James Wan is one of the most dependable and consistent directors working today, from a studio perspective. He’s essentially like a walking, one-man franchise machine: Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious, Aquaman, he cranks out hits one after the other like no one else alive. Quality may vary, as it always does, in between sequels, spin-offs, and offshoots to these franchises, but his mark is unmistakable and his results are undeniable. The man knows how to consistently fill theater seats, and pretty much always delivers a good time in the process.
And while the contents of these franchises obviously vary wildly, his horror sensibilities have always remained somewhat consistent. With the exception of Saw, Wan tends to favor supernatural stories, ranging from cursed ventriloquist dummies in Dead Silence to whatever the hell was going on in Insidious by the third or fourth film. And if you were to go a level even deeper into the elements that comprise the majority of his horror output, you’d see more specific similarities as well, namely a focus on families and familial trauma/turmoil, as well as an insistence on using children as a catalyst or a focal point for whatever ghostly terror is being trotted out in whatever particular film he happens to be working on at the time. Also, Patrick Wilson.
His style is consistent enough that, if you’ve seen enough of his work, you can start to get a general sense of what to expect whenever a new film hits theaters. As much as I love the first two Conjuring films and Insidious, they do sort of hit a lot of the same beats as far as the narrative is concerned. They also have similar sensibilities when it comes to scares, with the only real difference being a that Insidious is a bit more “in-your-face” with its horror elements, in comparison to The Conjuring’s more emotionally-driven dread.
So when I initially saw the trailers for Wan’s new film, Malignant, I’ll admit that I was pretty uninterested. It looked like another haunting film completely inline with Wan’s previous work, and frankly, it was beginning to wear thin at this point. The visual style looked interesting, sure, but from a storytelling perspective, it looked like what we’ve already seen several times before. But it being available through HBO Max as part of Warner Bros’ home theater scheme for 2021, I figured what the hell? Might as well give it a go.
And man, I could not have been more wrong about this movie.
You are not prepared for this thing. And I mean that with as much sincerity as I’m humanly capable of. This movie is complete and utter lunacy. I take back any criticisms of Wan getting too comfortable in his little niche of horror filmmaking that I may have levied against him in recent years, because the man is a certified genius. An absolutely batshit crazy genius, but a genius nonetheless.
I want to be as vague as possible with this, because you need to see this movie unspoiled. Knowing anything about this will ruin the ride, and I want everyone to be as flabbergasted as I was when I saw it last night. It’s an incredibly deceptive film, one where you’ll think you’ve figured out the twist halfway through the runtime. And you’ll probably be right. Malignant telegraphs a lot of its third-act twists well in advance. But I promise you, you’ll be dead wrong about how you’re right.
This whole movie, from its marketing to its deliberately gaslighting first two acts, is designed to deceive you. It’s the cinematic version of an episode of Punk’d, designed solely to misdirect and mislead. The entire time, you think you’re watching a polished, modern supernatural horror film. When in actuality, Wan has tricked you into sitting through a bonkers, mid-80s, direct-to-video low budget piece of Troma garbage (which I say with nothing but love), only with a $40 million budget.
I was screaming at my TV in sheer incredulity of what Wan got away with on this film. Malignant is an elaborate prank, played on both the audience and, I suspect, Warner Bros. itself, because in no way did they agree to make this of their own volition. I have to imagine that, with all the money Wan has made for them in the past, they kind of just let him do his own thing here, and Wan decided he was going to abuse the hell out of that privilege.
I don’t even really have anything I can compare this film to. Partially because I don’t want to spoil it, but partially because there’s no comparison I can make that does the sheer insanity of Malignant any real justice. It’s a wholly unique experience altogether.
It’s so rare these days to be genuinely surprised by a film, especially within a genre that seems relatively played out and lacking in originality on the whole. So for something to come along and completely defy any and all expectations whatsoever is a truly rare experience. Make no mistake, nothing I’ve said here is a negative. There are parts of this movie that are corny, and some that veer dangerously close to stupid, but that’s all part of the show, the act that Wan is putting on. It’s a love letter to the films of an era where the thought of taking themselves seriously was so alien that it never even crossed any of there minds, and Malignant pays respects to them with gusto.
There’s so much I want to talk about in this bananas piece of absolute art, but to spoil anything would be tantamount to committing a crime. I’ll be back once the smoke has cleared and enough people have seen it that I can go into specifics without ruining the experience for anyone.
I love, love, love, love this movie, but I imagine it’s going to be divisive. If you can roll with the bonkers choices it makes, you’re in for a good time. But if you don’t like to be misled by trailers or a film’s marketing, maybe sit this one out, because it’s nothing like Warner Bros. seems to want you to think it is. And trust me, having seen the trailers, that’s a good thing.
Malignant is in theaters now, and streaming on HBO Max until October 10th. Go see it in a theater, if you can! I didn’t, and I sorely regret it!