James Wan - Malignant - The Conjuring - Insidious
Credit: Warner Bros.
by Mike Thorn Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Master of Puppets: A Retrospective of James Wan’s Scary Movies

July 14, 2023

If they echo our sense that our bodies are liable to become dead, intractable objects, […] puppets also play out a fantasy of surviving so many outrageous forms of death, so much violence, dismemberment, and devouring; they remind us of how inanimate objects themselves may supply what is lost or dead in us.” — Kenneth Gross, Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life

James Wan’s genre-crossing filmography is expansive, especially when one considers his work as a producer in addition to his directorial output. Wan’s oeuvre within the horror genre is unified by a pointedly formalist ethos that accentuates a visual and metaphorical obsession with marionettes and dolls. From Saw (2004) to Malignant (2021), Wan presents a theory-through-practice approach to horror’s mechanics, while also returning to the thematic obsessions of agency (versus puppet-existence) and materialism (versus mysticism). As an expert manufacturer of scares, misdirection, buildup, and release, Wan foregrounds himself as a craft-intensive “puppeteer.” It’s no surprise, then, that he cites the stylistic influence of major Italian horror auteurs — Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci; all notorious for their meticulous aesthetic voices — and that he loves Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, especially its collection of works by rigorous masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Given that painting was Bava’s first medium, and that Fulci worked as an art critic before entering the film industry, Wan’s interest here helps position his work within an image-centric genre lineage, keenly focused on the roles of light, color, composition, depth, and focus within the filmic grotesque. To be sure, his non-horror ventures are also marked by a visual fastidiousness, and contain their own fair share of horror residue. He’s noted the influence of Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1968) on his forthcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and it’s hard to deny significant traces of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and Ruggero Deodato’s The House on the Edge of the Park (1980) in Wan’s brutal class commentary revenge-drama, Death Sentence (2007). 

Wan’s career began with the low-budget Saw, a feature expansion of his eponymous 2003 short film. He co-wrote the feature with frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell, and the result is spare in concept but formally adventurous in execution. Saw’s central conceit sees two chained men — Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Whannell) — awakening in a strange, panopticon-like room, where they’re subjected to a serial killer’s psychological survival game. As with all of Wan’s horror protagonists, Gordon and Adam act as investigators, driven by specific questions: Where are they? Who put them there? How can they get out alive? This is a common feature of horror narratives writ large. As Noël Carroll notes in The Philosophy of Horror: or, Paradoxes of the Heart (1990), the “majority of horror stories are, to a significant extent, representations of processes of discovery, as well as often occasions for hypothesis formation on the part of the audience, and, as such, these stories engage us in the drama of proof.” Gordon and Adam’s quest for answers is threatened by malicious external forces with mysterious intentions. These unseen threats undercut the power of protagonist agency, accentuating their marionette-like positions; and herein begins Wan’s career-long obsession with puppetry (both conceptually and visually). Saw’s evil mastermind Jigsaw pulls all the narrative strings, staging and manipulating both the behaviors of his captives and police pursuers.

Wan visualizes the figurative through the literal, with John “Jigsaw” Kramer relaying his game’s voice-recorded rules through a Gothically-twisted ventriloquist puppet named Billy, whose cheeks are eerily rouged with red swirls  — a motif that reappears in the spiraled mirror of a cursed music from Wan’s later The Conjuring (2013). And like that trinket, which reveals supernatural presences, Billy is a mesmeric object, a stand-in glamor for the invisible puppeteer (Kramer), a harbinger of darkness. As with all of Wan’s films, Saw is rife with homage, a study of visual design’s role in horror — flashes of crime scene photos recall the gruesome effigy flickers spliced throughout the opening credits of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), while David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) is echoed in Saw’s staging of its brutal death traps through stylized montages of pronounced color grading, mood lighting, fast editing, and frame rate manipulation. These subjectively heightened depictions of violence oscillate between character interior and authorial exterior, which connects with Wan’s broader interest in the dissonances between visual grammar as “objective” (behind the camera) and “subjective” (within the frame): Saw is filled with “objective” images, such as high-angle shots of the captors’ filthy bathroom game stage and Jigsaw’s grainy black-and-white CCTV footage of the same, but the stylized depictions of trapped human prey capture the individual characters’ frantic psychological terror. Here, then, begins James Wan’s obsession with the relationship between puppeteer and puppet.

