“Who are you, Gabriel?” – Madison Mitchell
James Wan is a producer/director that I either love his work or I loath it. For some reason, I can’t just be indifferent. It’s one extreme or the other, strange as it may seem. The Saw franchise for example, is one I’m a big fan of. Although hard to watch at times for the torture sequences – they’re ingeniously intricate films whose plots fit together like, well, a jigsaw. Aquaman was a film that took my breath away, and still does. His entry in the Fast & Furious series was a high point. To name a just a few. On the other hand, I detest the Conjuring, Annabelle and Insidious films and their spinoffs. Nothing but cheap jump scares, no atmosphere, menace or twists – just a constant “boo” and blast of music. That’s not horror, that’s a series of unpleasant jolts.
It bewilders me how the director of (let’s be honest here) crap (there, I said it) like Conjuring and Insidious can also be the director of atmospheric chillers like the vastly under-rated Dead Silence (which if you haven’t seen, I urge you to check out)
And now – this. A film that is totally original, but harks back to a popular series of films from the eighties that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers. And a film that possibly gives us the first fresh new horror icon for a long time.
I had seen the trailer, and had resigned myself to watching yet another haunted house movie because that was what the trailer had led me to believe I was going to see. That trailer, in hindsight, gave nothing away and was a masterpiece of misdirection. A refreshing change these days, when trailers often give away important plot points. (Trailers are becoming a lost art form, I think.)
This film grabbed my attention by the throat from the studio logos on, which are shown in a fuzzy, beat up VHS tape kind of way. Appropriate because we’re not only about to see something that would undoubtedly be confiscated from video store shelves as a “video nasty” back in the day but we’re watching a video log from 1993 of a patient case file from what appears to be the grimmest, most menacing asylum we’ve ever seen. One that makes Batman’s Arkham Asylum look like a kindergarten. And as for their uncontrollable homicidal patient…. Wow.
Okay, scooting over to the present day, we’re in Seattle, and a pregnant Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is coming home from a long shift at work. Her husband appears feckless and uncaring. We learn that Madison has already suffered several miscarriages, and that her existence is a miserable one. Her husband is verbally, mentally and physically abusive tells Madison he’s sick of seeing his children die inside her before shoving her into a wall so hard, the impact of her head cracks the plaster. That night, locked out of the bedroom and sleeping downstairs, he is killed
The killer is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and appears at this stage to be a shadowy, black wraith with long hair and spidery movements, borne of limbs that seem to be jointed the wrong way, and we’re still thinking maybe a haunted house type of movie.
But we’re wrong.
What follows this sequence – and literally all I’ve described is the film’s first ten minutes – is unlike anything you’re imagining at this point. Much as I loved Freaky, which I reviewed earlier in the year as being a fresh take on a tried and trusted formula, in that instance, the slasher movie, this is equally fresh. But more importantly, it’s giving the horror movie a shot in the arm.
Horror, by its definition, needs to give us a mounting sense of menace. A feeling that there’s something around the corner, or at the periphery of our vision, barely seen, that intends to harm us. We both need to see it, so we can identify it, quantify it and cope with it, while we also dread seeing it because it’ll challenge our perceptions and we might not be able to cope with it. And James Wan gives us plenty of THAT in Malignant. He understands the whole concept of not wanting to see, yet being unable to look away. He takes the notion of something menacing, then instead of blowing it on a single “boo” in the dark, slowly, turning up the heat. Wan clearly is a master of this art and takes what in the comfort of broad daylight seems like a silly or crazy, far-fetched plot and turns it into the stuff of nightmares. He did it superbly well with Dead Silence which caught me completely off-guard when I first saw it, and he’s done it again here.
There’s good use made of the old underground city of Seattle. The “new” city was built on a level above the old, which still exists and is a tourist attraction. It’s the first time I’ve seen that location used since its memorable appearance on the TV movie Kolchak: The Night Strangler in the early seventies. Old Seattle burned in 1889 and the city was rebuilt elevated on top of the old ruins as a precaution against floods. (Don’t say you never learn anything on this site, kids.)
Wan’s use of the camera is incredibly imaginative. There’s a scene where we follow Madison through her house as she goes from room to room, upstairs and room to room again, while all the time we’re watching her from above. Higher than ceiling level, it’s like looking down at a doll’s house with the roof removed. It’s uniquely disorienting, and something I had never seen before.
There are twists and surprises – plenty of them, as Madison starts seeing visions of individuals being murdered. None of while I’ll give away here, I want you to enjoy the shocks and suspense as much as I did. But I’m guessing that like me, you won’t see them coming.
When the film is over and the lights are back on, you’ll probably be comforting yourself with the implausible nature of the plot, and you’ll be telling yourself how far fetched it all was. Pretty much in the same way you calm yourself down from a nightmare by grounding yourself in reality.
But it’s different in the dark. Gabriel lives in the dark.
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