Ranking James Wan’s Horror Films

Who’s the best horror director working today? If you ask 100 hardcore horror fans, you’ll probably get about 50 different answers, so there’s nothing even resembling a consensus on that question. We all have our favorites, and for me, the answer is a no-brainer: James Wan.

I’ve loved James Wan ever since I first saw The Conjuring in theaters. Granted, I had seen and enjoyed some of his films before that, but I never used to care much about minor details like who directed what movie. I just liked what I liked, so I never noticed that the guy who made Saw also did Dead Silence and Insidious. It was only years later that I really started to pay attention to the people behind my favorite films, and one of the first names that caught my eye was James Wan.

He very quickly became my favorite horror director working today, and he hasn’t relinquished that top spot for a single second. There’s never been a doubt in my mind that he’s the best genre filmmaker of this millennium, and unless he retires tomorrow, I don’t see that changing any time soon. That being said, I don’t think all his movies are absolute masterpieces because, like any other director, he’s had his ups and downs. So let’s take a look at the seven horror films James Wan has directed and see which are his best and which you can feel free to skip.

7) Dead Silence

Mary Shaw holding a dummy

If there’s one James Wan film his fans don’t usually like, it’s Dead Silence. I personally don’t think it’s a bad movie, but even I recognize that it’s not particularly good either. It’s fine if you’re just looking to turn your brain off and enjoy some scares, but if you want anything more than the absolute bare minimum, you’re not going to find it here.

The film is about a man whose wife is killed by the ghost of an old ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, and when the police tag him as their top suspect in her murder, he goes back to his hometown to find out what really happened to her. At first, that sounds like it might make for an intriguing story, but unfortunately, the execution falls really flat.

In particular, the characters are fairly boring and unlikeable, the mythology behind Mary Shaw can get a bit silly at times, and there’s a twist at the end that feels both completely unnecessary and totally obvious. Just about the only saving grace here is the scares, but even they’re not quite on par with James Wan’s other work (although to be fair, that’s a very high bar).

Simply put, Dead Silence isn’t a terrible film, but it’s definitely the worst movie on this list. It’s only worth watching if you’re a James Wan completist or if you’re in a very forgiving mood, but other than that, you’re probably better off just giving it a pass.

6) Insidious: Chapter 2

A creepy woman shushing the camera

When it comes to making horror sequels, James Wan is one of the best. Not only did he direct one of the greatest horror sequels of all time (which we’ll get to later), but before that, he made an underrated gem called Insidious: Chapter 2. Picking up right where the original film left off, this one continues the story in just about the best way possible.

Instead of simply going bigger and bloodier, this movie wisely goes deeper. It shows us a lot more of the terrifying place known as the Further, it allows us to get better acquainted with most of the characters we fell in love with the first time around, and it deepens the mythology of this universe by exploring its more imaginative elements even further.

There’s possession, time travel, and a whole lot more, and somehow, James Wan makes it all work. Granted, I don’t think it’s quite as good as the first Insidious, but it doesn’t have to be. This is a worthy follow-up that has everything fans of the original could want, so while I wouldn’t recommend the later sequels (which Wan didn’t direct), this one gets a huge thumbs up from me.

5) Insidious

Close-up of a red-faced ghoul peering over a man's shoulder.

In a lot of ways, Insidious feels almost like a prototype of The Conjuring. Both are haunted house movies about a likable family that’s helped by some paranormal investigators, and in my opinion, Insidious is inferior on just about every count. It’s not as scary as The Conjuring, the narrative isn’t nearly as tight (in fact, it’s downright scattered until Elise arrives), and the characters aren’t quite as likable.

But don’t get the wrong idea. I love Insidious so that comparison really says more about how much I absolutely adore The Conjuring than it does about my feelings toward this movie. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Insidious is one of the best horror films of the 2010s in its own right. It takes a really unique and refreshing approach to the haunted house subgenre, and it does so while effortlessly making you fall in love with Elise and her two hilarious assistants.

On top of that, there’s one thing this movie has that just about nothing else can match—the music. It features arguably the creepiest score I’ve ever heard, and I know I’ll never be able to hear “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” again without feeling a shiver course down my spine. When you put all these great elements together, you get one of the best horror movies of the last decade. So, despite its low placing on this list, Insidious is an absolute must-see for any hardcore genre fan.

4) Malignant

Maddie in bed looking scared

Malignant is hands down James Wan’s most unique film to date. Hell, it’s one of the most unique horror movies in recent memory, so if you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to spoil it for you. I’ll just say that it’s a supernatural, giallo-esque slasher film about a woman who has mysterious visions of a serial killer, but I promise there’s so much more to it than just that.

