Now that we’ve seen it, is MALIGNANT really a new take on terror?
(WARNING: spoilers ahead, including the big reveal.)
Whenever a movie claims to be the new vision of anything, or the next evolution of something, the mind begins to fill in the blanks, no one has ever said where it needs to be filled to begin with. Part of that mentality came with the release of James wan‘s Smart, a Giallo– an inspired horror film that was heavily promoted as a new take on horror by the director of Conspiracy.
Expectations were high, and the ad campaign’s insistence on preventing spoilers from protecting the film’s secrets helped heighten the anticipation (much like when Alfred hitchcock begged the audience for the same when psychopath was about to be released in 1960). Of course, Wan added to the hype by stating in an interview with a horror website. Disgusting blood that “I have always nourished this desire to make a Giallo movie, but do it my way; my version of Giallo.
So the question now is, is Smart fulfill its new promise of horror, this new version of Giallo, or did it exceed expectations? The answer lies in this pesky ‘yes and no’ realm, but what it undoubtedly offers is an ultra-inventive approach to Giallo horror and monster creation cool enough to deserve attention.
For those who haven’t seen the movie yet and aren’t afraid of spoilers (or saw it a while ago and can’t remember too much), Smart focuses on Madison Mitchell, a woman carrying deep trauma from a hazy past who suffers from visions of real murders created by a dark figure in a long black trench coat. The killer wears black gloves, long black hair covering his face, and an obscene bladed weapon that screams bloody murder every second onscreen.
The killer is revealed to be a parasitic twin called Gabriel who was once believed to have been excised from Madison’s body but still lives inside her, almost like a dormant tumor waiting for the perfect moment to return and claim the life that was. stolen from him.
Her disfigured face comes out a slit in the back of Madison’s head and grabs her body, contorting it and bending her limbs back. This makes Gabriel move in a deeply unsettling way, torturing Madison’s body in the process as punishment to keep it trapped in her head. Gabriel wears the black trench coat mentioned earlier inside out once he’s in control of his body. This is how he claims the body for his own, trying to remake it in his distorted image.
This approach to creating monsters plays with a theme that tends to accompany “Jekyll & Hyde” type characters quite often: personality transformations are also manifested physically. The monster is portrayed as an aggressive and angry being who will settle for nothing less than a hostile takeover of the body, keeping us mindful that the villain of the story won’t end up being a deranged human acting against him. ideas suppressed by murdering innocent people. In the process, Wan may have given the horror world a new monster worthy of multiple sequels or even his own universe (which many filmmakers and studios tend to aim for these days).
At the surface level, the Italian Giallo fans will feel right at home with Smart. Neon-lit kill sequences, ultra-violence, twist-filled killer mystery, and ridiculously bizarre plot developments (which sin the side of the absurd in most cases) all stay close. traditions established by the titans of Giallo cinema, with Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario bava among their biggest names (if not the top three).
And yet, these Giallo the elements seem to be firmly in place to offer support when Wan decides to push them to their breaking point, and beyond, to explore other ideas that the Italian slasher genre should have allowed themselves years ago. .
Unlike some of the Giallo films referenced in Smart, like Argento’s The bird with the crystal plumage (1970) and Darkness (1982), Wan’s story has a more logical sequence of events leading up to revelation, with clear exposure elements that ensure everyone knows exactly who the killer is and what motivates his killing ways. One thing this film is not is convoluted, something that cannot even be said of the most famous examples of the genre.
from Argento Giallo classic Dark red (1975) comes to mind here, as an example of what Wan tries not to do with his film. In Deep Red, the gruesome murder of a psychic medium leads to a hunt for her assassin led by the musician who first found the body. Once it all begins, the events leading up to the killer’s identity revelation are presented as an attack on the senses (with a hypnotic score of the group Leprechaun) that imbues everything with a sort of dreamlike logic where the events are more loosely linked than is usually the case in traditional horror thrillers.
There is an intentional longing for ambiguity in Dark red driven by uncomfortable camera angles and dynamic zooms that keep viewers in shaky storytelling terrain, but it comes at the cost of cohesive storytelling. As is the case in most Giallos, the killer remains hidden until the end, having seen him only faintly silhouetted in the background or from the killer’s perspective, the black-gloved hand slowly moving towards the victims with a sharp knife ready to go. stab. Sometimes the killer’s silhouette has a shape that doesn’t even exactly represent the person responsible for all the blood and bloodshed.
Wan dramatically changes the formula here by choosing to reveal the identity and origin of the killer midway through the story. By mixing expectations, it opens the door to new forms of violence to be explored in the service of extracting terror from other points of view. Essentially, Smart wants to avoid being just another Giallo or a simple tribute. This is where Wan’s vision enters uncharted territory.
Perhaps one of Wan’s biggest deviations from the classic Giallo comes from the distance he puts between the camera and the killer. Smart sees Wan removing the camera to let the audience try to figure out the nature and method of his killer, something classic Giallo loathes (as previously stated). We can appreciate Gabriel’s odd body language, how fake it sounds, and how intrusive his takeover really is.
At first, one can easily find a supernatural or demonic explanation behind the core mysteries of the film. There is still a lot of guesswork, but there is more to be drawn visually by letting Gabriel be seen more clearly before the film completely removes the veil. It gives audiences more things to play with instead of an oddly shaped shadow or ominous killer hand chasing people who are on the verge of death.
Curious twist of fate, these alterations of the formula – making the story less convoluted than those found in its influences, shooting the camera on the killer and being more generous in its revelations –Smart ends up being a more accessible variant of Giallo it’s more inviting than the classics it refers to. This in itself is an admirable achievement.
James Wan’s intentions with Smart is to broaden the scope of Giallo cinema by taking the genre to places where it had not yet dared to go. The influences are present, but also the desire not to settle. Perhaps the result could give rise to a new kind of Giallo to grow up, a neo-Giallo sub-genre, if you will. Either way, Wan leaves us with an important lesson in horror cinema: What happened before is never really empty of possibilities. The potential for new stories is always there, whether heavily influenced or not.
What is old can become new again if we approach it with the spirit of putting it in place, which has never been the case before. Smart Certainly stands up for it, and while that doesn’t create anything entirely different, it certainly paves the way for old lairs to find new ways to strike fear.