Over the years, James Wan has grown to become a household name associated with a string of highly successful and sustainable genre properties. Interestingly, since his auspicious debut Saw, whose success was in no small part helped by Wan’s collaborator Leigh Whannell, the audiences have come to recognize his works as original brands, even though they were heavily steeped in nostalgic winks and nods to movies Wan likely grew up with or held up as inspirational to his development as a filmmaker. Franchises like Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring have quickly become self-identifiable.
Frankly, there is nothing wrong with this phenomenon at all and – if anything – the fact the audiences have immediately adopted and internalized the tropes encapsulated in these movies as elements of their franchise identities likely helped to amplify their success and ensure their longevity. Granted, Wan’s genre outings were always resting on competent atmosphere generation, inventive scare tactics and the design of memorable dramatic set pieces; however, it would be at least slightly myopic to assume these movies were completely original. Despite its conceptual originality, Saw was using winks and nods to genre classics like Rear Window, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the works of Dario Argento as indispensable building blocks and although they weren’t necessarily drawing attention to themselves, these references helped to conjure subliminal memetic familiarity and endear the viewer even if they might not be acutely aware of what was being referenced. In fact, reviews of Insidious don’t tend to latch onto the fact the entire film is built as a grand piece of homage both to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and that this sentiment carried well into The Conjuring where it was folded into a bunch of other winks and nods, with The Exorcist being the most prominent.
Therefore, it’s hard to expect Wan would change tack when bringing a completely original idea to the screen. What I don’t think anyone expected – myself included – was that his new directorial outing would swing so far in the way it handled its own relationship to Wan’s sources of artistic inspiration. Perhaps this has a little something to do with the fact the man has spent quite a few years working on big properties where he would be more likely to pocket most of his proclivities, at least temporarily. Therefore, Malignant in many ways feels as though it was a rebound film, a cinematic yo-yo effect where the filmmaker after a period of refusing himself what he loved most went on a massive binge. And just as anyone who tried to follow a very strict diet and then one day succumbed to their deeply suppressed desired might wake up from a decadent haze covered in chocolate sprinkles and shame, James Wan woke up having made Malignant.
The best way I can describe this movie is to call it James Wan’s journey to his days of yore, as though to reconnect with that young and hungry James Wan who once made Saw on a shoestring budget and took the world by storm. This isn’t necessarily due to the fact the movie is excessively violent (which it is), but rather because – just as Saw – it is built almost exclusively out of elements of cinematic homage bound by the energetic craft he has mastered over the years. And again – just like Saw – it can be enjoyed on at least two levels: (1) as a visceral and exhilarating thrill ride that goes off the rails and stabs the viewer repeatedly with shots of adrenaline to keep them from overdosing on the highly indulgent and extremely addictive brand of entertainment Wan is peddling, and (2) as a collage of inspirations for horror hounds to fish out and geek out over. And then, of course, you are cordially invited to do both if you can, which will fully enable you to engage with the film the way I think it was intended by the filmmakers.
That’s because if you take the film at face value, you will likely find it laughably bad. The story in Malignant is anything but original, the acting might seem off and you might find yourself frequently in a position of not being exactly sure whether you are being winked at by a trolling filmmaker, or punked by your own expectations. I can wholeheartedly assure you that what you are subjected to is intended from start to finish to look suspiciously trashy, campy, over-the-top and downright deliriously mad to the point of tastelessness. In fact, if you imagined that all the main characters, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), Maddie (Sydney Lake), the cliché-laden detectives and everyone else were dubbed in Italian, you’d find the film more approachable because it would fit more decisively as an exercise in cheap and sleazy giallo that owes a lot to Deep Red, Inferno, A Bay of Blood and many more films that today wouldn’t even break into the B-tier on Netflix.
Once you attune yourself to this frequency and see Malignant as a love letter to giallo peppered so heavily with visual nods to very specific scenes from old horror movies that it would give Quentin Tarantino a massive artistic boner, you will be able to have the kind of fun with this movie that I had. You will gleefully jump on Madison’s shoulder as she tries to understand what is happening around her, follow her on her Scooby-Doo quest to figure out who the killer is, how he is connected to her and what happened to her in her childhood, even though you should be able to deduce what’s going on in fifteen minutes or less. In fact, I am sure the filmmakers don’t necessarily care about the film resting on its mystery, but rather want you to be there and experience as the characters catch up with you – the viewer – who knows exactly where the story will go because you have seen it so many times in other movies. It’s about the journey.
And the journey is nothing but catharsis. It’s a deranged symphony of campy violence punctuated with flashes of homage to a bouquet of giallo movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street and even The Matrix, all filtered through Wan’s own acquired filmmaking sensibility that allows him to conjure dread and scares out of thin air if the scene calls for them. It is an absolutely unhinged ride through Wan’s nostalgia gland that will surely satisfy a willing soul. To call it Malignant wholly original would be simply incorrect. It is a barrage of references and Wan’s personal nostalgic trip that reconnects him with the kind of sensitivity that led him to make his auspicious debut but amplified by artistic confidence one gets after working for two decades as a highly prolific and immensely successful filmmaker.
It’s assaultive. It’s self-aware. It’s campy. Malignant is definitely not for everyone. But those willing to attune themselves to the kind of entertainment this movie offers will have a grand old time. And it doesn’t take long to figure out what the movie is doing. In fact, the opening scene alone – set in an imposing, gothic hospital – which immediately goes to eleven with all characters speaking in cheesy one-liners and the violence going through the roof while Wan films everything with a canted orbiting camera will make it abundantly clear you are not in a modern horror movie, but somewhere else. You are in James Wan’s mind and the best you can do is hold onto your seat.