It’s an intentionally cheesy homage to low-budget 1980s and 1990s horror, and after it lets you in on its big secret (a reveal that you will definitely not see coming), the film goes completely bonkers. Admittedly, the twist isn’t for everyone, and if it doesn’t work for you, there’s a really good chance it’ll ruin the entire movie. But I love it, so for me, Malignant is just short of a masterpiece. It works on pretty much every level, and while it didn’t quite make my top ten horror films of 2021, it’s still required viewing for any James Wan aficionado.

3) The Conjuring 2

Lorraine Warren in front of a creepy painting

In my book, The Conjuring 2 is one of the greatest horror sequels ever made. While it’s not quite as good as the first movie, it’s still a very worthy follow-up that’s equally parts horrifying and heartwarming. In particular, what really stands out to me about this film is how great Ed and Lorraine Warren are. Scares are a dime a dozen in this genre, but not many horror movies feature a love as palpable as theirs (both for each other and for the people they help).

James Wan masterfully builds on the foundation he laid in the first Conjuring, and he takes these characters to even greater heights. Not only does everything they do come from a clear place of love, but there are also some amazing moments when that love really comes to the fore. To take just one example, there’s a great scene where Ed plays the guitar to cheer up the Hodgson girls, and it’s super touching. Granted, it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a scary ghost film, but it helps make this a great movie, not just a great horror movie.

When you combine these wonderful characters with all the tension and scares the Conjuring franchise is known for, you don’t just get one of the best James Wan films. Like I said before, I think The Conjuring 2 belongs in the pantheon of truly great horror sequels, so it definitely deserves its spot near the top of this list.

2) Saw

Close up of wide-eyed woman struggling with torturous device clamped around her head in Saw.

The first time I watched Saw, I was blown away. It’s an absolute masterpiece of psychological terror (the sequels are what really gave the franchise its torture porn label), and it immediately put James Wan on the horror map. As just about every genre fan knows, the villain in this story is Jigsaw, a man who kidnaps people and puts them in elaborate traps that will kill them if they don’t escape. But that amazing premise isn’t the best thing about the movie, the real draw here is the particular situation of its main characters, two seemingly random men who are trapped in a dirty room together with no apparent way out.

They have no idea how they’re going to escape, and neither do we. It’s a captivating mystery, and as the film slowly reveals its secrets, the twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. And when that end finally comes, the movie gets even better. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will say this. Soon after watching it for the first time, I showed it to a friend of mine, and even though he had already heard about the ending, his jaw still dropped (literally!) at the final scene. It’s that good.

It’s the perfect way to cap off a nearly perfect film, so if you’ve never seen Saw, do yourself a favor and remedy that ASAP. This isn’t just the second-best James Wan horror movie. It’s one of the best genre films of any director this century, so it’s an absolute must-see for every horror fan.

1) The Conjuring

Actors depicting Ed and Lorraine Warren look aghast in the cellar in The Conjuring.

The Conjuring isn’t just my favorite James Wan movie. In my opinion, it’s the best horror film of the millennium. I could go on and on about what makes it so great, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to limit myself to two key strengths that set it above its contemporaries.

For starters, it’s one of only two films that have ever truly scared me (the other is Paranormal Activity). I love watching horror movies alone and in the dark, but it took me years to be able to do that with this film. For the longest time, I would always end up turning the lights on before the credits rolled, and while I don’t do that anymore, I still find it creepy as hell.

Secondly, we have the story. The Conjuring tells the kind of classic good versus evil tale that we don’t get enough of in modern horror, and I really appreciate that. See, a lot of genre movies today tend to be very bleak, and their protagonists usually aren’t genuinely good people. At best, they’re good by default because they’re not the monsters trying to kill everyone, but they’re not truly good.

In contrast, the main characters in this film are all genuinely good people. The Warrens make a living out of helping others, and Carolyn and Roger Perron are a loving couple who just want what’s best for their family. They make for an uplifting good versus evil story that stands out in the dreary landscape of modern horror, and as much as I love movies like The Strangers and Saint Maud, it’s always refreshing to see something different.

Like I said before, I could go on and on all day about The Conjuring, but I’m sure you have better things to do with your time. The combination of truly top-notch scares and a heartwarming story is enough to elevate it above every other horror movie I’ve seen in the 21st century, so it’s hands down the best genre film the great James Wan has ever directed.

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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