Rating: 3 out of 5
Horror films are too often beholden to a standard of seriousness in spite of their overtly playful and campy history. James Wan is a filmmaker with a studied knowledge of genre films opportunity for invention and experimentation, having himself helmed several of the most iconic horror franchises of the last two decades between Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious which each in their own way updated and iterated on beloved genre premises. His latest Malignant is no different, and although it suffers from some of the bad habits that he picked up crafting Aquaman and Furious 7, it’s ultimately a mercilessly and radiantly silly film. Wan’s return to helming what will inevitably be a new horror franchise is a welcome one, and though it contains some of his most aggravating proclivities, on the whole Malignant displays a filmmaker trying his best when he has no reason to.
The opening of the film is explosive and dynamic, as much homage as it is thrillingly self-aware like a Sion Sono drunk on giallo and Sam Raimi. The first bad omen arrives when the ridiculously compressed metal music blasts through the speakers, it’s a notably obtrusive touch where the film would have benefited for something more classical and classy especially given the studied introduction. The music remains at odds with the joy of the filmmaking throughout the entire picture, it’s abrasive and constantly interfering with the clarity of a moment or a mood. This is unavoidable at times because this grating soundtrack plays over the majority of the film especially in moments intended to instigate fear or tension which otherwise left alone might’ve flourished but instead crumble under the intensity of the noise.
Many have labeled Malignant an extension of the tradition of giallo thrillers from Italy that was popularized in the latter half of the previous century, while this undoubtedly shares DNA with the works of Argento, Bava, Fulci and Martino, it lacks those filmmakers sense of sleaze thereby sacrificing some of the danger inherent to the genre. While there is certainly bad behavior in this film (mainly the physically abusive husband) it’s deliberately caustic and stark in contrast to other more outrageous moments in the film, which while empathetic and more humane does make for a tonal dichotomy that occasionally induces a bit of genre whiplash. This is especially true in this film’s first act, as the cop characters attempt to introduce humor into the plot that consistently falls flat. In its first twenty minutes or so Malignant threatens to not work.
Then, miraculously, the pacing and tone of that opening scene reemerge and we are treated to deliciously silly plot twists and revelations which by the third act have contorted into a nefarious conglomerate of some of horror’s most pleasurable tropes. This is where the excesses both budgetary (so much CGI wizardry) and stylistically (that music) are welcome instead of deplored. Only a filmmaker of Wan’s caliber in the industry could secure major funding for a film this singularly weird and ridiculous. Malignant sends you away more happy than you were going in which is a testament to Wan finding the fun in the horror genre again.
Earnestly, we need more films like this. Rarely does a film come along and unite a fanbase, it’s nearly unanimous amongst horror aficionado’s and casual viewers alike that Wan has made a thrillingly enjoyable film which in this particular genre has probably only happened twice in the last decade with The Conjuring and Get Out. While The Conjuring franchise has become unwieldy and unacceptably large, that original entry remains a feast of originality and homage in a single confection. Malignant will inevitably reach a similar proportion given Hollywood’s affinity for the horror franchise but before a sequel happens lets hope more producers decide to indulge Wan in his more diabolically charming instincts that are on full display here.