James Wan knows horror. Actually, let me rephrase: he knows blockbuster horror. One could argue that he created it with his debut feature “Saw,” and then continued with franchises like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring.” The man knows horror.
However, Wan has proven his talent goes beyond horror: he directed one of the highest rated car films, “Furious 7” and later DC’s most financially and commercially successful “Aquaman.” So the question of “What can Wan NOT do?” has yet to be determined. Having said that, James Wan has tackled a subject that has surprised the best of us.
“Malignant” starts off as a violent paranormal thriller. In other words, a typical Wan film. Things that go bump in the night, coupled with doors opening by themselves, all combined with Madison (horrifically portrayed by the talented Annabelle Wallis) having visions of gruesome murders, Wan has “conveniently” combined “Saw” and “Insidious.”
That is, on the surface of the film. The first two acts are incredibly stylistic in a Giallo, Argento way. Harsh red backlighting, heavy shadows in a noire fashion, crooked Dutch angles all coupled with Joseph Bishara’s synth-wave score all together recall films like Fulci’s “New York Ripper” or even more so, Argento’s “Suspiria.” None of the previous descriptions match up with Wan’s trademark style, yet here we are.
Wan did cast “Conjuring” franchise regulars, though, like the lead Annabelle Wallis (“Annabelle”) and an incredible cameo from the up and coming McKenna Grace (“Annabelle Comes Home”). Does this mean the film will become canon with the “Conjuring” franchise? I highly doubt it. But it still builds this odd horror family of actors that come together at their best in this film.
Don’t expect this movie to be necessarily scary. It is gory, mysterious, and absolutely bonkers, but in the greatest way possible. James Wan has taken his trademark style and blended it with 1970’s and 1980’s over-the-top gore action with a plot that, at first, seems contrite and cheating. But by the end of the film, the B-movie cheesiness comes full circle with great effects, sappy stories, and maybe an opening for a sequel.
Don’t expect this to win an Academy Award. I will be one of many critics to admit that this is not James Wan’s best work. But by god, it is most definitely his most original and unique. If he continues to experiment with genres (“Aquaman” and “Furious 7”), this could really kickstart the regeneration of the supernatural crime thrillers of Italian giallo films. And if that’s the case, please sign me up.
Scheer stars: ***1/2 out of ****