It’s worth noting that Wan admits how budget and schedule restrictions necessitated many of his creative choices for the first Saw. Mark Bernard’s Selling the Splat Pack: The DVD Revolution and the American Horror Film states that the film’s production limitations forced Wan to use “a makeshift, multimedia approach” to cover directorial shortcomings, inserting still photographs “to tie some scenes together and, to cover some shots that he missed, pulling shots from a video camera that was originally meant to provide a few shots from the surveillance camera monitoring Gordon and Adam as they are chained in the bathroom.” Despite these obstacles, Saw succeeds as a significant work of cultural mythology and a conceptually novel genre picture. 

Credit: Universal Pictures

Wan’s second horror feature, Dead Silence (2007), clarifies — with a budget at least 20 times larger than Saw’s — the director’s defining auteurist trademarks: not only his fascination with puppets, dolls, and the subtraction of human agency, but also his engagements with horror cinema’s history of signifiers, atmospheres, and visual grammar. Again co-written with Whannell, Dead Silence begins with Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and Lisa Ashen (Laura Regan) receiving a mysterious ventriloquist’s dummy at their apartment shortly before Lisa is brutally murdered, her mouth torn wide into a permanent, doll-like yawn. Suspected of committing the murder, Jamie undergoes an investigation that leads him to a local legend surrounding murdered ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Joan Heney), whose dark legacy and spectral presence linger over the small town of Raven’s Fair. Wan describes Dead Silence as an homage to classic Universal horror films, presumably the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), but perhaps most obviously Dead of Night (1945), which features an infamous spooky doll entry. The director also cites the influence of Hammer horror pictures, likely the classicist and sumptuously colorful works of Terence Fisher, such as Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Devil Rides Out (1968). Dead Silence thus situates itself in the narrative and visual territory of the Gothic; the literary tradition’s “return of the repressed” emerges within its fog-soaked, decrepit setting, color timed to foreground contrasts between cadaverous gray-blue and sanguinary red.

Though the film draws most explicitly from the literary and cinematic Gothic tradition, its blurring between puppet and human might have more in common with contemporary fiction writer Thomas Ligotti, an influential figure of pessimistic weird horror. Of course, like most (if not all) weird and horror fiction authors, Ligotti is a creative descendant of the Gothic, but of specific interest here is his pessimistic analysis of horror symbolism in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010). The author describes puppets and dolls within the horror genre as “backdrops or bit-players, imitations of the human form [that] have a symbolic value because they seem connected to another world, one that is all harm and disorder — the kind of place we sometimes fear is the model for our own home ground, which we must believe is passably sound and secure, or at least not an environment where we might mistake a counterfeit person for the real thing.” Dead Silence illustrates this horror-codified notion of people-as-puppets most expressly with the revelation that Jamie’s young stepmother, Ella (Amber Valletta), has convincingly reappropriated the corpse of his wheelchair-bound father, Edward (Bob Gunton), as a human ventriloquist’s dummy. Like Saw, Dead Silence draws on legacies of horror imagery (in the former, serial killer procedurals; in the latter, Gothic and Weird traditions) while advancing figurative and literal articulations of the human as marionette. Wan fills the film with atmospherically expansive deep-focus compositions and elaborate crane shots that dwarf his human characters, even utilizing black-and-white flashbacks to lock the proceedings within the filmic alternate reality of horror history.

