The existing filmography of James Wan already shows a wide array of influences. His taste for gory horror, police procedural, spooky mysteries and all out action have spread throughout his films. Now, we have the one that does it all. The film that brings all of his impulses and obsessions together, and throws in a whole lot more, in stumbling but gleeful fashion. It is a complete hodgepodge of a film, a film that takes on so much and shifts so often that any rational critique will start to turn against it. But, in spite of this, Malignant functions like a filmic shark: staying alive through constant movement. The film’s propulsive energy and theatrical silliness keep the viewer in place as a messy film becomes a glorious mess, and then flowers into something marvellous in its final act.
Our premise is deceptively basic. A woman (Annabelle Wallis), following a (not very well presented) assault finds herself having visions of violent murders carried out by an enigmatic and wraithlike figure. We learn that these murders are very real and the film brings in a couple of detectives (entertainingly played by George Young and Michole Briana White) to try and work out how everything is connected (and you know it’s all connected). It is a dive into the underground of Seattle, the literal underground, as well as the deep recesses of the unconscious mind. It also goes so much further than you would think, considering this rather pedestrian horror premise, and is wonderful for doing so.
Already, the reaction to Malignant is all over the place. Much of it makes sense but a lot of it is depressingly reminiscent of the way the critical establishment, at large, have always treated non-arthouse horror. At this stage, there are so many people declaring (pejoratively) that Wan is not in on some joke. First of all, this is no joke. Yes, it is all over the place but it is purposefully ridiculous and freewheelingly illogical in a way that deftly sets up the final sequence. When you get to where the film is going, you have been prepared to just go with it and to enjoy the spectacle, by design. This is not a film made out of ignorance, Malignant is bluntly self-aware, with Wan overtly in control of what he is doing. This is evident in the film’s cineliteracy, as it gestures towards the films of others and starts to play in their genres. Viewers may note influence from, and homage to, Brain Damage (1988), Basket Case (1982), From Beyond (1986), Re-Animator (1985), Tenebre (1982), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Sisters (1972), Possession (1981) and much more. There is even a repeated music cue that re-orchestrates a song that will be forever linked with a certain film. The first time you hear it, it feels silly; when you get to the end of the film you realise the song narratively fits but also the invocation of the film it is from is purposeful.
This is part of an actual slyness, a glee in the filmmaking. This is a film in love with wider horror and a film that will hit hard for viewers that are similarly inclined. As previously mentioned, we also get taken on a tour of Wan’s wider films. We have police procedural placed next to a potential possession story and a haunted house chiller. This does all sound very messy but the film brings it together through the sheer power of fun. The filmmaking is just very kinetic, with outlandish camera shots and bright coloured lighting. The Giallo influence is obvious, in the shot compositions as well as in the plotting. Yet, while so many recent horrors have become reliant on reference, existing as only homage, Malignant is something different. The film has a sharp aesthetic of its own, a filmic language that is distinctly Wan’s. Yes, it conjures up references to the cult cinema of the 70s and 80s but in a way that feels like a continuation, not like a nostalgic throwback. Rather than burying itself in the past and only evoking nostalgia, Malignant pulls the past into the present.
In doing so, it does bring some issues. There are a lot of high minded political critiques that could be thrown at this film, and it would deserve them. Though this is primarily female led, there are moments where the treatment of women is terrible. The need to have women as abused on screen and as defined by pasts of abuse feels like a sexist relic. A trope from the past that never worked then either. A few plot decisions bring the film into sensitive territory, and it handles it poorly. There is also a prison sequence near the end that, while ludicrously fun, has a tainted logic about all female spaces, and specifically women’s prisons, that underlines it. These moments will be enough to rule off the film for some.
Why it works, though, is not just how wild it gets. Though, that certainly does help. It works because it has heart and because it knows exactly what it is doing, even when what it is doing is stupid. Notably, Malignant has a writing credit (story by) for actor Ingrid Bisu. She is also in the film. She is also James Wan’s wife. And while this may seem irrelevant, you can feel the underpinning of a relationship in the film. Wan loves his material here but the material is fundamentally directed with an eye towards relationships and human connection. Despite its rough edges, the core of Malignant is very sweet. This is a film about the need for human connection, for genuine relationships, and how found relationships can take on the qualities we associate with the familial. It is about how our loving bonds save us from our worst selves and is a film that brings out the best in Wan, a filmmaker that I previously have not cared for, in a similar fashion.