Thursday, September 16, 2021

Let the Right Wan In:

Two recent Warner Brothers’ horror movies have been a case study in James Wan’s talents as a director. Maybe the clearest example of what he can do is the one he didn’t do, proof through absence, since The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a sequel to two movies he directed. After Saw and Insidious, he launched The Conjurings. The series starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as paranormal investigators, loosely based on real people who claimed they were such a thing, had a good start. It also made him one of a select group of directors who’ve kickstarted three iconic horror franchises. Wan gave it style and character, long slow build ups to good ghost scares and in between the great actors were allowed to build warm chemistry for a portrait of a loving marriage. It satisfied, and made a whole cinematic universe of spin-offs in which other directors tackled the story of haunted objects largely disconnected from the central Conjurings, and therefore freed from the direct comparison with the flagship’s style and tone. (Even the ones that featured good cameos from Wilson and Farmiga, like a third Annabelle movie about a possessed doll, managed to do fun creep-outs with its ideas without stepping on the larger franchise.) What a disappointment, then, that the third in the central series is such a slack and boring affair.

Wan passed the reins to Michael Chaves, whose modestly effective The Curse of La Llorona was the least connected in the Conjuring-verse. (It was also, coincidentally, the second-best film of that Latin American folk tale in recent years.) With this new movie, he makes a competently framed sequel, but the screenplay is just so weak that it hardly matters he can do the sliding digitally-assisted camera moves and gin up some token suspense. Instead of the haunted house tours of the prior films, this one feints toward the idea of being a legal thriller. There’s a grisly murder, and the main suspect tells his lawyer that the devil made him do it—hence the title. So Wilson and Farmiga, taking this very seriously because the alleged murderer was a witness at one of their exorcisms lately, tromp off to investigate. Weirdly, the courthouse is left entirely behind so that they can snoop around secret Satanists and ferret out a conspiracy of evildoers lurking in the shadows. (Maybe because the “true story” would find a judge dismiss the defendant’s claim of possession and lock him up, the filmmakers needed something more supernatural to happen.) Its 80s setting places it squarely in Satanic Panic territory, a time when a frenzy of right-wing Christian scaremongering about phony devil-worshipping cabals led to false accusations against all manner of teachers, parents, and childcare workers. (n+1 editor Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children is a well-researched overview of this history.) So it’s certainly more difficult to take the series’ fake “true story” claims in good fun when it’s now pretending this damaging falsehood might’ve had a point, even in such a limited case. Even if I could get past that, though, the movie itself is mechanical and dry, self-seriousness tipped fatally toward silly, with its good leads stranded in a plot that plods. I was thoroughly bored.

That’s not to say the movie Wan did direct, Malignant, is any less silly, but it owns it. The thing is so committed to its kookiness it reaches a fever pitch of style and confidence. The thing starts overheated and maintains a roiling boil from there. After some spasms of plot-setting, we arrive in the life of a woman (Annabelle Wallis) who, recuperating from having her skull cracked against a wall by her abusive husband, dreams he’s killed. She awakes to discover he was. From there it’s a not unfamiliar story of its kind, as the woman imagines herself present at more and more grisly murders—bodies torn apart with gross effects for gooey stabbings. The police view her suspiciously. Her sister tries to be supportive. It all ramps up until there’s a huge twist or three, and the movie adds a kind of manic glee to its increasingly wild images. Wan starts with the show-off overhead shots and gliding through walls he so loves. But the dialogue seems a little too flat, and the acting seems all dialed a bit off from the norm. The investigation is sluggish, and the psychology half-baked. The thing starts to feel strikingly composed—with dark and stormy nights and color filters and self-consciously posed blocking—but bog standard. It’s maybe the awkward halfway point between Dario Argento’s excess and M. Night Shyamalan’s earnestness for a while.

But by the time a stunt person, makeup, and wriggling gross-out body horror erupts into spasms of mind-boggling action and violence in pursuit of an amped up high concept giddily displayed, it’s hard not to get on board. I could appreciate the whole project then. It started by showing us a deceptively normal (in genre terms) idea, the better to satisfy when it reveals its extreme grotesqueries from the other side, an awkward but not unenjoyable mix. Wan isn’t pursuing the virtuosic symphonies of jump scares and spectral visions he brought to his ghost stories, or the twisting suspense gore of his earlier works. Instead he’s in pursuit of just how far over the top he can take a concept while still playing it straight. Does that make it a good movie? Maybe not quite. But it makes it a watchable and memorable one with a few fun sequences. It’s certainly the superior Wan production of the year. It strikes me as the kind of outlier horror movie best appreciated for what it’s trying, and admiring what it can pull off.

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