Wan expands on the supernatural stylings of Dead Silence in his first official duology, Insidious (2010) and Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013). In the first film, parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) discover that their young son Dalton’s (Ty Simpkins) coma is a consequence of demonic possession. When Josh learns that Dalton has astral-projected into a dangerous other-dimensional space called the Further, he unearths his own long-forgotten ability to do so, in order to save his son. The second film sees the family grappling with the demonic residue that leaked from the Further into their world: this time, it is Josh who has been possessed. The Insidious features advance new renditions of the human puppet via the genre trope of demonic possession, and they initiate the formally precise, elaborately staged execution of scare sequences that later culminate in Wan’s haunted-house picture, The Conjuring (2013). Notably, Insidious also marks Wan’s focal shift toward the middle-class American domicile, a space well-trod in horror literature and cinema, maybe most noteworthily in Stephen King’s fiction (although American literary heirs such as Richard Matheson and Shirley Jackson also warrant serious recognition).

Credit: Matt Kennedy/Film District

Drawing on King’s The Shining (1977) as a means for using horror to study abusive fatherhood and ambiguating the division between “inside” and “outside” evil, Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2 accords Josh his own Jack Torrance moment, when the membrane between his reality and the other-dimensional world of the Further splits, releasing a demon that inhabits both his body and mind. The notion of puppetry, then, serves both narrative and metaphorical functions: Josh is subservient to demonic forces, but he is also ensnared by the tendrils of patriarchal violence and the temptation for dominion. Wan employs a matter-of-fact visual style, bringing the Further’s mythological demon-figures into full focus, and this direct representational strategy recalls William Friedkin’s theological horror classic, The Exorcist (1973). By visually literalizing the Further’s supernatural denizens and bringing mythic noumena into the stark actuality of phenomena, Wan collapses spiritualism with materialism. That is, the director depicts spiritualism as something tactile and physical, grafting this openness onto some of the seemingly opposite mechanics of classical haunted house movie scene-building — there is a marked reliance on misdirection, obfuscation, and ambiguity in the likes of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries (1943-5), The Innocents (1961), and The Haunting (1963). With regard to the age-old binary that has haunted the literary and cinematic horror genre, and between science and religion writ large, Wan’s Insidious pictures firmly station themselves in neither category.

Wan’s Conjuring films further embody this binary-defying approach to spiritualism and materialism; both The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016) are replete with scientific methodologies for identifying and combating supernatural forces. Allegedly based on actual events, as recounted by paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring is Wan’s first directorial work not written by him or Whannell (penned instead by Chad and Cary Hayes, scribes for the films House of Wax [2005] and The Reaping [2007], among others). Still, Wan’s formalism and aesthetic preoccupations loom large. Set in 1970, the first film follows the Warrens on assignment to cleanse a ghost- and demon-infested farmhouse belonging to Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston). The Perrons, and their five daughters, are subject to escalating forms of physical and psychological torment which crescendo with the uncovering of the house’s horrific Gothic past and, ultimately, the demonic possession of Carolyn. The film’s centerpiece is a sprawling nighttime sequence following Carolyn and her daughter, Cindy (Mackenzie Foy), through an intensifying series of supernatural encounters. This series of scenes is the quintessential showcase for Wan as a craftsman of cinematic scares and a consummate puppeteer of viewer affect; the director applies his signature well-rounded formal strategies, synthesizing audio lulls and spikes with visual information (compositional distractions, proximity between viewer and object-of-terror, and tactical misdirection). The Conjuring also introduces the leering haunted doll Annabelle (now a star of her own spinoff franchise), which the Warrens claim is a “vessel” for demonic entities. Its narrative thus expressly closes the gap between doll and human, with Carolyn’s possession echoing the film’s introductory Annabelle doll sequence. Wan cites Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) as a major influence, but The Conjuring is most deliberately and notably steeped in the textures of ‘70s American horror cinema, e.g., The Exorcist, The Omen (1976), and The Amityville Horror (1979).

