James Wan is back in the horror game. Carrying his "Aquaman" clout straight into the bonkers genre project that he's seemingly always longed to do, the "Insidious" director has returned to the horror game with a big swing in the form of "Malignant." In a chat with Bloody Disgusting, Wan credits a handful of Italian and horror-centric directors, calling his latest "my version of a Giallo." He applies an apt metaphor to elaborate:
"The best way I describe 'Malignant' is, growing up in the late '80s and '90s when I would go to the video store — when video stores were still around — we would go to the video store. I would go all the way to the back of the video store to the horror section because that's where they usually keep the horror section. They were too embarrassed to have it upfront. And then, once I get to that section, I would venture even deeper into the horror section, into the back shelves, and take down a video cover that I've never seen before, but the cover was so cool. I don't know what the movie is. That is how I describe 'Malignant.' 'Malignant' is that movie that I take from the back shelves."
Having beheld it in the merciful A/C of my local movie theater on a sweltering, triple-digit weekend, I can gleefully confirm that Malignant is indeed that back shelf type of movie. But what if you've never ventured that far into the corners of that mom-and-pop video shop, or (my condolences) the video store died long before you had a chance to browse its aisles? We've got you covered! Longtime horror fans have probably seen most of these. But if nothing else, this should prompt a revisit before dusting off the Letterboxd app.
If you're not a longtime horror fan but you want more of the theatre bizarre that Wan taps into, welcome and read on.
Where To Stream: Shudder, AMC+, TubiTV
The best recommendation will come straight from the horse's mouth, and so we'll turn back to Bloody Disgusting where the Australian writer-director name-drops Dario Argento and one of his most "out-there" films, "Phenomena." Perhaps during your "Malignant" screening, you heard Joseph Bishara's strings and synth-heavy score alongside the increasingly unsettling visuals, and you leaned forward in your seat. If those vibes hit you right, then you'll want to check out Dario Argento's mid-career 1985 effort.
"Phenomena" follows a young woman, played by Jennifer Connelly ("The Labyrinth," "Requiem For A Dream"), at a boarding school who realizes that she has psychic powers, and uses them to track down a killer. Neither this nor the synopsis of "Malignant" — "Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities," according to IMDb — adequately showcase the insanity of each film's third act, but the two share striking macabre imagery, choice needle drops, and arresting compositions.
A note: a truncated cut of the film with the alternate title of "Creepers" is floating around. That's generally not the one you want. You want the near-two-hour runtime of "Phenomena," the one with a chimpanzee and bug minions and all of the weird goodies that make the normies flee from the theater.
For further viewing: Argento's "Opera" (1987), and Lamberto Bava's "A Blade in the Dark" (1983).
Where To Stream: Hulu
Wan has done this before, you know. Some of his past works don't drip-feed the tension so much as they strap you in and tell you to hold onto your butts.
On the action side of things, Wan's "Death Wish" riff "Death Sentence" from 2007 carries unforgiving energy with every sawed-off shotgun blast, while "Dead Silence" opts to ratchet up the moody Hammer Horror atmosphere alongside its increasingly absurd premise: a creepy ventriloquist doll might be connected to a growing number of deaths in a small town. Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell churned this out on the heels of their success with "Saw," and both purport to have had a negative studio experience with "Dead Silence." Despite the experience, Wan's zealous fingerprints cover the over-the-top climax of "Malignant" in a similar fashion and refuse to let go until you've got ample nightmare fuel, whether it's a backward-running assassin or a body missing a tongue.
For further viewing in the same high-octane horror ballpark, try Sam Raimi's 2009 horror-comedy "Drag Me To Hell."
Daniel Isn't Real
Where To Stream: Amazon Prime Video, Shudder, Hoopla, AMC+, TubiTV, The Roku Channel
I can hear the comments now. "Men have trauma, too! Where are the horror movies that work through that?" You're in luck because Adam Egypt Mortimer has done just that with his 2019 feature-length bloodletting exercise "Daniel Isn't Real."
Based on Brian DeLeeuw's novel "In This Way I Was Saved," the story is about college student Luke (Miles Robbins) and his imaginary friend. Daniel (the friend, played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) may not be real, but he was useful for young Luke in the aftermath of a traumatic event. His return during a troubled period of Luke's adult life causes just as many problems as Gabriel does for Maddie, but this is a SpectreVision joint so they're going to get weird with it. Daniel's true form plays more in the cosmic horror sandbox, with incredible makeup FX and intense performances from a stellar cast.
"Intense" turn you off? Want something lighter but still focused on a hurt man hurting people? You want to try "Psychic Killer," Ray Danton's 1973 revenge horror that miraculously got a PG rating from the MPAA in spite of its nudity and blood. Bonus for horror heads: Neville Brand (he of Tobe Hooper's "Eaten Alive") shows up for a memorable scene involving a butcher's shop!
Where To Stream: Shudder, Fandor Amazon Channel, AMC+, Arrow
One source of power for "Malignant" is its sincere pathos. Wrapped up within the grotesquery of Maddie's ordeal is the beauty of her relationship with her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), the only one who believes her when the bodies start dropping. In this cruel world, Sydney's advocacy for someone who acts monstrous works as a tether for all of the bloodshed surrounding them.
For similar vibes, look no further than Frank Henenlotter's 1982 cult classic, "Basket Case." The story entails the relationship between a young man and his deformed twin brother (born conjoined but separated at birth) that he keeps in a wicker basket, all on the grimy streets of early '80s New York. Shot on 16mm film with a rock-bottom budget of $35,000, Henenlotter's exploitation B-movie is a grindhouse gem that critic Rex Reed famously called "The sickest movie ever made!"
Where To Stream: Shudder, DIRECTV, Spectrum On Demand, AMC+
Wan is not the only contemporary horror director who goes balls-to-the-wall for his traumatized characters. Turkish filmmaker Can Evrenol revels in putting his protagonists on the rack and treating its crank like a fidget spinner, as he does with poor, poor Holly (Clémentine Poidatz) in his 2017 sophomore effort "Housewife."
Holly is hurting in a dead marriage and still wrestling with childhood trauma when she happens upon a mysterious group that offers answers. But there's something vaguely sinister about the Umbrella of Love and Light, and as Holly engages with them further, her grip on reality loosens, culminating in a final festival of mayhem just as memorable as that of "Malignant."
If the potent blend of gore and hysterics does something for you, go ahead and add Evrenol's 2016 bonkers-in-Yonkers debut feature "Baskin" to your watchlist, along with Robert Altman's '72 art thriller "Images" and Francesco Barilli's 1974 psych-horror (and giallo, depending on who you ask) "The Perfume of the Lady in Black."
Read this next: Malignant Review: James Wan Goes Wild With His Bloody, Bonkers Return To Horror
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