Malignant (2021)

Of course, there’s no sincere argument to be made that the COVID-19 pandemic has been good for the movie industry.  Ensuring the safety of film production has raised the price & risk for all new content, while the return on investment at sparsely attended movie theaters has simultaneously lowered the reward.  This pandemic has been absolute hell on the financial logistics of mass-marketed moviemaking as a business.  However, I do think the current dysfunction of movie distribution occasionally does wonders for a movie’s street cred – especially when it comes to mainstream horror releases from the past two calendar years.  While delayed release dates & theatrical-only distribution strategies have cooled public appetite for once-anticipated horror releases like Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake, out-of-nowhere mainstream horrors like The Empty Man have earned gradual word-of-mouth street cred as “cult classics” despite the major studio support system behind them.  The most recent specimen of that COVID-era phenomenon is James Wan’s Malignant, which enjoyed a day-and-date streaming premiere on HBO Max the same weekend it was released into mostly empty theaters.  Just like The Empty Man, Malignant is a seemingly well-behaved mainstream horror that takes some wild creative stabs in a go-for-broke third act, earning instant cult prestige as a “hidden gem” despite its robust budget thanks to the dysfunction of COVID-era distribution.  I personally found The Empty Man the more rewarding experience of that pair, but you gotta appreciate these big-budget crowd-bafflers whenever you can find them, especially when they manage to drum up wide audience enthusiasm in an era when most movies fail to.

For the first 80 minutes or so, you can definitely tell Malignant was directed by a mainstream horror mainstay who’s delivered modern industry-standards like The Conjuring, Insidious, and Saw over the past two decades.  The film’s setting & tone are traditional to the point of feeling stale.  Every set piece is overloaded with the ~spooky~ visual clichés that leaked out of movie theaters and into local haunted house designs as long ago as the early aughts: fluorescent green lighting, moldy wallpaper, creepy hospitals, found footage, jump scares, surgical gore, etc.  It details the police investigation of a serial murderer named Gabriel (a very 90s horror villain name) who shares a mysterious psychic bond with a freaked-out woman struggling to uncover her true familial history prior to her childhood adoption, and why she keeps dreaming the murders through Gabriel’s eyes in real time.  If you’ve seen a few horror movies in your time, you can approximately guess the inevitable reveal of how Gabriel and the Final Woman are connected.  What you cannot guess is the goofball delirium of how that twist is executed, both in the visual design of Gabriel as a fully onscreen killer (as opposed to the more typical masked & gloved slasher villain role he serves in the first hour) and in the unembarrassed humor Wan finds in his own audacity.  Late in the game, Wan breaks free from his reputation as the humdrum Conjureverse auteur to have some over-the-top action horror fun as the goofball responsible for movies like Dead Silence, Furious 7, and Aquaman (you know, the one where the octopus plays the drums).  It’s a last-minute twist in story & tone that’s going to turn a lot of fun-adverse audiences off for being too wonderfully stupid, but it’s so daringly committed to its own inanity that everyone has to see it no matter how they’ll individually feel about it.

I really wish Malignant didn’t take over an hour to fully let its hair down, but it does push Gabriel’s image & backstory to enough of a goofball extreme that it’s well worth the effort it takes to get there.  Better yet, the way the film pretends to be a totally normal, by-the-numbers slasher before the Gabriel reveal means it has a much better chance of luring an unexpecting wide audience in for its prankish finale – recalling other recent go-for-broke horror finales like in Orphan or The Boy.  My guess is that Wan believes he’s having as much fun as possible with the material for the entire runtime too.  The way Gabriel is cross-lit, gloved, and forging his own personally branded murder weapon in a Rambo-style workshop feels like a horror-nerd catalog of at least forty years of movie tropes collected from various Euro thrillers & American blockbusters.  Wan’s digitally aided camera is “mounted” to ceilings, floors, washing machine doors, and spinning industrial fans as he amuses himself with his studio-budget haunted-house set pieces, struggling to make them look novel despite the familiarity of their mainstream horror iconography.  There’s also something to be said about the way the film is averse to overt moral or political messaging, aiming to expose its audience to Freaky Shit instead of pursuing some grand overriding metaphor – the usual mode of modern horror storytelling.  I wasn’t as personally amused with the material in the first hour as the director appeared to be, but he more than earns that indulgence by the time the credits roll.  Malignant feels reverse-engineered to be divisive—appreciated only by the sicko few—but it presents its most outrageous ideas in a familiar package that could potentially lure a wide audience into its fucked up, goofball orbit.  It’s hard for any movie to make noise on a massive scale right now, so I have nothing but admiration for the few weirdo visions that can pull it off.

