Malignant ★★★★½

2021 Ranked

One of the hardest studio horror films ever made. Aggressively drifts from one patch of Wan's early supernatural work to the next, refining all territory he's crossed before. To their credit, the duo of Wan & Kirk M. Morri handle the edit with such a tight hand that I can forgive treading the waters it does early given how Akela Cooper's screenplay evolves. Even while most of these scares fall flat for me now, they're shot without gimmick in a way that would be, is legitimately terrifying to the victim. Gone are the days of waiting with a friend at a movie theater for parents to pick us up after Insidious left us shaken, yet Malignant joins the rare group of adult horror giving a much different rush.

While the scares are more modern, Wan sits with Flanagan as the two who can play with period most believably. Very much settled in the past visually, the present that makes up a majority of the film is structured with the same liminality its titular force is operating in. Contemporaries too often try to define eras with cheesy signals to the audience in the needle drops or scenery, needing to remind you where and when you are at all times. Even above his technical mastery, Wan's sentiment of generational nostalgia comes off as sincere as it gets, at least in genre as it relates to the barrage of modern horror filmmakers who routinely attempt the same. No matter how much this feels like a Warner Bros. ghost movie in 2021, we can't not mention that Wan is primarily responsible for creating that vibe in the first place.

At the same time, the largely unknown cast gives a decided nod over something like The Conjuring 2, where Patrick Wilson & Vera Fermiga were almost conspiring to turn me against them. Unable by the end of that film to see them beyond the celebrity, there's none of that here. Many comparisons will be made to more flashy, by that point colorful exhibits of 70's Giallo, but through the meat of this there's a very 60's earnestness to the investigative hook, deliberately unravelling what borders on anti-plot. With subtle levity in only choice moments, the thing stays firmly off the wall to the very end. Most penetrating are these three capstone moments where we transfer to scenes from a different marriage, so to speak, playing with who is where, doing what, consciously or otherwise, at what point in the story. A very psychic film in its definition, something called out before later being exploited in a very James Wan scene. I've gone out of my way to not come anywhere near spoiler territory, comfortable reporting the above given that most viewers will think they know exactly where this is going. I didn't.

Make no mistake, there's an image here which will be iconic in due time. The proverbial cat coming out of the bag is an all time shocker, the finale as balls to the wall as you could ask for. Some nice action flourishes in here, a chase scene down a fire escape into ???? a particular highlight. Composer Joseph Bishara's theme rivals that of Saw, his work here the most notable I've personally heard from him yet. While your response to this film will largely be dictated by how you feel about Wan's previous output, some of the disdain thrown his way is embarrassingly reductive. As subjective as horror is, almost nothing even approaches being this good. With some circles tearing it apart, I'd really like to see what passes their bar for quality horror. Without knocking others, there's a bit of a pedestal in genre when it comes to very successful, acclaimed directors dipping their feet into commercial horror. If Johnny No Name put this together without all the marketing, it's tough to say those circles wouldn't appreciate this on a different level.

At risk of being reductive myself, go out of your way to watch this obvious classic that should spawn yet another trilogy. Comfortably Wan's best after first viewing, while being something I look to revisit sooner than later. Good to be reminded what these movies can be like again.

(correction: @Vaughan in the comments clarified that the theme is from Celldweller. )

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