Few genre filmmakers have had a more expansive output since the early aughts than James Wan, but what’s just as impressive is that he rarely plays the same notes. After jump-starting the “torture porn” trend with 2004’s Saw—a movie that’s much more restrained than the broader franchise’s gnarly reputation would lead one to believe—Wan brought more old-school horror sensibilities to The Conjuring and Insidious, which trafficked in creaking doors, creepy dolls, and unseen terrors going bump in the night. The jump scares were mightily effective, in large part because Wan was patient in building a sense of dread, be it from demonic possession or astral projection. Of course, what Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious also have in common is that they’ve blown up as hugely successful horror franchises—all of which are still going strong to this day. (To wit: Both The Conjuring and Saw had new entries come out this year, and, if the rumors are to be believed, Insidious could soon join them.)
But as Wan established himself as something of a horror-franchise whisperer, he made the pivot to blockbuster filmmaking with the ludicrous double-whammy of Furious 7 and Aquaman. If these movies did anything, they affirmed that the director will gleefully embrace camp when the opportunity presents itself—whether it’s expensive cars flying through the air on multiple occasions or the Kingdom of Atlantis employing a giant octopus to bang drums during underwater gladiator battles. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can get on the unapologetically silly wavelength, Wan’s blockbusters are a damn good time at the movies.
Wan’s going back to the world of superheroes next year with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, a sequel where Patrick Wilson’s Orm seems to be moonlighting as Moses before he parted the Red Sea. (I will fork over as much Atlantean gold as needed to watch that ASAP.) But before that happens, the filmmaker has once again returned to his roots for another original horror conceit. The result is Malignant, a project with mysteriously little fanfare heading into its release—for whatever reason, the movie appeared to be death-marked by Warner Bros. given a last-minute press screening and a review embargo lifting hours before its release on HBO Max. But having seen (experienced? hallucinated? freebased?) Malignant, I’m fairly certain that the studio wasn’t so much burying the movie as it was trying to prevent word getting out on just how batshit it is. Wan brings the same campy energy of his blockbusters back to the genre that first put him on the map, and the movie feels destined to become an object of cult-like fervor for its sheer WTF-ery.
In fact, the only way to possibly discuss Malignant at length is by breaking down its bonkers plot, so please don’t read any further if you want to go into this movie knowing nothing about it. (It’s totally worth seeing, I promise, and then you should either read the rest of this blog or talk to your therapist about it.)
After an ominous prologue set in the 1990s at a gothic hospital—“Time to cut out the cancer,” the lead doctor intones after restraining a violent, unseen patient—Malignant follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a woman who is eight months pregnant but wary about what might happen to her baby after suffering three previous miscarriages. After returning home from work, she gets into an argument with her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel), who slams Madison’s head against a wall, causing it to bleed. That evening, as Derek sleeps on the living room couch, a mysterious entity enters the home and brutally murders him. Madison later discovers her husband’s mutilated body and is briefly pursued by the figure, who knocks her unconscious; unfortunately, by the time she awakens in the hospital with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) by her side, she’s also lost her baby.
The traumatic incident is just the start of Madison’s troubles, as she begins experiencing a bizarre combination of sleep paralysis and psychic visions, witnessing the murders of several people who end up dying in real life. Madison soon suspects the grisly killings have something to do with her repressed childhood before she was adopted by Sydney’s family, a period when she had a seemingly imaginary friend named Gabriel who had violent impulses he’d communicate to her (on more than one occasion he’s referred to as the devil). It appears that [extreme Poe Dameron voice] somehow, Gabriel has returned.
In a bid to convince the audience that Gabriel is real and not some figment of Madison’s imagination, he’s able to speak through phone calls and radio frequencies. (He even shoots the shit with a couple of homicide detectives on an iPhone at one point.) His seemingly supernatural abilities include affecting electricity via (I guess?) telekinesis, similar to Eleven in Stranger Things. Gabriel’s voice is somewhat garbled, yet booming and laced with menace—he basically sounds like a burly distant cousin of Tom Hardy’s Venom. And Gabriel isn’t just picking people off at random: He’s killing the doctors at the Mysterious Prologue Hospital where [gasp!] Madison was admitted before her adoption. (Her original name was Emily, which is what Gabriel repeatedly calls her.) He also kidnaps a woman, who isn’t a doctor but clearly someone of importance, and ties her up in an attic.