-Brandon Ledet

Aquaman (2018)

There are two distinct, directly opposed routes to take in adapting Aquaman to the big screen. My preferred angle would be to lean into the inherent absurdity of the character’s underwater superheroics, having deliriously over-the-top fun with the various sea creatures & Lisa Frank waterscapes that environment invites. The lesser, cowardly route would be to poke fun at that absurdity, to make Aquaman a gruff macho bro who wouldn’t be caught dead swimming with dolphins in bright superhero tights (at least not with a smartass quip about the indignity). The confusing thing about the DCEU’s Aquaman film is that it chooses both of these routes, embracing & rejecting the inherent silliness of Aquaman lore in what has to be the most perplexing mixed bag experience offered by a blockbuster since . . . the last film in the DCEU. Aquaman is a film that deals only in extremes. Its soundtrack must feature the ethereal beauty of Sigúr Ros and the obnoxious corporate party anthems of Pitbull, nothing in-between. It has to take the regal lineage & mythology of its underwater sea kingdom dead seriously and feature a cutaway gag of an octopus playing the drums. It has no qualms exploiting the cartoon energy of its setting as if it were an underwater Ferngully or an extended version of the “Under the Sea” number in Disney’s Little Mermaid, but it also feels compelled to cast Jason Momoa in the titular role as the broiest bro who ever bro’d, lest Aquaman come off as an uncool seafaring pansy. In the hands of an over-the-top Asian action spectacle craftsman like a Steven Chow or a Tsui Hark this all-over-the-place quality might have felt controlled & intentional, but coming from an American studio (with negligible influence from Furious 7 & Dead Silence schlockteur James Wan) it mostly plays like a confused jumble of self-conflicting ideas.

Jason Momoa puts in the exact same Aquabro performance here that he delivered in Justice League, except now there’s more of it. So very much more. Instead of popping in for an occasional, cute bro-liner like his much-memed “My man!” in the previous film, he’s asked to anchor a sprawling mythology about the regal lineage of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, which is on the verge of civil war. Legitimate actors Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, and Patrick Wilson admirably play the material straight as if there were actual stakes to this middling franchise entry and it wasn’t just a lavishly expensive, underwater episode of Wishbone. Momoa’s jockular, beer-pounding frat boy has a much more difficult time of it, especially in scenes where he’s asked to generate genuine chemistry or pathos with the sleepwalking Amber Heard (in one of history’s all time worst big screen wigs). It’s a shame that the mythology is so inert & self-serious, both because Momoa’s sex-idiot boytoy persona struggles to carry the weight and because the various underwater creatures that define the world are so pitch-perfect in their absurdity. Aquaman is packed to the gills with mighty sea horse steeds riding into battle, mounted laser sharks roaring in ferocious defiance, stingray-shaped submarines zipping around like underwater UFOs, a pissed-off Nicole Kidman hurling tridents in Burning Man drag, etc. I was often bored with the villain’s quest to become “Oceanmaster” (whatever the fuck that is), the hero’s search for the almighty trident McGuffin that would stop him, and the overall conflict of “uniting the two world’s” of Land & Sea, but every time I was about to give up on the movie entirely some mutated Lisa Frank monstrosity would emerge to reel me back in. For every shot of Momoa mugging to pure-cheese guitar riffs in embarrassing attempts to transform Aquaman into a badass, there’s equally weighted flashes of pure nerd-ass shit that accepts the character for the uncool goof that he is. I have no idea what to make of the result except to say that it’s exhausting.

There were moments of divine absurdity that had me thinking Aquaman might be the best film in the DCEU (a low bar to clear, but still). They were usually followed by 20 minutes or so of excruciating boredom before that pleasure resurfaced, choking on the flood of narrative glut. My disinterest in Momoa’s bro-flavored charms might have been what sunk my appreciation of the film to an extent (although I wouldn’t fault anyone for prurient interest in watching him get wet for three hours). Mostly, though, I think my inability to fully embrace the film’s live action cartoon energy resulted from its own half-commitment to its over-the-top, nerd-ass tone. When the evil sea creatures of Aquaman off-handedly cite land-dwellers’ pollution of the ocean as a reason to declare war, I couldn’t help but think of the more fearlessly committed overfishing politics of The Mermaid or the birds’ rights activism of 2.0, Asian blockbusters that are unembarrassed of their ludicrous premises. Aquaman, by contrast, constantly apologies for the frivolity off its underwater Ferngully by having a mugging macho class clown reassure the audience that everything onscreen is a joke and the hero is actually super cool, not nerdy at all. You can feel James Wan pushing for weird surreal touches in the background but the cultural monolith of the modern superhero blockbuster has a way of smoothing everything out into a routine monotony. The result is a picture at war with itself, like so many power-hungry Atlantians. A few years ago I might have rated this film a half-star higher for the moments of unbridled goofiness that do shine through the studio system muck, but I’m just finding the weight of this genre too exhausting to afford much more of my energy. A version of Aquaman that was an hour shorter and entirely relegated to the underwater sea creature civil war might have been something truly remarkable, but franchise filmmaking requirements constantly pull it out of the water so that another macho man can mug for the camera in all his heroic buffness and the repetition of the schtick is getting punishingly dull.

