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A Sharp Eye

James's Wan's Malignant

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MALIGNANT. I was a vocal detractor of James Wan before I knew his name, long before I would ever see a single frame of one of his movies. Saw (2004), his collaboration with Leigh Whannell that would spawn untold sequels, let alone copies, was the starting point of one of the most successful careers in modern movies. At the time, it also embodied, in my rheumy, addled mind, everything that was wrong with the cinema of the moment. I don't remember if I extended the criticism to culture at large; probably, knowing me. Still immersed in a quasi-academic exploration of the medium, working my way through classics of world cinema and doubling down on grime-crime, I still hadn't come to any sort of an understanding about the vitality and importance of horror as a genre. I would not pretend, even now, to be a true student, but time has made me realize the error of my reactionary ways.

At the time, though, I was hung-up on the notion that "horror-porn" was exploitation without art, that it ignored influences and simply existed as a cash-in, a quick and dirty conduit to the inner fears and perversions of the audience. I don't think I was entirely wrong back then, except in seeing those descriptors as pejorative and in my ignorance of the long history upon which Saw and its ilk drew. In my celebration of the genesis of American crime cinema, I ignored the troubled sibling that would eventually overshadow it. Both despite and because of my contrarianism, I reacted against the popularity of that new wave of horror and inadvertently aligned myself with some school of "criticism" founded on a sense of moral superiority, rather than a study of the work. 

So that was foolish of me. Years passed and, as cinema continued to die, I began to understand that horror might be our only hope. I would also come to adopt this attitude regarding national politics but that's a topic for another day. 

The 2010s saw Wan, Whannell, the Blumhouse imprint and a few other quick-witted upstarts emerge as both outliers of and increasingly legitimate players within the creaking Hollywood structure. Wan in particular again and again proved himself as a stylist with an astoundingly broad palette, a student of the past who's confident enough of his own abilities to recast it through his own lens without merely duplicating. As is the case in art, commerce, politics and the world at large, dominant culture took notice. Wan got the keys, directing Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018), both billion-dollar-grossing juggernauts. And then he went back to the lab and made another horror movie. 

That, of course, is Malignant and, like most of Wan's movies and scary stories in general, would suffer from over-description. For the uninitiated, this is likely not your entry point. It's as much a grisly slasher/body horror picture as it is creepily atmospheric, with few or no reservations about liberally splattered blood. 

Following a domestic violence incident and the seemingly unexplainable death of her husband, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) begins to see horrific visions. More to the point, she experiences intense dissociative episodes at the scenes of horrific murders, wherein she is utterly incapable of action. The murders are real, of course, and her psychological explanation doesn't hold much water with detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White). But as Madison's sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) begins to investigate Madison's past, the true horror of their predicament is gradually illuminated. 

It would be hard to make a case for this as ranking among Wan's best; I'm willing to hear arguments, but I think they would be rationalizations. It's fun, scary, gross horror and at that it excels. It is also markedly more interesting and creative than most movies, most years. Even though it won't stand among the director's top-tier work, I celebrate it. This in no small part because he, one of the most commercially successful directors in the world, knows himself well enough to go back, time and again, to the type (or types) of stories that he loves and loves to tell. That joy comes across onscreen, even — especially? — while people are getting stabbed in the face. R. 111M. BROADWAY, HBO MAX, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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