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The Gruesome Horror Flick ‘Malignant’ Is James Wan’s Best Work in Years

·5 min read
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

There’s just something about a good horror weapon. Freddy had his knifed gloves, Candyman had his hook hand, and Pinhead had... well, an entire BDSM closet’s worth of equipment. In Malignant, James Wan gives the genre one of its most curious instruments of murder: a medical trophy refashioned into a winged blade.

It should come as no surprise that the man who gave us an entire franchise named after its most recognizable torture instrument would once again outdo himself in the weapons department. But as unexpected as Malignant’s brass beauty might be, it pales in comparison to the shocks to come—especially the film’s B movie-style final act, which is best experienced with as little information as possible going in.

Malignant puts decades’ worth of genre trends in conversation. Just look at its central villain, “Gabriel”—both a classic Italian giallo villain and a Cronenberg-ian monstrosity, whose long hair masks his face as he scurries deeper and deeper into the buried remnants of the Great Seattle Fire. Still, you’ll be shocked to learn that this love letter to the horror genre hasn’t seduced everyone. After years of so-called “elevated horror” (don’t get me started on that term) and fun but redundant Conjuring-style films from both Wan and his contemporaries, it seems a healthy chunk of this film’s audience has become immune to the campy aesthetic and humor-driven ambition that Malignant exemplifies.

The Real-Life ‘Demonic’ Murder That Inspired ‘The Conjuring’

Pity for them—it’s James Wan’s best work in years.

The film opens in flashback: Researchers at a hospital find themselves bathed in red light as they attempt to wrest some kind of faceless monster that can manipulate electricity back under their control. Naturally that doesn’t work—and when we cut to the present day, our exhausted heroine must battle the monster herself, due to a connection that we won’t spoil here.

Annabelle star Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, who is pregnant again after multiple miscarriages that her abusive husband insinuates are somehow her fault. We watch in profile view as he shoves her into a wall, cracking the back of her skull. Thankfully he’s not long for this world. That night Madison dreams of a faceless killer—something between a hooded video game assassin and Brandon Lee in The Crow—gruesomely murdering her partner. She wakes up to find his corpse.

In its first act Malignant moves like a 2000s horror thriller—right down to a shot of TV static that instantly recalls The Ring. Night after night, Madison finds herself frozen in terror as her surroundings morph and “Gabriel” murders a team of researchers in a lab. The sequences unfold not unlike the final, terrifying act in Wan’s original Insidious—but the gimmick loses its impact by the third repetition. It’s unclear at first what the leather-clad figure wants or what his connection might be to Madison, but it all clicks together in the end.

Malignant saves its most ambitious trick for last. Although Madison insists to two skeptical police officers that it’s “Gabriel” and not her who has been stabbing people’s faces into pulpy oblivion, they remain unconvinced. The final set piece, set in the jail, finds Wan at full tilt. The camera darts and weaves around the room during a chaotic, almost Oldboy-like fight scene; one almost wishes that at least a portion of the combat had been shot from the side like that film’s unforgettable corridor brawl, but the chaos is controlled and deliberate enough to make an impact on its own.

It’s only a minor spoiler to point out that Madison is adopted, and Malignant builds on previously established adoption cinema tropes to equate Madison’s pursuit of Gabriel with a simultaneous search for answers about herself—where this imaginary demonic presence came from, why he’s so evil, and why she’s suddenly witnessing his murders. The film culminates in a triumphantly grotesque flourish of body horror and an even pulpier backstory. (Think: gonzo Dark Castle classics like Orphan, or 1982’s Basket Case, or Brian de Palma’s twisted Sisters.)

‘The Humans’ Is the Surprise Best Horror Film of the Year

Wan is, above all, a horror scholar; the original Conjuring is basically one giant homage to 1970s horror classics. In Malignant, Wan blends all of horror’s least “prestigious” elements—the gore, the humor, the utter silliness—into something both engrossing and entirely original. That he’s doing this at the height of his career, fresh off of the box office wave that was Aquaman, makes the project feel all the more personal. It’s a love letter to the horror genre, from a director who both knows its history and has the command of form to blend its devices into something new.

Malignant is not a perfect movie. It slows in the middle, an inefficient tangle of reveals and “reveals” that can occasionally repeat itself rather than surprise. As memorable as the film’s body horror and final set piece might be, one could argue that the wait to get there could have been more aesthetically engrossing; for most of its run, the film replicates the generic, greyed-out aesthetic that’s become a go-to for uninspired production designers everywhere.

But it’s also genuinely fun and original—qualities that have become increasingly rare in studio horror. Like M. Night Shyamalan, who continues to use his box office power to make genuinely weird and frustrating art like this year’s Old, Wan appears to be reaching for something beyond the commercial with Malignant. Yes, it’s bloody and absurd—and yes, you might laugh more than you leap out of your seat. But Hollywood has given us enough soulless jump scares to last a lifetime. Here, a major studio has released something artistically personal—a beguiling, ridiculous collage of influences and ideas that coalesce into a nightmarish visual that still has this typically stoic writer squirming. For all its flaws, I gotta say... I’d trade every Conjuring movie James Wan has ever made for just one more original like Malignant.

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