At a time when Jordan Peele, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Chris Rock and other unexpected filmmakers are fully embracing the horror genre, it might not seem significant that James Wan’s latest project is an adaption of the survivalist horror novel The Troop. After all, what’s so strange about Wan – the guy who made his name on Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring – making another horror movie?
Today, nothing. In the past, however, Wan would have left the genre behind long ago and no one would have really faulted him for doing so. Horror used to be an obligatory first step on a career path ultimately leading toward more “respectable” filmmaking. This mindset – or just a desire to explore a more diversified filmography – is still evident in relatively recent comments made by the likes of Ari Aster and David Robert Mitchell.
After Furious 7 and Aquaman, it certainly seemed as if Wan had achieved the dream of using horror as a stepping stone. His success in the superhero space has established a new formula which WB has already emulated with Shazam! (directed by Annabelle: Creation’s David Sandberg) and is trying to do again with The Flash, to be directed by It’s Andy Muschietti. But in today’s Hollywood where else is there left to go, really, other than horror and superheroes? Sticking with horror used to signal you’d been typecast and forever shackled to a genre you might not even like. Today, it just means you are working in one of the only genres worth investing in anymore.
Let’s back up. What is The Troop? According to 1428Elm, “It involves a group of scouts on a weekend camping trip in the wilderness in Canada. Their idyllic time is brought to an abrupt halt when a strange man appears with a voracious appetite. Things go decidedly downhill from there. Let’s just say the horror is infectious.”
(I see – and approve of – what you did there with that last sentence, Susan Leighton.)
Wan, to be clear, isn’t directing this one. That job has fallen to E.L. Katz, he of the 2013 SXSW Midnighter Audience Award winner Cheap Thrills as well as six episodes of Channel Zero. Noah Gardner and Aidan Fitzgerald are handling the screenwriting duties. Wan is attached as a producer, a role he is increasingly accustomed to since he has now produced twice as many movies and TV shows as he’s directed.
It’d be understandable if you assumed the reason Wan is entrusting The Troop to others is because he’s just too busy prepping Aquaman 2. You’d be wrong, though. Judging by his Instagram account, Wan is indeed busy scouting locations for his next directorial project, but he’s not scouring the Earth for the next locale to be added into the Aquaman universe. Instead, his next film is going to be an “original horror idea”/“hard-R thriller” featuring practical effects and released through New Line. He’s scouting locations for it right now in advance of everything going in front of the cameras sometime next year, possibly around the same time The Conjuring 3 – which Wan produced but The Curse of La Llorona’s Michael Chaves directed – hits theaters.
As of this writing, Wan has directed 10 feature-length films. Almost all of them can be categorized as “horror” (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious 1 and 2, and The Conjuring 1 & 2) or at least “horror-adjacent” (Death Sentence, Stygian). He’s only made two non-horror movies, but even then Aquaman has its scarier-than-expected trench sequence and Furious 7 has Vin Diesel’s “acting,” a horror unto itself. (Cheap joke, I know, but couldn’t resist.) When you add in the dozens of horror titles and TV shows Wan has attached himself to as a director you get a picture of a man who really loves the genre. (One notable outlier: He’s an executive producer on CBS’ MacGyver reboot).
Contrast that with Sam Raimi, a horror icon who recently told a horror convention audience, “I don’t like horror movies. They suck. They scare me.” He spent his youth making Super 8 comedies with his buddies, wanting nothing more to do Three Stooges-style comedies and eventually get paid for it. It was his business partner Robert Tappert who convinced him to pick the horror genre as his true gateway into the film industry. A little over two decades and several non-horror movie flirtations later, he was a major player in the superhero boom of the early 2000s.
Few of Raimi’s contemporaries or (often Roger Corman-trained) predecessors ever scaled the Hollywood mountain quite like him (James Cameron is one obvious exception), but there are countless other horror directors who would have really rather made different kinds of movies. John Carpenter, for example, has made no secret that if he had his way he would have been making John Ford westerns, but it wasn’t in the cards so he often just brought the western to horror and exploitation, staging Assault on Precinct 13 as a Rio Bravo homage. Wes Craven’s non-horror ambitions were so legendary and unsatisfying that a 12-year-old at a horror convention once shamed him back into the genre.
It was usually only mainstream failure, however, that would bring a director like Craven back to horror. The reasoning is understandable – horror movies typically subsist on lower budgets and rarely garner any awards attention or industry respect. So, to leave the genre and then come back means trading comfort for little reward. You make the smaller genre pictures at first so you don’t have to when you’re older, or so the thinking went. However, that often left horror fans looking up at someone like Peter Jackson fiddling away at wouldbe Oscar efforts like The Lovely Bones or big budget SFX extravaganzas and thinking, “I wish he’d make another Heavenly Creatures or Frighteners or [insert name of your favorite].”
Sometimes, you get your wish. After the churn of the Spider-Man franchise led Raimi to near burnout, he returned to his roots with 2009’s excellent horror flick Drag Me to Hell and has been producing titles in the genre ever since, including the Ash Vs. The Evil Dead TV series and this year’s creature feature Crawl.
Wan never really left his roots. He just opened the door to newer directors to pick up his franchises once he’d moved on to big budget action movies. There’s something which feels so much more official about him directing another horror movie again, though, In years past, maybe he wouldn’t be doing that. His frequent Conjuring Universe collaborator Gary Dauberman was recently asked if he had any plans to leave the horror genre behind or pursue a passion project. The mere question seemed quaint to him. His response: I’m going to keep on doing what I love.
Perhaps that’s a reflection of where Hollywood is in 2019. Personal passion projects aren’t bankrolled by studios anymore as favors to movie stars, the horror genre isn’t something which needs to be moved past in order to attain some nebulous “respectability” prize, and directors like Mike Flanagan or old Wan-partner Leigh Whannell who have grown up watching genre movies are now more open to the idea of unfurling one genre romp after another instead of trying to make some ill-fated “Oscar movie,” especially when two horror or horror-adjacent movies – Shape of Water, Get Out – were nominated for Best Picture just two years ago and one of them actually won.
When Edgar Wright made his passion project, it turned out to be Baby Driver, a kickass, throwback bank heist movie. He got it made in part because of all the sympathy flowing his way after being fired from Ant-Man. I don’t make that connection to say that Wan’s secretive horror movie is his passion project, but like Wright then Wan has a lot of leverage right now and he just convinced the same studio he helped make a crapton of money off of Aquaman to let him go make an original horror movie.
That’s not how things used to go for horror filmmakers, but either because of shifting notions of what a Hollywood career means or what’s practically achievable in this market it does seem as if horror isn’t the mere stepping stone it used to be. In 2019’s Hollywood, it’s one of the only steps left, period, and as a result it’s rarely ever been a better time to be a horror fan.