James Wan: Yet another low budget horror maestro goes epic

Earlier this week, Warner Bros. announced that Malaysian-born Australian director James Wan would direct Aquaman, the 7th entry in its newly created DC Cinematic Universe, which started off with Man of Steel in 2013. It was also announced that he would direct the big-screen adaptation of the long-running Japanese anime franchise, Robotech. James Wan had already hit the big league, with his Furious 7 becoming the most successful entry in the franchise earlier this summer, but with this news, one can confidently add him to a small but illustrious group of directors who have made the transition from micro-budget horror to epic action blockbuster.

Sam Raimi was the first of these guys to break onto the scene in 1981 with yet another version of ‘silly teenagers get killed off mysteriously’. What differentiated The Evil Dead from previous low budget horror flicks was the liberal use of blood and gore, supercharged with great editing and camera angles, and leavened by the unexpected use of black comedy. More such films followed, each growing in budget and scope. Then in quick succession between 1995 and 2000, Raimi ‘matured’; he directed a western, a crime thriller, a sports drama and a supernatural mystery thriller. Across these films, he worked with established and future stars of Hollywood – Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, Leonardo di Caprio, Kevin Costner, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank and Katie Holmes! Soon after, Raimi was chosen to direct Spider-Man for Sony Pictures. The highly anticipated film opened in April 2002 with highest opening weekend of all time and went on to make USD 800 mn worldwide. In 20 years, Raimi had gone from a haunted tree attacking a woman in the forest to the unforgettable upside-down kiss in the rain. Its success ensured that superhero films were here to stay. Raimi went on to direct two more highly lucrative Spider-Man films and although he is now primarily a producer of TV shows, he remains one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.

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Peter Jackson started off his career in New Zealand making low budget ‘splatter’ horror comedies, with films like Bad Taste and Braindead. Then unexpectedly, he switched genres and directed the highly acclaimed true-life drama Heavenly Creatures starring a teenage Kate Winslett. It made a splash at film festivals from Venice to Chicago to Toronto before landing Jackson an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. He then got his first Hollywood gig, the big-budget horror-comedy The Frighteners (I think of it as ‘Beetlejuice meets Ghostbusters‘) and then spent the next 4 years working on the biggest gamble of his life – The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Three years and 3 Oscars later, he was the undisputed king of big budget, intelligent, epic film making. His Weta Digital special effects company had taken over from George Lucas’ ILM and James Cameron’s Digital Domain as the new powerhouse for visual effects. His 2005 remake of King Kong remains one of my most memorable cinema theatre experiences (along with Jurassic Park and the first LOTR) and I enjoyed his recent Hobbit films although they didn’t reach the critical or commercial heights of the LOTR trilogy. He is now likely to direct the next installment of the animated Tintin feature films he is co-producing with Steven Spielberg. But as you can see from the images below, he seems to be constantly drawn back to material that deals with spirits and the afterlife, so it will be interesting to see what comes after the Tintin movie.

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Last but not least, Guillermo del Toro. I first heard of him when Barry Norman reviewed his debut film Cronos on BBC’s Film 93. Cronos was a contemporary vampire drama in which the vampirism is ‘created’ through a mysterious biomechanical device. The film was screened at Cannes and won several Mexican Ariel awards. Mr. del Toro’s output has not been as commercially successful as that of Raimi or Jackson and I guess that’s because his movies are mainly for fanboys. Because of that, all his material has a distinct and memorable visual signature. Think about the two Hellboy comic-to-film adaptations or his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth or even the derivative Pacific Rim, and there will always be some character, creature or device that remains in memory years after watching the movie; for those who have read the monochromatic Hellboy comic books, it is easy to see del Toro’s contribution in translating those characters to the big screen; likewise, who can forget the creepy ‘tenome’ creature in Pan’s Labyrinth with eyes on the palms of his hands or the exquisite technical detailing of the Drift/ Jaeger tech in Pacific Rim. Meanwhile, del Toro has also emerged as a prolific producer (both sides of the spectrum: horror and animation) and mentor of up-and-coming directors. His upcoming Crimson Peak is his take on the good old ‘haunted house’ sub-genre.

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Another director who crossed over from horror is David Cronenberg, but unlike the others he continues to work outside the Hollywood studio system and has never ventured into escapist blockbuster territory. The Canadian director was one of the pioneers of the ‘body horror’ sub-genre in the 70s; Scanners in particular became infamous for its exploding head scene. He then broke out with a variety of intelligent but disturbing scifi films like The Fly, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ which continued to explore the effects of science tampering with nature. In the 3rd phase of his career, he has diversified yet again: gritty crime dramas A History of Violence and Eastern Promises earned multiple Oscar nominations followed by the period piece A Dangerous Method, the psychological drama Cosmopolis with Robert Pattinson and the Hollywood semi-satire Maps to the Stars. Unlike the other directors in this group who have transitioned from claustrophobic horror to epic escapist fantasy, the claustrophobic settings remained a constant while Cronenberg moved from scifi-based horror to reality-based drama.

When I listed these directors, I thought about Stephen King’s body of work and I realized that the best horror story tellers are able to find the path to the darkest corners of the human psyche. King may have started off with buckets of blood in Carrie and The Shining, but pretty soon he was exploring the epic post-apocalyptic genre with The Stand and The Dark Tower. Some years later he traveled into the ultimate heart of darkness with Misery. With all these books, what made King successful was not his ability to think up of fearsome entities, but his ability to show us that true fear lurks deep in our own hearts. Once a storyteller has been able to reach that far inside, all the other layers of emotion are easier to uncover.

Coming back to James Wan, his horror films Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring are truly disturbing, less like the early gross-out work of Raimi, Peter Jackson and Cronenberg. His work on Furious 7 was competent but did not produce anything very distinctive in my opinion, particularly because it was the 7th entry in a franchise where characters and relationships were already set. By the time he gets to Aquaman, that too will be the 7th entry in a franchise for which the creative direction is being set by Zack Snyder, so once again I’m not sure how much he will have to play with. If he is able to find his own ‘voice’ in spite of this, it will definitely place him in the same league as Raimi, Jackson and del Toro.

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