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{Movie Review} Malignant (2021)

“It’s time to cut out the cancer.”

Malignant, James Wan’s first R-rated horror film* since 2007’s Dead Silence, opens on a shot of a gothic castle perched on a seaside cliff. That the castle is, in actuality, a research hospital in 1993 does little to dampen the message of just exactly what kind of movie we are getting into here – in fact, it may actually amplify it.

The scene that follows gives us inordinately more exposition than we have heretofore gotten in the film’s trailers, which made things sound a lot more like The Eyes of Laura Mars than the bonkers supervillain police procedural that we’re about to experience. It’s filled with lines that land with resounding clunks, delivered with all the melodrama of a TV soap opera. That, also, gives you a solid idea of what to expect from the rest of the film.

In fact, now that I think about it, the three trailers I saw in front of Malignant were for the new Venom movie, Last Night in Soho, and Prisoners of the Ghostland, the latest Nic Cage vehicle. That also gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re about to experience.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Fundamentally, Malignant is not so much the “new vision in horror” that the marketing promises as it is Wan comfortably back in the Dead Silence mode. This is a Dark Castle, direct-to-video movie from the early 2000s, given a bigger budget and a director who knows how to make even a miniscule budget seem much bigger than it actually is. It’s off the rails and ridiculous from the jump, and it never really stops running, despite clocking in at just shy of two hours long.

It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be stupid. Burdened with an uninspired script and characters who are paper thin, none of that matters because the train has already jumped the track before the titles even come up, and it never stops going the places you always hope movies like this will go but they never do because that would be too ridiculous.

Plenty of people will hate this movie, and that’s fine. Like Dead Silence, it’s a hateable movie. Some will hate it because they are predisposed to, some will hate it because it’s just not for them, and some will hate it because it is wild, exuberant nonsense. For those of us who speak this language, though, it is a symphony. As I said on Twitter, “Please hook the ambitious trash directly to my veins.”

It is impossible to usefully talk about Malignant without getting into spoilers, so there will be heavy spoilers from this point forward. I think the film is best watched as cold as possible, however, so if you have any inclination to do so, just watch it. It’s playing in theaters and on HBOMax. You may love it, like I did, you may hate it, but you won’t see anything else quite like it anytime soon, and that’s probably an experience worth having, anyway.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Malignant is many things, and none of those things is “subtle.” One of its many identities is that of a giallo. I’ve been saying since the first Insidious that, love him or hate him, James Wan is the closest thing the modern crop of horror filmmakers has produced to early-career Argento, and that’s emphatically true here, for good and for ill. Wan has made no secret of his affection for giallo in the past, but this is the first time he has fully embraced the genre on a structural, rather than merely an aesthetic, level.

If giallo is, indeed, a genre, rather than a moment in time and space – that is to say, if giallo can be made outside Italy in the late-‘70s/early-‘80s – then Malignant is a giallo in every way that matters. Gory, brutal set piece kills splashed with flat light. A killer who is black-gloved and, for most of the picture, faceless. Police procedural aspects, with a pair of detectives and their supporting cast who could have stepped straight out of a cop show. A civilian who knows the solution to the mystery, but it’s buried in her memory, inaccessible until the pieces are all put together. All that’s missing is a prominently placed bottle of J&B scotch.

Much as he did in Insidious 2, Wan and his collaborators also carry forward one equally integral part of the standard giallo formula, albeit one that has more problematic resonances in the present day: the explanation for the killer that is both logistically absurd and scientifically unlikely. And, in true Wan style, he cranks that to eleven.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

In this case, that takes the form of Gabriel, our protagonist’s parasitic twin, who literally shares her brain. Thought to have been excised when she was a child, Gabriel has actually been lying dormant in her body, gaining power through a method every bit as grotesque as the “human puppet” scenes from the end of Dead Silence, and he uses their psychic link to render her inert while he uses her body to kill.

So, it’s The Dark Half if George Stark had superhuman strength and could control electricity. (Others have also pointed out the parallels with Basket Case.) Wait what, you’re saying, but no, there’s not enough time to stop and discuss the superhuman strength and the controlling electricity because we need to talk about the fact that Gabriel literally emerges from the back of our protagonist’s skull, meaning that when he kills, she is walking around backward.

And by “walking around,” I mean doing parkour up walls. And by “kills,” I mean everyone. People will tell you that this film’s third act is off the rails, and they’re right. But this movie was never on the rails. This thing went off the rails before the cold open. By the third act, it’s plowing through all the people on the platform.

It’s stupid and reckless and bold and breathtaking and it doesn’t really seem to care whether you’re along for the ride or not. It’s going. Grab on if you want to come, too. Otherwise, get out of the way.

*Edit: I had entirely forgotten that the first two Conjuring films are actually rated R, because they probably didn’t actually need to be. This… definitely does.