered the freedom to explore the style they preferred.

The gore was gone, but familiar horror touchstones like dolls, mirrors, clocks, and classic records remained. With the Insidious series and eventually without Whannell on his solo project The Conjuring, Wan proved his ability to manipulate point of view, camera movement, and sound design to suggest horrors that lie just out of sight. He also showed an eye for visualizing the uncanny bridge between the normal world and his suggested realm of evil—the spiral mirror in The Conjuring, Jigsaw’s mask in Saw, the light of The Further in Insidious. Wan isn’t originating any of these ideas, and he borrows from himself often—the Jigsaw mask really loses its freaky charm when you build a whole movie around a live puppet with the same bone structure—but he lifts the work of his horror idols with enough variety to constitute ingenuity. The suggestive offscreen sound design from Texas Chain Saw Massacre here, the practical effects from The Exorcist there, a baroque ruffled collar and striped music box out of giallo over there. Wan is a remix artist, and there’s no shame in a good spin.

Wan has a clear admiration for the films that hold up the foundations of the horror genre, but there’s a limit to which aspects of those films Wan is willing to explore. Classic American horror films like Psycho, The Birds, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, or The Exorcist inspire fear through a director’s careful manipulation of sight and sound, but these are movies that draw horror out from what normally lies dormant in our existing social realities. Horror at its best reveals the vices that have been allowed to fester in the stagnant waters of American complacency—the work of horror is in literalizing, making visible, validating, and speaking the unspeakable with regard to our society’s collective anxieties, from the Oedipal complex to suburban malaise to the death of blue-collar industry. Masters of horror challenge the audience: I know what’s scaring you—do you?

To be clear, Wan’s films might lack a moral imagination, but that isn’t the same as pursuing amorality. He is not like Eli Roth, for example, whose slasher films are an exercise in nihilism. Instead, Wan’s films approach their ideologies in passive voice—horror interrupts the innate and unquestioned stability of society. His films present an optimistic worldview that never identifies itself as a construction of optimism. Wan’s films are ethnically diverse, but race is never a factor in how the characters relate to each other. The middle-class families in Wan’s films are as idyllic as they are patriarchal. No one has hang-ups about sex, least of all the people who are married. The police are uncorrupt. The evil that possesses children is always external, never native to the children themselves. The psychic world threatens with a generalized menace. Removed from any threat of moral logic, Wan’s philosophy is the absence of philosophy.

But whether this aspect of his filmmaking is born of pragmatism or ambivalence, Wan’s focus on images over ideologies has paid off. His first shot at non-horror filmmaking was a hit, as Furious 7 wildly over-performed to the tune of a cool $1.5 billion at the global box office. While part of that success can be attributed to Paul Walker’s death and the diversity and depth of the cast as a whole, Wan’s staging of set-piece sequences like the movie’s parachuting race cars provided a joyful shot of adrenaline to the by-now veteran series. And after The Conjuring 2, Wan’s next listed directing project is DC’s Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa. Not bad for a guy who started out with $700,000 to make people care about Cary Elwes chopping off his own leg.

Wan’s steady rise to the top of the industry as a competent and enthusiastic craftsman should be encouraging to any fan of visual storytelling, and not every filmmaker need be a political filmmaker. But the apolitical nature of Wan’s work is not unique to Wan—apoliticism is a mainstay of modern studio filmmaking.

The film industry is a closed environment. Maybe not quite as closed as one of Jigsaw’s torture rooms, but there are only so many solutions that will unlock the puzzle of funding, development, distribution, and continued work. Studios don’t want controversy, and so studio films offer the spectacle of violence and fear removed from the psychologies, ideologies, and political realities that cause violence and fear in the real world.

Thanks to social media, phones that double as cameras, and a 24-hour news cycle (and I’m sure you can imagine how we could go on), we live in a chaos of floating and fragmented images, and narrative cinema in the 21st century is one of the few means we retain to provide a common order to the cascade. Depoliticizing popular cinema—removing it from questions of how we as a culture behave and why—relegates the art form to the realm of de-contextualized chaos. But if an apolitical environment is a detriment to any kind of art form, it’s a particular detriment to horror, veiling the central question of a genre suited to unveilings. If living in modern society can only make us happy, how can any filmmaker begin to answer why it is we still want to be scared?

Sure, part of the answer can be accounted for by the physical thrill, the desire to tickle our animal instincts for the low price of a movie ticket. Providing a sensory experience is not for nothing, and for every PG-13 horror movie that still manages to speak to the senses, like Wan’s Insidious, there are 10 duds to match it, from 2009’s abysmalA Haunting in Connecticut to 2016’s awful The Darkness. To have ideas about space and movement is unusual in today’s studio horror, and it’s an accomplishment for a filmmaker to trigger your body’s natural response to a threat. But the horror films that linger are an attack on your body, mind, and soul—and as accomplished as his eye might be for wide angles and face masks, James Wan has yet to see beyond the surface.