Most genre filmmakers would kill to have a career trajectory like James Wan’s. Not only did his feature debut Saw put him on the map, but it also proved his touch had a ripple effect, the ability to influence trends within the genre. By the time the Conjuring franchise rolled around and was a critical and financial success, Wan found himself catapulted to the “stars,” otherwise known as Hollywood franchise filmmaking.
Even after orchestrating crazed vehicular stunts in Furious 7 and going under the sea with Aquaman, it was clear neither of these films scratched a perennial itch for James Wan. “There’s only so many PG-13 movies I can make before I get bored,” the director said about his latest film, Malignant, which sees him take a break from studio-mandated tentpoles and return to his roots within the horror genre.
This puts Wan in the great company of Sam Raimi, another low-budget horror filmmaker who went on to direct the original and still superior Spider-Man trilogy before he sunk his teeth back into his old stomping grounds with the delirious and morally conscious fable Drag Me to Hell. There, Raimi reunited his original crazed sensibilities with all the new kinetic tricks he’d learned from large-scale action filmmaking. The blend was delicious and unlike any horror flick produced at the time. Audiences didn’t welcome the film with open arms initially, but time has been kind, and Raimi’s schlocky shocker has the cult following it always deserved.
That sounds like the ideal route for Malignant. Wan is not quite as good of a director as Sam Raimi, but it’s clear he learned the same lessons that Raimi did when he transitioned back to small-scale horror from big-budget superhero cinema. Somehow, Malignant has some of the most accomplished action set-pieces in recent memory, defying budgetary restraints to come up with some creative camerawork that complements Wan’s knack for capably communicating the geography of every location in his films.
More to the point, it is staggering that Malignant got made, and by a major studio, no less. Malignant is confoundingly bizarre at every turn. The film refuses to be easily defined: it is utterly deranged, one of the trashiest and unabashedly dopiest stories of its kind in a long while – and that’s a genuine compliment. Wan’s knowledge of the genre’s history shines through, and the film benefits immensely from his enthusiasm and confidence. This has what many modern horror films lack – it doesn’t care what you think about it or take away from it; the goal is to be as shocking and abject as possible. And it delivers on both accounts.
Summarizing the story is mostly a fool’s errand. Part of the fun of experiencing Malignant is trying to guess where it’ll go next and what kind of film it’ll become within the next few minutes. The trailers are entirely misleading by design. But the basic gist is that the film follows a young woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who begins to experience visions of murders happening in real-time. The killer, a contortionist in a trench coat and black gloves, reminds Madison of someone from her past – her imaginary friend, Gabriel, a demonic presence who has seemingly become flesh and blood. But, of course, that’s only the basic setup. Who Gabriel is, what these visions are, and how it all ties back to Madison comes to a head in one of the most garishly shocking third act twists a film like this has had in a long while.
On the surface, the narrative doesn’t feel too far removed from James Wan and his frequent collaborators’ comfort zones. Everyone is very good at what they’re known for, so familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if anything, it’s all a misleading lure. As Wan leads us further along, it becomes excitingly apparent he isn’t taking us into familiar territory for mainstream horror. The film joyously leaps through several different modes of horror and styles, and part of the fun for filmgoers is guessing which filmmakers and movies are being homaged.
The constant transitions aren’t without some faults. Some passages are more successful than others, and the film is longer than it needs to be. But it’s the rare horror film that gets more vigorous the longer it runs.
It helps that Wan draws inspiration from some of the best directors who have ever worked within this wheelhouse. There are recognizable fingerprints from the likes of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma during the film’s early going as a mystery slasher; the latter half feels indebted to the grotesque body horrors concocted by Frank Henenlotter and David Cronenberg; the film’s unabashed campiness shares similarities to the work of Sam Raimi. On that note, to take anything from Malignant particularly seriously is to misunderstand the film. It’s high melodrama, playfully toying with conventions and using emotions in the broadest way possible. That makes all the lurid stuff all the more bombastic and frightening.
At the same time, one of the film’s weaker elements is the emphasis placed on Madison’s relationship with her stepsister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), which the script posits as the story’s central emotional thread. Essentially, the film’s shallow thematic focus is about defining the difference of blood relation versus chosen family. Worthy themes, to be sure. But Malignant follows the model of horror films that are less about stringent plotting and definable character arcs and more about the experiential, taking full advantage of filmmaking’s visual and aural capabilities. Everything works better when it’s played as parodical, but the more sincere stuff doesn’t land because the performances aren’t believable in that way. Wallis is fantastic when she’s all big eyes and frantic energy, but she’s less convincing when she shares intimate moments with Hasson, who might look suspiciously like Florence Pugh but certainly doesn’t have her range.
James Wan delivers where it matters most, with some of the most confident filmmaking he’s ever displayed. This is not the work of a filmmaker who is worried he may never get another chance to make a horror film and thus feels the need to stuff every last idea into a single movie just in case it’s curtains for him. Instead, Wan plays in the genre’s sandbox with a devil-may-care attitude, refusing to adhere to current trends and rules as he embraces the grimy spirit of tasteless ’90s direct-to-video horror. Malignant won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but it wouldn’t be as good as it is if it were.