The best part of James Wan’s horror movie Malignant: it’s silly as hell


James Wan cut his teeth in intense horror films like Insidious and Conspiracy, but his latest horror outing draws on the insane comic book sensibility he brought to Aquaman and furious 7. In Smart, it tells a story on a much smaller scale than its action blockbusters, and that doesn’t fit any basic narrative metrics. But when it finally gets to where it’s going, it turns into a wacky, absurd, and hilarious final act that feels like it was taken from a completely different movie. Smart is rarely scary, but its weird elements probably didn’t happen by accident – not when they culminate in scenes so ridiculous they invite both cheers and hissing laughs.

The film evokes luscious science fiction in its prologue, about a mysterious, grotesque and largely invisible character nicknamed “Gabriel” by the doctors of a sanatorium. The garish lighting flickers as bodies are thrown left and right, and the camera dives and turns to capture the sudden chaos. In a stray line of dialogue, someone notes that Gabriel can “drink electricity” – hence the flicker – and that he communicates with medics by sending signals through a nearby radio. These two things happen again throughout Smart, as little visual and aural indicators that something spooky is brewing. But no matter how much the film over-explains its central villain, it never touches on the electric nature of Gabriel, beyond that fleeting mention. It’s a fun character facet with no real narrative focus except to create texture.

Annabelle Wallis sits wide-eyed on the floor of a dark kitchen in Malignant

Photo: Warner Bros.

At first, these flourishes and quirks clash wildly with the film’s main plot, about a pregnant woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), whose abusive and controlling husband Derek (Jake Abell) may or may not be responsible for several. of her miscarriages. While the film largely follows Madison’s spooky and sudden visions of bloody real-world murders – committed by a bloody, disfigured long-haired man in a leather trench coat, who appears to target medics in the past. fishy – the specter of abuse and related adaptation. mechanisms is never far from his lips. The theme rarely feels integrated into the horror details, no matter how hard Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper try to complete the story loop. Madison herself doesn’t feel like she exists outside of how other people’s actions define her, but the film has enough momentum (and enough wild, flashy distractions) that her eventual metaphors of the loss of agency did not veer too far on the offensive.

Who was Gabriel? How is it connected to Madison? And who’s the filthy, leather-clad killer who targets medics with a sword fashioned from a HIPPA symbol? The film takes its time for its characters to analyze the logistics, but in a dramatic and visual sense, the answers all awkwardly fit together during the first hour of the film. A pair of detectives, Kekoa (George Young) and Regina (Michole Briana White) – wide cutouts at the dawn of self-awareness – claim the killer leaves handprints inside out. Stray shots of him escaping from crime scenes vaguely hint at some sort of reverse or backward movement, although no one who sees this weirdness ever seems to comment on it.

Even the way the killer interacts with physical space feels like a half-committed decision, in which sometimes he’s ethereal, sometimes he’s veering in and out of bodily form, and sometimes he’s a being. physical with tremendous strength. There are scenes that tease the game with negative space in fun and unique ways, though Wan frustratedly refuses to follow that instinct.

The possible explanations in the world make the non-binding manufacturing even more bizarre in retrospect. But the initial lack of clarity is, ironically, what makes the film’s final act so surprising and so explosive. When the figure finally appears, its very unconventional anatomy becomes the center of a very conventional action involving guns and martial arts – a disconnect best described as extremely funny.

Annabelle Wallis sits on the floor of a bedroom looking terrified in Malignant

Photo: Warner Bros.

It is not the James Wan of skilfully crafted fears, it is the James Wan who, in furious 7, rotated his camera to capture the impact of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson delivering his signature wrestling move, and who sent Aquaman the evil Black Manta tumbling off a cliff with a hissing sound, à la Wile E. Coyote. They are, of course, the same James Wan: a director who usually has great control over the tonal lever, which he sometimes pushes towards cautious tension, and sometimes towards utter visual nonsense.

But the downside of having to wait for the film’s loud final act is a center section almost entirely filled with revelations audiences are sure to catch ahead of time. Most of the time, these twists are conventional, though whoever ultimately sets up all the floating pieces is so daring that it works even better when the characters chase a conclusion audiences have already reached.

Smart is a riot of laughter, both by design, and when it slows down to be more thoughtful. Her themes of family, abuse and trauma rarely materialize into anything meaningful. But sometimes the film portrays physical angst with gonzo sensibility. There are cartoonish lamentations and beatings, and CGI grotesques that look like flashing practical creations. Wan makes a visual meal out of several scenes by sending his Steadicam across the room. Perhaps a more serious version of the film existed at some point in the development process, but in the version that ended up on screens, Wan’s unabashed focus on his dumbest elements is what worth it.

Smart premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on September 10.

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