Anyone hoping to make a commercially successful horror movie that also plays well with critics should be paying close attention to James Wan. The director of “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring” has been responsible for some of the most profitable and well received horror films of the past decade, and is still very much in his prime, having released the box office smash “The Conjuring 2” just last month. Wan has also been staying extremely busy as a producer, most recently producing David Sandberg’s horror feature debut “Lights Out,” which hits theaters Friday. The Warner Bros. title is based on a short film of the same name Sandberg wrote and directed in 2013.
“I’m at the point now where I want to give other young upcoming filmmakers the chance I got when I was starting out and made my first short movie ‘Saw’,” Wan told IndieWire Thursday. “Lights Out” stars Teresa Palmer (“Knight of Cups”) as a young woman who comes face to face with a mysterious entity from her mother’s past that only emerges in the dark. “It’s a smart, effective genre piece that doesn’t overstay its welcome,” Wan said, adding that he initially had reservations about stretching a “one-note” idea into a feature film. “When I met David Sandberg, he immediately convinced me,” Wan said. “He had the knowledge and the understanding of the genre that made me feel comfortable to say, ‘I’m going to produce this movie for you and you’ll get to make the movie you want to make.'”
So what are some of the crucial principles all horror directors should live by? Here are five of Wan’s rules for how to make a good horror film in 2016.
1. Horror doesn’t have to be expensive.
If you can’t scare an audience with a low budget, you’re probably going to struggle to find success in the horror genre. Working with limited resources forces you to be inventive, which is one of the key skills in a genre like horror that frequently recycles concepts, according to Wan. “What I think makes the horror genre so special is that the smallest things can create a big impact,” Wan said. “A creaking door can send chills up your spine, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
2. Turn classic horror on its head.
One of the techniques Wan uses with his films is taking a classic horror device and twisting it to come up with a new and unique and way of telling a story. “With ‘Insidious,’ we wanted to tell a haunted house story that really wasn’t a haunted house story at all,” Wan said. “With ‘Saw,’ it was about making a small, contained horror thriller, but one that would stand out from the pack of other indie [horror] films.”
3. Develop great set pieces.
Wan stressed how important it is to envision big-picture scenes that the audience will obsess over, like the jarring seance in “Insidious,” or Vera Farmiga’s battle against an evil painting in “The Conjuring 2.” “Your set pieces have got to be the kind of stuff that people talk about around the water cooler the morning after they’ve seen the movie,” Wan said.
4. Undermine your audience.
Today’s audiences have been inundated with so many horror films that they’re much more savvy and educated in the language of filmmaking than in previous years, according to Wan. For this reason, directors have to surprise viewers at every turn to hold their attention from start to finish. “If they’re expecting something to happen, what can you do to undermine that expectation?” Wan said. “I’m always trying to find new ways to break an audience’s expectation of the genre.”
5. Appeal to primal human fears.
Scaring audiences often comes down to tapping into people’s lifelong sources of fear, according to Wan. “Growing up, we all had all kinds of childhood fears that can kind of make for an acid flashback,” he said. “Lights Out” plays right into this principle by focusing on a classic fear that lots of people have–darkness. “That’s the genius of ‘Lights Out,'” Wan said.
So which contemporary horror films does Wan think are stand outs in the genre today? “The last horror film I saw that really had a big impact on me and that I thought was superbly made was ‘The Witch,'” he said, adding that ‘Lights Out’ is the kind of movie he would have loved as a kid. “If it came out in the ’80s or early ’90s and I’d gone to the video store and discovered this little gem of a horror film, it would have stayed with me forever.”