-Brandon Ledet

Dead Silence (2007)

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Dolls are creepy. The horror genre is opportunistic. The rest is history. Of course, individual moviegoers’ mileage may vary on that first point. Our particular fears & points of reference for creepiness can range as widely & specifically as our sexual fetishes & turn-ons, but I can at least speak for myself in saying that Dolls. Are. The. Worst. Especially the older porcelain ones, with their aged lace & cold, distant expressions. I hate ’em. I hate ’em even more than most people hate clowns (not that I have a lot of love for those fuckers either). Still, I love watching dolls act creepy in trashy horror movies, because they’re so effortlessly effective. Like a true evil doll fetishist, I dedicated my annual Halloween-inspired horror binge last October to watching every evil doll movie I could find. It was a quest that lead me to watching Dolls, Devil Doll, Dolly Dearest, Demonic Toys, Trilogy of Terror, Pin, Magic, Annabelle, Asylum, Puppet Master 4: The Demon, and possibly a couple titles I’ve forgotten all in the span of a month. As I crowdsourced my selections, both online & with “real life” friends, it’s a wonder that no one suggested that I watch James Wan’s Dead Silence during this devil doll binge. Dead Silence is a fun little horror flick & a worthy addition to the evil doll genre, easily better than half the titles I just listed.

In just a few pictures, James Wan has racked up a nice little collection of genre film oddities to his name (films like Saw, The Conjuring, the Insidious franchise, etc.), but with the exception of his most recent/expensive production (Furious 7) I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed his work quite as much as I enjoyed Dead Silence. With the same love Furious 7 brought to the grotesquely excessive action film genre, Dead Silence displays a giddily thorough love for the world of trashy horror. It’s a pretty standard issue evil doll movie, for sure, one that narrows in only slightly on the insular world of evil ventriloquism. Still, within this frame Wan makes room for horror tropes of all kinds: foggy graveyards, evil toymakers, spooky mansions, flashing red & blue lights, oldtimey flashback footage, Argento’s slashing straight razor, Freddy Krueger’s from-beyond-the-grave-curse style of revenge, goofy/killer catchphrases (“Who’s the dummy?”), and the list goes on. This may be an evil doll movie, but really it’s all over the place. If there is any particular brand of horror that Wan zeroes in on here it’d be the work of shameless direct-to-video schlockmeister Charles Band, figurehead of Full Moon Features. I’m not just talking obvious points of reference like Band’s productions Puppet Master, Demonic Toys, and Dolls. The general vibe of Dead Silence is of a large budget version of Full Moon Entertainment’s entire aesthetic. I can tell you from experience that it takes a lot of love for trash cinema to find Full Moon’s overall vibe worthy of affection or even minimal effort, but after watching Dead Silence that’s something I assume James Wan has in spades.

The exact story Dead Silence tells doesn’t matter too, too much. There’s a local curse that haunts the residents of a small community thanks to the mysterious death of a wicked ventriloquist named Mary Shaw, who (true to the film’s vast collection of old hat horror tropes) has her own nursery rhyme that kids like to repeat ominously: “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, be sure you never, ever scream or she’ll rip your tongue out at the seam.” This ventriloquist ghost, of course, possesses the collection of dolls she left behind in her wake (wow, I kinda wish someone would reimagine this as a gory mockery of Jeff Dunham’s act), employing the not-so-inanimate bastards to avenge her death. Mary sometimes mimics/projects the voices of her would-be victims’ loved ones to lure them into vulnerable situation, which is a horror trope in its own way, but it’s at least one that fits in snuggly with the film’s ventriloquism theme. There’s exactly one invention (that at least I’ve never seen before) that Wan brings to the table here: in her quest to create “the perfect doll”, Mary Shaw turns her victims’ corpses into doll-like playthings, which leads to one hilariously over-the-top last minute reveal. Charles Band has tried to do a lot more with a lot less, I assure you, and the “perfect doll” angle & last second twist are plenty justification on their own for Dead Silence‘s place in the evil doll genre.

Otherwise, Dead Silence delivers exactly what you’d expect from a formulaic evil doll horror flick, but it at least does it from a place of love. That’s more than you can say for last year’s major studio return to the evil doll formula, the unbearably dull Rosemary’s Baby knockoff Anabelle (which, oddly enough, was a spin-off of Wan’s film The Conjuring). Dead Silence survives on its ambiance, cheap scares, and evil doll designs more than its barely competent acting & dialogue, but honestly that’s okay. Those kinds of shortcomings are just yet another old hat horror trope, fitting in perfectly with the movie’s trashy genre film charms. Besides, Dead Silence didn’t have to try too hard in the first place, since dolls are perfectly creepy enough on their own without help from basic things like a decent script or believable performances. Seriously, dolls are the worst. As long as a horror movie is willing to acknowledge that point, the rest is lagniappe.

SIDE NOTE: I appreciated Dead Silence‘s attention to sound, which is evident even in its title. There was plenty of ominous dead silence that allowed space for simple effects like the wooden creaking of the ventriloquist dolls’ eyes moving slightly to register as highly effective. Again, I feel like this is just more attention to detail from Wan, who’s obviously well aware that sound design is a large part of what makes horror tick.

-Brandon Ledet