Hello, everyone! Who has time to pay attention to collapsing debt ceilings and neck-and-neck gubernatorial races when there is a new James Wan movie out? I’m sorry, I just don’t have time to worry about this country’s impending doom when I have to digest the fact that Jamesy made an entire movie based off of the aesthetic of that one scene in Insidious where the demon sharpens his claws to “Tiptoe Through The Tulips.”
Synopsis: After her abusive husband Derek is murdered by a mysterious intruder, Madison tries to move on with her life. But violent visions paralyze Madison at night, forcing her to watch the intruder murder a series of strangers. Desperate to stop these visions, Madison must come to terms with her dark past at Simion Research Hospital, and learn the true identity of the intruder who once haunted her.
My thoughts: If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that James Wan loves women with bangs. If there’s another thing to take away, it’s that this movie is batshit crazy. It starts off like many a horror movie, with a chaotic cold open in a spooky American Horror Story: Asylum style research hospital, then a flash-forward to a moody mansion with an over-abundance of dark wood panelling, where our fragile brunette protagonist (further characterization not provided) lives with her abusive football-watching husband. During an argument about Madison’s pregnancy and previous miscarriages, Madison pushes Derek, and in return Derek cracks Madison’s head against a wall so hard that she leaves behind a dark trail of blood. Derek, helpfully, offers her an ice-pack, even though she is probably dying from a cerebral brain hemorrhage, and she doesn’t go to the hospital, because if she did, that would reveal the movie’s twist, and then you would have to think about the debt ceiling, wouldn’t you?
Instead of going to the hospital, Madison goes to sleep, with her head STILL BLEEDING may I add, and wakes to the frightening sight of a dark figure, who throws her across the room, knocking her unconscious (concussing her on top of her already present TBI) and causing her to lose her baby in the process. Waking up days later in the hospital, Madison decides to return to her home against the wishes of her angelic sister Sydney (who also has bangs), and thus the haunted house portion of the movie begins.
I found this third of the movie to be effectively frightening. Wan has a knack for choosing atmospheric abodes for his scary set pieces, and he uses the rickety house, sweeping staircase, and ominously empty rooms to chilling effect. I spent much of this part of the film covering my eyes to keep from seeing glimpses of the supernatural intruder, who crawls into the frame in Wan’s trademark bone-cracking, spider-walking style. The first third of the film sticks most closely to the aesthetics that Wan employed in films like Insidious and The Conjuring, and its familiarity lures the viewer into thinking that Malignant is born from the same haunted-house archetype. And then, things start to go a little haywire. A little Wansian, if you will.
Before Insidious, The Conjuring, and Annabelle, there was Saw, a manically gruesome, darkly comedic, David Fincher-esque torture-porn movie with a love for punk aesthetics. If you haven’t seen Saw, then the latter two thirds of Malignant might come completely out of left field, as the by-the-numbers haunted house story transforms into a gory slasher with elements of Cronenbergian body horror, giallo-inspired violence, and a neo-noir detective story that lifts its buddy-cop dynamic from movies like Seven. The transformation creeps slowly through the film, as the movie’s more bizarre aspects begin to overpower its boilerplate storyline. From the beginning, Wan hints at the craziness to come, closing the movie’s cold open with a jarring credits sequence that combines American Horror Story visuals with horror-dubstep backing music. Few horror movies, or movies of any genre, have opening credit sequences anymore, and it’s always exciting to see a director take the extra time to set the mood with such an atmospheric sequence. For Wan, who included a similar credits sequence in his film Dead Silence, it’s a return to form.
There are definitely elements of Malignant that don’t work. The acting is over-dramatic and the dialogue is trite, which sometimes plays into Wan’s deliberate campiness, and sometimes makes the audience feel like they’re watching a Lifetime drama. The music, composed by Wan’s longtime filmmaking partner Joseph Bishara, boldly combines punk riffs from The Pixies with haunting strings, and at times clashes in tone with the movie’s quieter moments. Most divisive is the film’s twist, which I won’t spoil here, but which sends the film into the proverbial deep-end. Once the batshittery is revealed, you’ll find yourself either laughing at the absurdity of it all, or walking out of the theater in disgust. I chose to stick around and enjoyed myself, but I know that a lot of other viewers have left the movie with less of a glowing opinion.
In an interview with Bloody Disgusting, Wan described Malignant as “something more intimate and more personal for me…that I take from the back shelves.” For a viewer who’s grown used to seeing Wan serve mainstream audiences with classic tales of ghosts, demons, and haunted houses, it’s clear that Malignant is a movie that he’s made for himself, based on bits and pieces of his favorite childhood horror movies, and sprinkled with homages to extravagant and exploitative aesthetics that would have been out of place in his previous films. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a filmmaker who is ballsy enough to make the movie that they want to see, instead of the movie that they will think will appeal to the masses. Malignant won’t appeal to the masses, but it will appeal to those who are willing to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the madness.