James Wan could’ve done anything after Aquaman made a billion dollars at the box office. He could’ve explored another genre or dove straight into Aquaman 2, and Warner Bros. would’ve said yes either way. That he chose to go back to his horror roots is perhaps the most reassuring thing for horror fans. He might’ve added superheroes and flying cars to his oeuvre, but it’s abundantly clear with Malignant that he is never giving up on ghosts, demons, and creepy puppets. You can take the guy out of the creepy puppet, but you can’t take the creepy puppet out of the guy, it seems.
Malignant is Wan’s mightiest flex as a filmmaker so far – a horror movie that swings big, goes for broke, and takes no prisoners. (Or, maybe a few.) Wan has stated that this is his tribute to Giallo, but he also indulges in camp with a fiendish grin. Malignant is madcap, bonkers, and totally insane. I don’t know how Wan got away with a movie like this under a major studio, and I don’t think anybody will ever again.
The film starts bold and a little bit gothic. 1993, inside a mental institution, a mysterious patient named Gabriel has gone berserk. He’s super strong, seemingly supernatural, and the doctors decide something drastic must be done. Fast forward to the present day, we follow Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who appears to be unrelated to the opening prologue. When her husband ends up brutally murdered in their home, her mind has somehow linked with the killer, and she watches helplessly as the killer – revealing himself to be Gabriel – dispatches victim after victim. You think you have a read on where the plot is going, and you might get close. But don’t think for a second that you’ll see the full extent of the big twist coming.
For a “blank check” movie, Malignant seems like a curiously small premise. Every successful filmmaker gets their blank check movie, where a studio gives a director carte blanche; a proper budget at their disposal and total creative control. Many directors use their box office clout to explore something original, taking a breather from superhero and sequel-driven IPs. Christopher Nolan made Inception after The Dark Knight broke records and soared past the billion-dollar threshold.
A better example here is Sam Raimi. Following the whopping success of the Spider-Man trilogy, he was able to make Drag Me to Hell – a long-gestating passion project and still his most expensive horror movie to date, more than the Evil Dead trilogy combined. Horror movies are often made on shoestring budgets. It’s the whole business model for the genre, really, and directors like Sam Raimi and James Wan are no strangers to the low-budget spectrum. Raimi shot Evil Dead on a paltry $375,000 budget – a filmmaking origin story that inspired entire generations of filmmakers, including Wan. Films like Saw and Insidious represent a budding horror filmmaker working through the kinks. By the time he got to The Conjuring, he effectively achieved auteur status.
I thought Conjuring 2 was Wan at his most unrestrained. This time around, he has all the big-budget tools at his fingertips with none of the burdens of building out a franchise. He and cinematographer Michael Burgess (DP of the past three Conjuring Universe movies) are no strangers to things that go bump in the night. Wan hasn’t missed a step, retaining his sharpness and handle on the jolts that elevate a moment of stillness into something threatening on a switch. He stylishly conjures fright from the silhouette of a vengeful apparition or a shot of an open door.
Wan takes his horror craft further, executing bigger and bolder shots in a much more efficient playground. There are 360-degree camera turns around characters that feel huge, and the sheer panorama of Madison’s home feels epic, like a gothic mansion in and of itself. The camera work is doubly sinister here. When Madison gets chased up the stairs by a shadowy entity, the camera whips past the steps and charges on her heels. The effect is a lot like Evil Dead’s iconic and terrifying cabin run.
There’s even a bird’s eye view sequence where we watch as Madison runs across the house in fear of something chasing her once more. An especially cruel shot given the eventual twist and a surprise bad guy workshop lurking beyond her periphery that Wan isn’t at all trying to hide. Those establishing shots of Madison’s home exterior get increasingly higher for a blunt reason. Because there’s more to Madison than a widow with a supporting family. The circumstances may not be that of an actual haunting like we’ve seen in the Warren case files, but Madison’s dark and stormy past serves up its own ghost story.
