(2021) Horror (New Line) Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jean Louise Kelly, Susanna Thompson, Jake Abel, Jacqueline McKenzie, Christian Clemenson, Amir AboulEla, Mercedes Colon, Ingrid Bisu, Ruben Pla, Jon Lee Brody, Paula Marshall, Zoe Bell, Dan Ramos, Shaunte Johnson, Natallia Safran. Directed by James Wan
For those who love horror movies, James Wan is a name that is spoken with reverence. He is responsible for three of the most successful – and influential – franchises of modern horror; Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. Of late his time has been spent branching out into big-budget action and superhero movies, but in between Aquaman installments he found time to return to the place where his heart really is.
Maddie (Wallis) has had a lot to deal with in her life. Adopted early on, she has put up with an abusive husband (Abel) and numerous miscarriages. After yet another unwarranted assault by her husband, she locks herself in her room and falls asleep. When she wakes up, he has been brutally murdered by someone with nearly superhuman strength. The detectives assigned to the case, the improbably-named Kekoa Shaw (Young) and the Wanda Sykes-channeling Regina Moss (White), are sympathetic but they are also dealing with some other murders in the Seattle area, including two retired doctors (McKenzie, Clemonson).
The trouble is that Maddie has been having vivid visions of the murders as they are happening. Her adopted sister Sydney (Hasson) is providing moral support, as well as physical care for the battered woman, but the more awful carnage that Maddie sees, the more she realizes that the killer – a spectral being calling himself Gabriel – has a deep and disturbing connection to her own past.
While it is good to see Wan back in the genre that he has been such an integral part of for decades, this isn’t his best work. The good news is that even the lesser entries in his filmography are still worth seeing. While Gabriel is unlikely to enter the pantheon of horror movie icons like Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Chucky – or even Jigsaw – his supernatural strength and control of electricity (he communicates through electronic devices like radios, cell phones and loudspeakers) he is a formidable opponent. He doesn’t have the personality to be truly memorable, but the performances – when he makes his emergence in the latter half of the film is truly spectacular – but he suffices.
Wallis, who has worked in Wan’s universe in Annabelle, is also not quite memorable as Madison which is largely a fault of the writing. Faring better is Maddie Hasson as Sydney, providing occasional comic relief but just showing a bit more energy than Wallis. What’s truly memorable about the movie, though, are the technical aspects. There are some set pieces near the end that are as good as any that have been filmed for a horror movie, particularly one set in a holding cell. The gore is spectacularly done and effects, most of which are practical, well-integrated. Watching Madison’s reality melt into her vision is particularly nifty.
There are a fair number of odd plot choices, which is not uncommon for movies like this and which generally can be overlooked, but one thing that can’t is that the movie is paced a little too slowly for the first two thirds. Madison and Sydney spend a ton of time looking at case files and doing the kind of exposition that have people reaching for the fast-forward button. One thing that the script gets absolutely right is the reveal of Gabriel and who he is; it’s a knockout. Eliminate some of the research scenes and you would have a classic here. Even as is, this is an entertaining movie that is going to leave most horror buffs with a smile on their faces.
REASONS TO SEE: Terrific gore and special effects with some cringe-inducing body movements.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some may find the pace a bit too slow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and lots of violence – much of it bloody and disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three separate people play various aspects of Gabriel; Ray Chase supplies the voice, (no spoiler) the body, and Marina Mazepa does the contortion effects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through October 10)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basket Case
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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