Set seven years later, The Conjuring 2 brings the Warrens to the London borough of Enfield, where single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) seeks help after her children’s Ouija game leads to the possession of her daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). Where its predecessor was set in summer-drenched Rhode Island, The Conjuring 2 is a Christmas feature with a muted gray-white palette, and the way it capitalizes on the dissonance between festive coziness and spectral invasion owes something to the wintry supernatural fictions of M. R. James, Henry James, and Charles Dickens. This is Wan’s closest cinematic approximation of a haunted house theme park attraction, populated with multiple villainous forces: in addition to Janet’s croaky spectral parasite Bill Wilkins, the Hodgsons are terrorized by a demonic nun named Valak and a monstrous being entitled the Crooked Man, the latter easily summoned through a haunted zoetrope toy. The Conjuring 2 is noteworthy as an aesthetic and tonal variation on the first film, showcasing a more maximalist approach to horror sequences, privileging spectacle over the quieter incremental shifts in affect that had defined its predecessor.

Credit: Matt Kennedy/Warner Bros.

Wan’s most recent directorial horror feature, Malignant (2021), collapses the marionette and puppeteer into the same body. The film’s investigator-protagonist, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), is thrust into her own Giallo-esque mystery that commences with the death of her abusive husband. Throughout the film, Madison experiences repeated, vivid visions of gruesome murders at the hands of a black-gloved, longhaired unknown. She ultimately locates the horror-codified manifestation of the unconscious within herself when she discovers that her mutated, sentient-tumor twin brother literally lives inside her head, puppeteering her body to murder those who have wronged him. This is Wan’s response to the classic doppelgänger horror trope, which Fred Botting discusses in Gothic as an important metaphorical vessel: “An uncanny figure of horror, the double presents a limit that cannot be overcome, the representations of an internal and irreparable division in the individual psyche.” The doppelgänger plot has a long history, whose major literary permutations include Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1840), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), and Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1972), among numerous others. Malignant’s cinematic doppelgänger ancestors, meanwhile, include Christian Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) and its 1982 remake by John Carpenter, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), and Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972) and Raising Cain (1992). In short, Malignant is a palimpsest of extratextual references and homages along with the rest of Wan’s oeuvre. Wan the formalist is on full display, revisiting the visual grammar of a “subjective” versus “objective” perspective that originated in his debut, Saw. He demarcates Madison’s subjective experiences of terror with handheld camerawork, zoom lenses, and 360-degree perspectives of green-screened scene transformations; in turn, he exemplifies the third-person omniscient observer through elaborate, overhead tracking shots and deep focus compositions to suggest the potential presence of unseen threats within the frame.

Wan is also genre-savvy enough to summon certain familiar components from Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993), which — broadly speaking — challenge horror’s recurring, restrictive, and stigmatizing depictions of femininity. He brazenly tackles the problems that Creed identifies, locating his film’s object of horror in the male parasite leeching off Madison’s mind and body. The titular “malignant” threat, then, is a masculinist monstrosity with a penchant for violence, vengeance, and destruction. In this exuberant genre exercise, Wan quotes overtly from the aforementioned De Palma, applying formal bombast to a coyly disruptive genre commentary.

To read all of Wan’s horror features as parts of a cumulative directorial statement is to identify a consistent, rigorous, and distinctive authorial perspective. Wan engages with horror specifically for what it is and does, for its incumbent interests in investigation, limitations of the self, compromised agency, and above all the non-linguistic power of affect. James Wan is, above all, a specifically cinematic artist whose style is marked by formalist impulse: cohering his thematic fixations is a fastidious attentiveness to the relationship between images and aural designs, and perhaps that is what makes his work so special. Horror is not a slogan or a catchphrase or an ironic joke: it is the tingling lift of hairs on the backs of our necks, the tension of our muscles preparing for incoming threat, and the cathartic release of our screams followed by nervous laughter. Wan understands all this, and he respects the bottomless artistic potential endemic to horror’s truth.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.