Wan: Malignant (2021) | featured image

James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ Is Perfectly HorrorAble

At first you might think that James Wan’s Malignant is striking the same note as his prior horror films. You would be wrong.

James Wan
Warner Bros. Pictures
10 September 2021 (US)

Bill Gibron would’ve loved Malignant.

As one of PopMatters‘ long-serving critics before his passing in 2018, Gibron found something to love in everything from family fare to B-grade body horror flicks. A pop culture omnivore, Gibron would have no qualms about eviscerating would-be Oscar contenders right after spilling his loving thoughts about Kid A-era Radiohead.

But when it came to horror films, Gibron loved his schlock. He went to bat for the gross-out flicks, the direct-to-VHS low-budget sequels, the earnest horror films that were so poorly made they accidentally turned into comedies. Indeed, Gibron used his words to prop up emerging filmmakers as high as he could hold them. In 2011, he published a short overview of horror director James Wan‘s then-short oeuvre and even then said that Wan “has all the chops to be one of Hollywood’s leading genre luminaries.”

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for the plot of Malignant. But first, let’s watch the trailer.]

“Genre” is a word that comes up a lot in discussions surrounding Malignant, Wan’s tenth feature-length film. After redefining modern mainstream horror with films like Saw, Insidious, and his especially lucrative The Conjuring series, it’s no surprise that he would soon be handed the keys to larger franchise fare like Furious 7 and the billion-dollar box office behemoth that is Aquaman.

Yet Wan is a very conscious filmmaker: he knows what kind of stories he’s trying to tell with his films, but sometimes audiences have misinterpreted his intentions. The perfect example of this is 2007’s Dead Silence, the follow-up to his Saw breakthrough that featured … an evil ventriloquist. Audiences weren’t feeling it, and some critics were quick to write Wan’s cinematic obituary as a one-idea wonder. Yet over time, Dead Silence has emerged from the heavy shadow of expectations to be seen as its own kind of thing: a silly (and somewhat effective) B-movie. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Had audiences known Wan’s basement-flick aspirations going into Dead Silence, that film would likely have a very different reputation.

Now, in 2021, Wan’s reputation as a genre stylist is without question, and the marketing of Malignant almost deliberately makes the film look like a rehash of Wan’s greatest hits. The setup is something we had seen before in Insidious, The Conjuring, and all of its sequels: a creepy mid-century house, the slow camera pans to unknown scares, a woman who seems to have some sort of connection to demonic, spectral planes.

For those giving Malignant a casual viewing, it’s easy to see why some audience reaction has been divisive: the film’s first third feels broadly drawn, almost to the point of being rote. This film’s young woman in demonic distress is Madison (Annabelle Wallis). She’s suffering under a physically abusive partner Derek (Jake Abel), who in turn meets his brutal demise via a ghastly, unseeable entity.

Said entity kills repeatedly, with Madison having a strange psychic connection with the entity. She’s capable of seeing the entity’s killings unfold in real-time before waking up in a start in her own bed. The “connected to the killer” trope has been done many times before, of course, and Malignant‘s first act suffers because of this. Nothing about the film feels particularly fresh or new, doubly so if the viewer is even vaguely familiar with the James Wan horror “brand”.

Yet by the time the film reaches its climax we have entered full camp territory (to Gibron’s ghostly glee?). Through a series of flashbacks and viewing old VHS tapes that Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) has uncovered, we learn that this entity, long thought to be Madison’s imaginary friend turned real, is, in fact, her brother Gabriel. Her brother literally shares her body with her: Madison and Gabriel were born conjoined, sharing the same brain, with his face on the back of her head. Surgeries removed his stunted limbs and “tucked” his head beneath her scalp, but the abusive hits from Derek awakened the dormant Gabriel.

When his face is “activated” – literally peering out through the back of Madison’s head, Gabriel can control her body. He locks Madison’s brain away in a dream world while he goes out killing the medical team who rendered him this way.

It’s ridiculous. Right?

Yet much like Sam Raimi’s initially misunderstood classic Drag Me to Hell (2009 – which Gibron rated a “9” as in Very Nearly Perfect) the dramatic beginning and setup in Malignant ultimately seem to have little basis with the over-the-top finalé. When Madison is intimidated by some other inmates she’s locked up with during Malignant‘s third act, a newly-enraged Gabriel splits open the back of Madison’s head to show his face and then proceeds to … use her body backward. Since his eyes are on the opposite side of her head, the actor portraying Gabriel is effectively walking, jumping, stabbing, and fighting while facing backward (it appears that a cutout of Madison’s eyes-closed face is attached in the idle “forward” position).

The fight choreography here and at the police precinct immediately afterward is fluid, fresh, and amazingly entertaining. Gabriel is less a demonic antagonist and more of a supervillain, flipping across police desks and chucking chairs across long distances while still “backward”.

Had there not been a full hour of Wan-styled jumpscare setpieces prior, the film may have crossed firmly over into the realm of silliness with these sequences, but instead, it radiates the energy of a young filmmaker excited to nail a scene that’s been in his head (front and back) for some time. The giddy thrills of these late action sequences are infectious, and much as how Gabriel is ready to be seen in all his gross glory, Malignant too finally unveils the kind of film it really is.

By the time Madison turns the tables on Gabriel and locks him in his own dream prison, one can’t help but be reminded of when A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) finally turned Freddy Krueger’s (Robert Englund) own environment against him in that franchise’s 1987 entry, Dream Warriors. Gabriel promises he’ll get out, but Madison says next time she’ll be ready for him, potentially setting up Malignant as its own gloriously grotesque franchise.

As much as writer-directors like Jordan Peele and Ari Aster are being hailed as the new innovators of horror, Wan has used the blank check given to him after directing that aquatic superhero film to do something downright absurd; box office receipts be damned. Drawing from the influences like Giallo and Takashi Miike, from haunted house flicks to gorehouse slashers, Malignant is the kind of film that appears to have already been taken too seriously by many film critics.

Yet those who enter Malignant knowing full well it’s a B-movie will have a grand, bloody time. The jump scares aren’t as effective as those in The Conjuring but they aren’t supposed to be. Wan holds off hitting your brain’s pleasure center until near the end – with one oversized setpiece after another coming right at you.

The marketing for Malignant may be misleading, but perhaps that’s deliberate: spoiling a scene where a cop is chasing Madison’s half-unconscious body that’s running backward and sprinting like a parkour athlete while dodging gunshots is a bit of a tough sell. Malignant‘s worldbuilding may be a tad dry for some, but that setup leads to the kind of payoff that firmly cements the film as a new hallmark of the genre.

Our late, great Bill Gibron understood the power, the fun, and the pure entertainment that radiated out of bargain bin rentals and films with DIY gore effects. He also respected the auteurs who tried bringing that vibe into a horror world that’s too self-serious. I’m confident he would’ve loved Malignant, and so long as you go in expecting a B-movie destined for cult classic status, I’m confident you’ll love it too.