James Wan has some balls, I’ll say that much. He’s pioneered various chambers of the horror genre several times over in his career so far with game changers like Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, quickly becoming a household name with the talent, innovation and passion to back it up. If his newest film Malignant is going to have any kind of the same ripple effect then buckle the fuck up because this is one wild, demented, bonkers, stir crazy oddity and the best time I’ve had with a horror this year. This will be one of those reviews where I will mention almost nothing plot related because it’s just too much tantalizing fun unwinding this ball of yarn for yourself with fresh eyes. The film focuses on a woman (Annabelle Wallis) who begins to have terrifying waking nightmares where she observes a shadowy figure committing heinous acts of murder. The rest I’ll leave be, just see this thing and experience its WTF, nonsensical yet balls-out wonderful third act that truly transcends the boundaries of coherency, decency and convention for something so weird you’ll laugh, cry and shit your pants in unison. Wan is clearly well versed and a fan of many sub-genres and in this we see sly, loving nods to many other artists, most notably Dario Argento and 70’s Italian horror, so if some of the acting comes across as campy or silly just know that was most assuredly his intention and simply bask in the nostalgia. Some of the gore is real and some is CGI and while CGI blood is never ideal in my books the melding is done pretty well here, and it’s understandable that given a story with this much movement, commotion and visual kinetic madness it would have been tough as hell to do all the effects in a practical fashion. To cement the retro vibes we also get a showstopper of an original score composed by Wan’s go to guy Joseph Bishara that’s resplendent with shrieks, howls and heart-pounding synth chords that, for me at least, heavily echoed Goblin’s iconic electronic work in Argento’s films. Wan has worked in PG-13 realms quite a bit and been incredibly successful at making effective horror within those constraints, but he’s gone full R rated here, about as far as you can go into R rated territory in fact, for a no holds barred, rip snortin, unbelievable gong show of blood, violence, mayhem, schlock and a third act twist that’s so beyond anything rational or sane that I’m not even sure it makes sense but I loved every minute of and deeply admire the sheer audacity of. One of my personal favourites of the year so far.
Any fans of deep southern gothic potboilers with shamelessly lurid trappings, hectic, labyrinthine mysteries spanning decades acted wonderfully by a massive cast of character versions both old and young should greatly appreciate Dark Places as much as I did. It’s based on a book by Gillian Flynn who also penned the source material for David Fincher’s Gone Girl but for me this was a much, much stronger and more rewarding film. Fincher approached the material with his custom clinical, cynical tunnel vision detachment and meticulously calibrated style while director Gilles Paquet-Brenn adopts a much more sprawling, scattered, rough around the edges vernacular that is more narratively oblong and hazy yet no less compelling and even throws in the faintest glimmer of humanity. Charlize Theron is excellent as ever as Libby, the lone survivor of a farmhouse massacre that left her entire family dead when she was a kid, the killer never found and her left wandering as a broken adult trying to cope. The film intersperses dense, overlapping flashbacks to her difficult childhood life, a troubled brother (Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll in present day scenes) who was ultimately blamed for the crimes, a desperate mother (Christina Hendricks) and aggressive deadbeat father (Sean Bridgers) who all may have had some hand in the events, although nothing is made clear until you are well beyond neck deep in this tragic, increasingly bizarre small town family saga. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a terrifically creepy performance as her brother’s unstable, untrustworthy teen girlfriend and there’s lots of solid supporting work from great folks like Glenn Moreshower, Andrea Roth, Jeff Chase, Laura Cayouette and Drea de Matteo as a shady stripper with ties to Libby’s past. You know this is a film for true crime fans (even if the story itself is fictitious) when a subplot literally features a club of true crime aficionados led by a twitchy Nicholas Hoult who reach out to Libby in attempts to help her bring the case to a close. There is a *lot* going on in this film, and while not all of it gels into an ultimately cohesive tapestry, the resulting patchwork quilt is beautifully scrappy, full of jagged loose threads and is just an awesome, inky black, deliberately overcooked, chokingly sleazy pit of depravity, hidden half truths, deplorable human beings and even some very well buried pathos that sneaks up out of the slime to surprise you in the back end of the final act. Theron anchors it with her haunted, pensive aura as a fiercely guarded woman who is likely a lot more vulnerable and damaged than she’d care to admit, and the messy, bloody trajectory she must descend down to solve an infamous murder she was unwittingly at the centre of. Absolutely great film.