The tone of James Wan’s Malignant is clear from moment one, with an exterior shot of a preposterously sinister cliffside hospital. Big, jagged, and gothic, it manages to look a little naked without an accompanying lightning strike. The medical staff within do some stilted walk-and-talking about a dangerous thing that they struggle to control, that has gotten loose and is making the lights blink and everybody panic while somebody loads tranquilizer darts into a rifle. You can feel it immediately, like stepping outside and sensing a rainstorm on the way: the atmosphere of Malignant is heavy with approaching cheese.
Briefly, the film restrains itself. We meet Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), who begins having gruesome visions of murders as though she’s right there in the room, watching them carried out by a mashup of a black-gloved giallo killer and Grudge/Ring hair monster, a figure in a dark trenchcoat with a mop of shoulder-length hair. This is Gabriel, whose nature is a mystery save for the fact that he seems to be Madison’s childhood imaginary friend. Her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), is worried. Her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel), has no worries at all since he becomes Gabriel’s first victim.
If “Mal” Means Bad, Then What Do We Call This Thing?
Malignant is gleefully refreshing territory, especially as far as Wan’s career is concerned. After he and formerly frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell exploded onto the scene with 2005’s Saw and accidentally kickstarted the the brief craze for quote-unquote “torture porn,” Wan distanced himself from relentless violence and gore. He has latched onto ghost stories that feel almost well-mannered by comparison, as if trying to prove to anyone who will listen that he can do traditional horror, too, thanks: a family will be in peril, experiencing roughly 45 minutes of things going bump in the night and maybe they’ll see a geriatric yellow-eyed ghost.
Eventually, they’re saved; in Insidious, it’s by a sweet old lady, and in The Conjuring, it’s by the power of the good Lord Himself as invoked by saintly conceptions of Ed and Lorraine Warren. It is an unexpected franchising empire whose success is partially owed to its smooth accommodation of conservative sensibilities, valorizing the good white Christian and defending the traditional family unit. They are well-made films designed less to disturb and transgress than deliver an agreeable evening of the shivers, generally collapsing whenever Wan delegates the director job (see the tired, obligatory Conjuring sequel from earlier this year).
But beneath it all, you can tell there’s a real goofball aching to be set free. The jittery aesthetic of the Saw films emerged from Wan’s showy, just-out-of-film-school eagerness, which resembles someone waving an object in your face and going “ooooh” as though everything is automatically scarier when it’s wiggled around and accompanied by a noise. He has grown more restrained and more “classical” in the years since, but you can still glimpse that ostentatious streak in each fluid glide-through of a haunted house.
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“Malignant, More Like, Um, ‘Ignant?'”
Malignant represents those goofy instincts finally being let out of the box again for a horror story, subsuming the big flourishes that have served action films like the wondrously dorky Aquaman. Going most of the way toward a slasher film, Malignant now ends those familiar investigations into light-flickering and wall-tapping with a grisly evisceration rather than a polite “boo.” Gabriel in particular is an outrageous figure on many levels, to the point where he forges a gold murder dagger from one victim’s pointy surgical trophy. The film seems to only sporadically remember that he can control electronic devices, and he speaks through grainy radio broadcasts because everyone apparently still keeps a big old radio on hand. It’s a movie built on plot twists but not totally reliant on them, because their audacious absurdity remains entertaining even if you guess what’s about to happen.
The film’s truly off-the-wall third act is what will get all the buzz, but the stylistic excesses carry it just fine before that point by indulging in gooey violence, leaking inexplicable amounts of mist, and luxuriating in complex bits of showmanship like an overhead sequence that follows Madison between the rooms and floors of her house. Wan leans all the way into inspirations that start at the whooshing cameras of Sam Raimi and then branch out to Stuart Gordon and Frank Henenlotter, and he does it without compromising. This is not a parody, and it isn’t going out of its way to wink at the audience and reassure us that we are still above this thing even if we enjoy it. This is a gloriously silly movie that absolutely no one on screen finds silly at all.
That such a film has come out of the James Wan industrial complex is more than a little shocking, considering how his ongoing glut of gray horror has played no small part in crowding out styles like this. The whole Conjuring empire and its imitators have functioned as an awkward stopgap between horror that vies for artistic respectability and genuine schlock, just trashy enough to keep oiling a scare machine rather than flesh out some metaphor for loss and/or trauma. Malignant is the work of a guy whose success has allowed him to pretty much do what he wants, and what he wants is to take a tentative step back toward inventive trash. I hope one day it doesn’t seem like such an outlier.