Thursday, September 16, 2021

Malignant (James Wan, 2021)


(Warning: plot twists and story discussed in explicit and gory detail)

James Wan's Malignant promises more than it delivers: a Dario Argentoish giallo that morphs into Cronenbergian body horror that turns, rather wanly, into life-affirming feminism. Three-fourths of the way through there's a supposedly wild twist but really nothing we haven't seen before, from The X-Files' episode "Humbug" to George Romero's The Dark Half to Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall to--if we consider this a variant on the doppelganger genre--Dostoevsky's The Double to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The plot looks like fun in outline but Wan directs in deadly earnest: focus is on Annabelle Wallis' Madison who wants a child but is instead recruited by her 'imaginary friend' Gabriel to be unwilling witness to a killing spree--emphasis on 'spree' as Wan stages a series of increasingly bloody bonebreaking deaths with collaboration of extraordinary contortionist Marina Mazepa as Gabriel and Ray Chase as her garbled static voice (Gabriel is apparently able to control electricity and throw his voice out from nearby speakers--making you wonder if Wan enjoyed watching Steven Moffat's eerie Dr. Who episode "The Empty Child"). Madison is suitably horrified but not much else; Gabriel moves in a unique manner--being literally Madison's mirror-image--but is otherwise devoid of personality. The setpiece carnage in a holding cell (according to Wan) is largely practical effects (I don't know, I see a lot of digital there) but Wan insists on doing it all in a confusingly whirling single shot that wastes the choreography, reducing the whole into a supervillain/video game-style showcase of physical prowess--watch Gabriel strut his stuff! See the Big Bad waste a roomful of bystanders! I can see Sam Raimi pulling this off, mainly because Raimi starts from horror (a woman's head slowly peeling off her shoulders) to end in a place of absurdist humor (a gooseneck lamp howls with laughter), all on a budget of four million dollars; Wan's budget is more like 40 million. You accept a lot when it's done on the visible cheap. 

Romero also did this better--his The Dark Half took Stephen King's idea of authors and their knotty relationship with their unruly fictional creations and turned it into a sly cat-and-mouse game, with malevolent George Stark (Timothy Hutton) as a funnier more sinister version of Gabriel, stalking Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton) a more likably believable version of Madison--believable mainly because Romero takes the time to develop Thad's character to the point that we worry when George threatens Thad. 

Not like I don't like Wan's work--well no I don't really like Wan's work. Saw was gimmicky to the point of incredulity; The Conjuring tried to blame midwives for really being witches, then added insult to injury by being excessively hysterical about it (I did like The Invisible Man, directed not by Wan but by Saw collaborator Leigh Whannell, who's smart enough not to stand in Elizabeth Moss's way as she creates a more formidable protagonist than the eponymous antagonist). Wan throws a lot at the screen and some of it is actually inventive (a scene of Madison turning in bed to see Gabriel's next victim lying beside her is a gem of a moment); if he'll just relax a little and let the horror speak for itself he might actually spook me a little. 

Best horror of the year to date? My vote goes to Nia DaCosta's Candyman--the narrative and message may be as garbled but the filmmaking is more assured more fluid, the imagery stunningly beautiful. And those shadow puppets! Sometimes simple cutouts throwing shadows on the wall are all you need, if you have the imagination, the daring. 

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