Malignant ★★★★

Hooptober 8.0: 12/31
2021 Ranked

A bonkers ride that runs the gamut of director James Wan’s horror influences. Malignant is basically every film that inspired him combined into one manic mess of a picture pitched as a knowing send-up and embracing of everything those films are. It is schlocky, goofy, terrifying, gory, ominous, and action-packed. It is a hard to pin down experience, one that will have one laughing horribly only for there to be a quick cut away where some poor soul has their arm snapped in half. This turbulent emotional rollercoaster of a film is an experience like few others in modern cinema, an absolute balls-to-the-walls novelty that somehow came out of a major studio. It is hard to comprehend how such a film can be made, even if Wan just helmed the blockbuster Aquaman for Warner Bros. No matter the backstory, I am grateful that Malignant exists in its full, unabashed glory. It is destined to become a cult film for some, one that far eclipses its modern appraisal - Malignant has already started to find its audience, in large part thanks to its accessibility - and is sure to inspire more horror filmmakers, just as Wan and his wife/co-writer Ingrid Bisu were inspired to make this one.

While the twist may be a tad obvious, the eventual reveal had me freaking the hell out. It was genuinely the most excited I have been with a modern film in a long time. The prison fight followed up with the precinct attack (Comrade Gabriel in full force) is everything an action should be. In this case, it is mixed with horror and, more specifically, body horror but it is not all quick cuts and flash. It is style, quick movements from the actors, and a gaudy scale that keeps the action moving fluidly and with breathtaking horror. Wan and DP Michael Burgess’ camera floats through the scene following along as Gabriel exacts bloody carnage on anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way. It is still goofy and carefree - the chair toss to head shot is comedic GOLD - but the build-up with the procedural elements of the film collapsing into a bloody emergence of this demon Gabriel sets the table wonderfully, all while Wan has extreme amounts of fun knocking down everything he just set up. It is a real highlight of the film, one that is emblematic of the fine line the overall film walks. The “mindscape” sequence is goofy yet oddly earnest. These old tapes, right down to the reveal and reactions, are equal parts horrifying and hysterical because of how the characters react. The same reaction from “I’m adopted” is somehow also appropriate for learning the startling truth about Madison (Annabelle Wills), complete with janky dialogue from a hoarder adopted mother and pure cheese from the doctors treating her in the old VHS tapes. Ill-timed collapses of people through floor boards and cops exasperated with having to chase demons through poorly lit basements of Seattle’s underground have one laughing just as they sit on pins and needles. It is an impressive feat, one Wan is always game to nail.

Early in the press tour, Wan had compared the film to a giallo and it is easy to see that influence here. The early procedural punctuated by bloody kills really does it, mixed in with typically goofy dialogue, slack acting, and neon lights. It is everything that makes giallo great, albeit filtered through American sensibilities - in a way, it feels like a modern and Basket Case-ified version of The Eyes of Laura Mars, basically taking a similar premise and influence, then going in a very different direction - while smashed together with other influences, namely those body horror films and other (more spoilery) ones that toy with parasitic twins. Even the action-horror of a modern film like Split can be felt echoing through Malignant, particularly when it comes to the increased physical capabilities of its villain. Wan’s foundation in gore courses through here, as does his love of haunted house pictures. There are some scares - especially in the opening - right on par with the best that The Conjuring series had to offer initially, mixed together with the incredibly daring and still schlocky originality of an Insidious. Wan is great at blending together killer lighting and shadows with outlandishly fantastical premises into something nonetheless tangible and terrifying. Malignant is no exception, just played at a more sarcastic pitch, which is actually a great touch.

An awesome, funny, and terrifying experience courtesy of director James Wan, Malignant may not be as wild as it could be but coming from a major studio in 2021, this is as wild as it gets. Embracing all of his and Ingrid Bisu’s horror influences, Malignant ends up as a whip smart and intentionally goofy send-up/embracing of all that makes up horror as a genre/style. This is a real gem, one that is sure to grow in stature over time while cementing Wan’s place as one of the great horror directors of modern times.

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