With all of these connections, Madison becomes the police’s prime suspect in the murders, even as she’s warning them about Gabriel’s killing spree. It’s only when one of the detectives has a near-death encounter with Gabriel and gets a glimpse of his mangled visage—I shit you not, he gets compared to Sloth from The Goonies—that they start taking Madison’s suspicions more seriously. But the cops still arrest her when—and I really don’t know how to set this up because it comes out of nowhere and literally lands with a thud—the woman Gabriel kidnaps frees herself and proceeds to fall through Madison’s ceiling. So now poor, confused Madison is in a holding cell with a bunch of women berating her.
Meanwhile, Sydney keeps digging through the past, hoping to find a clue about what the hell happened at the hospital during Madison’s childhood and just what Gabriel is. She finally unearths archival hospital footage that lays out what’s really going on: [deep breath] Gabriel is Madison’s parasitic twin, once conjoined to the back of her body in childhood like a Cronenbergian monster:
By “cutting the cancer,” the doctors removed most of Gabriel from Madison’s body, but they couldn’t totally separate his brain without killing her. Madison’s pregnancies were inadvertently feeding him, and when that asshole Derek banged her head against the wall, Gabriel was essentially awakened from his dormant state. They’re doing the whole Professor Quirrell-Voldemort thing from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, except Gabriel can hijack Madison’s body and gruesomely murder people walking around in reverse. It’s both creepy and, in practice, absolutely hilarious:
It’s tempting to praise Malignant under the notion that movies like this rarely get made anymore, but, uh, when the fuck did something like this ever get made? The vibe is like a twisted combination of classic giallo films and (no, seriously) Venom, as the push-pull between Madison and Gabriel, whose voice only gets more ridiculous the longer he gets to speak, reaches comical heights when they start racking up a giant body count by slaughtering detainees and cops with superhuman feats of strength. (No, it’s never properly explained why the parasitic twin makes her strong as hell, or the fact that he has the same powers as Static Shock.)
A movie as wonderfully deranged as Malignant defies neat categorization as simply good or bad—it’s an unforgettable experience of self-aware absurdity from a filmmaker who used all the goodwill he earned from Aquaman’s billion-dollar-plus take at the box office to get the same studio to foot the bill on what is by far the most ambitious and bizarre movie of his career. What I would give to hear the original pitch meeting for this film, which I imagined went something like this:
INT. WARNER BROS. STUDIOS
JAMES WAN: So what if there were conjoined twins, but one of them was evil, scurries around like a spider, and kinda looks like Sloth from The Goonies? We’ll imply that he’s a demonic entity but he’s actually just a glorified tumor on the back of a woman’s skull—I’m thinking maybe the archaeologist from that terrible 2017 remake of The Mummy. When the parasitic twin takes over her body, the evil twin fights like if Jason Voorhees were cast in Tenet. It’s gonna be called Malignant.
WARNER BROS. CEO ANN SARNOFF: … I thought this meeting was about the Aquaman sequel.
JAMES WAN: Oh yeah, I have a great idea to give Patrick Wilson a biblical makeover. I just need to get Malignant out of my system first.
WARNER BROS. CEO ANN SARNOFF: [Stares at the box office numbers of the superhero movie where Jason Momoa led a leviathan voiced by Julie Andrews into battle against Atlanteans riding great white sharks like horses to defend a bunch of crab-people and their monarch, called the Brine King, sighs deeply.] OK, sure.
It remains to be seen what Wan will do after Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Whether he’s making a horror movie or taking the reins of a big-budget tentpole, he’s proved himself to be a commercially viable filmmaker. What will Wan decide to do next? On the one hand, Aquaman and Furious 7 are among the most entertaining blockbusters of the past decade—full of admirable, brain-melting moments of knowing stupidity. On the other hand, horror is where Wan cut his teeth, and the campy brilliance of Malignant demonstrated that he still has plenty of unpredictable tricks up his sleeve.
Granted, Wan has a track record of his horror movies blossoming into franchises long after he steps away from the director’s chair. (He directed only the first Saw movie, and two entries each in both the Conjuring and Insidious franchises.) Malignant plants the possibility of its own franchise potential—after all, Gabriel is always going to be part of Madison’s body and liable to pop out of the back of her head like an oversized pimple to sow more chaos. But the gimmick might wear thin once the audience is clued into what’s happening; the only way 2 Malignant 2 Tumorous could work is if it became some kind of avant-garde action flick where someone’s back is always to their opponent. (To be clear: would watch.)
But even if Malignant is just a one-off project and not another Wan-enabled horror franchise, it feels destined to have a long shelf life, especially among genre enthusiasts. As perhaps the most WTF moviegoing experience since Serenity, Malignant is a film that has to be seen to be believed. Like its queasy subject matter, this unique and uncompromisingly strange movie has a way of staying in your head.