A friend who caught a first showing of Smart said it was by far the worst movie of Conspiracy and Insidious director James Wan, and one nominee for each ‘worst of 2021’ list. This description triggers one thing in this writer: total and unbridled excitement for the madness that Wan has concocted. The worst movies don’t elicit any feelings, those where I have trouble remembering a specific detail the moment I come home from the theater (or go upstairs after settling in for a home premiere, like 2021 often allows).
Smart is not that kind of movie.
James Wan swings in his latest horror film. Yes, there are some questionable decisions in its 112-minute runtime (including length, uh, 112 minutes), but these are the decisions of a filmmaker who has made it clear over the past 17 years that he was not interested in presenting a semblance of reality in his projects (cue Dom and Brian in furious 7 drive through a corn of them skyscraper to land in a third). Even when it comes to something based on facts in his Conjuring movies, Wan likes to challenge himself by embracing the inherent hokeyness of something like a giant twisted ghost, and then figuring out how to scare you anyway. He usually succeeds.
And he clearly has a lot of love and respect for the horror masters of yesteryear, whose names are often mentioned alongside his when talking about the genre’s great craftsman. All along Smart, a discerning horror fan should feel right at home, as the script (by Wan, Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper) draws mainly from Italian films from the 70s and 80s, but also Thrills from Dark Castle’s late 90s and early 2000s funhouse, Horror hammer, and the most polarizing entries in the filmographies of Wes Craven and John Carpenter. And yet it remains unmistakably his own, with the delicate camera work, the fog machines (inside!)
Anyone who only knows Wan for his billion dollar blockbusters like Aquaman and furious 7 could be started for a loop by the approach. And even for those who know the Conjurings (which keep their weirdness to a relative minimum) might benefit from a little glimpse of past horror movies that immediately occurred to me while watching them. So consider this list; if you were to put these six films in a blender and project the results, it might look a bit like Smart.
[Ed. note: This list includes spoilers for James Wan’s Malignant, so if you’d like to avoid that, go watch the movie in theaters or on HBO Max.]
After making his directorial debut with Seen, Wan’s second film, Dead silence was set to be a major hit when it was released in early 2007 (between the release of the third and fourth Saws), but audiences just couldn’t connect with the film’s wacky puppet-focused plot or Hammer’s horror aesthetic. Despite the tonal confusion due to studio interference (unlike the norm, Wan and his partner Leigh Whannell wanted some sort of PG-13 vibe; the studio wanted R rated Seen-like gore), Dead silence has established quite a bit about the filmmaker’s canon going forward: unusual supernatural elements, an outside world that seems covered at all times (the low budget Seen had no outdoor stages), and – more importantly for Smart – a commitment to breathtaking twists and turns delivered with a straight face. The rated version of Dead silence is the superior, although the unrated adds even more gore if you’re looking for it and want both options.
Dead silence is currently available for rental or purchase through most streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Apple, Where Seen.
Many of Dario Argento’s gialli are about an innocent person who witnesses a murder and is suspected of having it, but Tenebrae the version is closest to Smart, because the evidence points to more than just being in the wrong place at the right time. Here, author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is troubled to learn that someone is killing people related to him via the release of his new book (his agent, obsessed fan, etc.), just like Smart protagonist Maddie (Annabelle Wallis) discovers the people whose deaths she never ceases to see, all treated like a child. Argento’s work is, like Wan’s, a story of love or hate, but the years 1982 Darkness is one of the more accessible (read: consistent) entries to his filmography, making it a good place to start if you’re new to the work of this one-of-a-kind author.
Darkness is currently available to watch on Shudder.
Argento is practically a Disney-level mainstream compared to Lucio Fulci, who may not be as skilled as his contemporary or, at least, has not been fortunate enough to have competent teams. 1977 The psychic isn’t his best movie, but it’s one of the last mainstream giallo films he made before he hit his prime with Zombie and his other more famous undead movies, and the one horror buffs might think of the most during Smart. The plot centers on a woman who has visions of the dead that she was not present for, at least during her first half or so before the movie’s big reveal took center stage. Bonus for Tarantino fans: you will recognize the musical theme of the film, which he used in Kill Bill.
My soul to take
In a perfect world, this and not Scream 4 would’ve been Wes Craven’s last movie (well, in a perfect world it wouldn’t be either, but you know what I mean). Released in theaters a few months before what would be his swan song, the 2010s My soul to take was also written by the filmmaker, making it a “truer” Craven movie than another Williamson / Kruger-written trip to Woodsboro. Craven’s story about the soul of a serial killer spanning seven children born on the same night in a small town in Massachusetts is vintage nonsense on the part of the filmmaker, who has previously explored similar territory regarding souls in his so-called franchise starter. Shock. The horror genre certainly has a number of buggy story concepts, but they’re usually created by people who don’t know how to point a camera either. Seeing it from legitimate filmmakers like Craven or Wan is what makes such baffling ideas enter unmissable territory, if only for the sheer bravado of engaging in something so quirky.
My soul to take is available to stream on Starz and available to rent or purchase through Amazon Prime Video, Apple, and Seen.
It’s Argento again! If you succeeded Darkness and want more, then deepen its madness with its 1993 return to the giallo-esque fare (and first fully-made solo film in America), which shares a ‘revenge on the doctors’ story, though in some ways is still more ridiculous than that of Smart. He also has a separate weapon made from one of the victims’ personal effects: while Smart‘s Gabriel uses the sharp end of the Caduceus award for his first victim, TraumaThe killer uses a “Noose-O-Matic” with surgical tools. The two even share the killer doll movie royalty; Annabelle Wallis reunites with Wan after starring in the first Annabelle, and Trauma presents none other than Chucky himself, Brad Dourif.
If you’re here and just want more movies like Smart (bless you), or just don’t care about spoilers, then it’s safe to note that Wan’s movie isn’t the first to use a Siamese twin who never fully formed as its antagonist. You may have seen tweets hinting at “a movie I can’t name without a spoiler.” Smart twist “- well, this movie is actually Cart Case, the debut of indie horror mainstay Frank Henenlotter. This film immediately tells you what is going on; the normal-looking Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) was separated from his mutated twin Belial when they were younger, and now the two seek revenge on the doctors who separated them, with the older brother carrying the other in a basket while they carry out their revenge plan. Cart Case is the opposite of the budget spectrum and tonally different, but it’s a perfect example of how a particular idea can yield very different results depending on the resources and sensitivity of the filmmakers.