Fans of James Wan will notice plenty of callbacks and Easter Eggs. Malignant functions as a sly visual composite of his previous movies, almost like a greatest-hits run. As Madison retreads through her repressed memories, Wan composes the sequence akin to Insidious, where Patrick Wilson’s character must unlock his past to save his family. Then there’s the killer Gabriel who’s the driving force of the movie—with a villain lair that’s just missing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Gabriel’s revenge quest echoes that of Wan’s little-loved and mostly forgotten Death Sentence, a hardcore revenge flick featuring a cold-blooded Kevin Bacon who takes the law into his own hands. And Malignant’s parallel investigation by the cops is taunted by the elusive Gabriel like a sadistic cat-and-mouse game à la Saw.
As it turns out, Madison isn’t always herself, nor is she aware of her experience as she thinks. Because Madison and Gabriel aren’t two separate people, they are the same. Madison is, in effect, a prisoner – no, a puppet – to Gabriel’s bidding. This reveal comes supercharged with Wan’s affinity for creepy dolls, which he made an entire movie out of with Dead Silence.
If Malignant reads like the most James Wan movie he’s ever made, then the film’s third-act twist is where he radically departs from anything he’s done before. Akela Cooper’s script (the story co-conceived by Wan and Ingrid Bisu) enables Wan to go full-on camp. It’s something he hasn’t been able to do, having been tethered to The Conjuring’s “based on a true story” moniker these last few years.
Malignant’s third-act twist isn’t about the truth, and it isn’t even about plausibility or fact-checking the DSM handbook., It’s about the audacity.
As, and it’s the film’s gonzo third act reveals, Gabriel is Madison’s “parasitic twin”; her literal reverse-self. He hijacks Madison’s body at night or when she least expects it (a cheeky twist on possession), and it lends to some gnarly body horror as the back of her brain protrudes out of her skull and revealing Gabriel’s grotesque identity. But the movie doesn’t stop there. The script gives him superpowers. He’s stronger, more agile, can somehow manipulate electricity and broadcast himself through speakers. This, of course, is all an excuse for Gabriel to go on a violent slasher-streak deserving of a kill count. Remember those balletic fight scenes in Aquaman where Nicole Kidman spectacularly whooped Atlantean ass? Gabriel gets his shot at the bloody spectacle.
What’s most surprising of all is that the script’s secret weapon isn’t Gabriel; it’s Madison’s well-meaning sister, Sydney (played by Maddie Hasson). She’s the key to unlocking Malignant’s campy potential. Maddie Hasson’s role as Sydney is that of an actor playing an actor. Sydney dresses up as a fairy tale princess for kids at Family Planet and is candid about the audition grind. She also mentions having played a psychic on a cop show once.
We assume camp has to do with bad acting or a bad script oversold by top-notch actors playing to the top balcony. Camp, bottom-line, is about fun. Tongue-in-cheek humor, plot developments unfolding with a winking nod or aided by gleefully heavy-handed music cues; it’s a self-awareness that stops short of characters directly addressing the audience.
The dead giveaway is when Madison reveals she’s adopted – an appetizer for the third-act twist. The adoption card has been done to death in soap operas that it’s never taken seriously, and that’s the intention here. Sydney’s naïve doe-eyes don’t flinch, and the camera pushes in ever so slightly on her expression. Later, when the detectives enlist the help of a hypnotherapist, Sydney grins to herself, feeling vindicated from her prior TV role, which the detectives swiftly debunk. Hasson is the film’s buffer, our reassurance to not take any of this too seriously.
Wan and crew are all in on the joke, but they aren’t laughing at us or indulging in meta-commentary to indict the genre or the audience; they’re inviting us to holler along with the absurdity.
Rest assured, it’s not all played for laughs. Sydney’s main function may be to provide comic relief and uncover Madison’s backstory, but in the end she comes into her own as the supportive little sister who would do anything for her big sister. Sydney even gives Madison the confidence she needs in the tug-of-war mind battle against Gabriel in the climax. The film earns the right to be as campy as it wants, just as it earns its sweet-loving sister relationship at its core.
Which is to say, Malignant won’t be for everyone. If you’re not on board by the time the movie makes its Grand Guignol reveal, then you won’t make it to the finish line. But that’s the fun of camp – the twists can be as outrageous and over-the-top as they come. Never mind plausibility, believability, or the notion that “this could happen in real-life,” which have given many a classic horror movie their cultural staying power. Malignant is mad scientist-level genius for an altogether different reason: it’s funhouse horror escapism with the white-knuckle rush of a roller coaster careening off the rails in the best way possible.