Malignant: Lipstick on a Cinematic Pig, Bryce Forren
This piece contains spoilers for Malignant (2021).
For a good portion of the 21st century, James Wan has been the undisputed champion of the studio horror film. Any recent phantasmagoric blockbuster that feels earnestly original and manages to pull people back into theater seats for a handful of sequels likely has his name somewhere in the credits. Even before the immeasurable mainstream success of his Conjuring cinematic universe, his ambitious claws have always been buried deep in a franchise-friendly headspace. Saw (2004), a humble idea that Wan and classmate Leigh Whannell had fresh out of film school, went on to spawn a franchise that is alive and well 17 years later.
The enormity of Wan’s reputation is the standard that his latest foray into horror, Malignant (2021), was meant to live up to. With his recent undertaking of larger, more palatable entries into big-budget franchises like Aquaman (2018) and Fast & Furious 7 (2015), the prospect of Wan settling back into his horror roots with an idea completely severed from any source material was an exciting one. However, after experiencing the tedious and staggering tonal disorder of his latest effort, it’s clear that he has spent too much time painting over his work with a broad, crowd-pleasing finish. Wan fumbles an attempt to properly navigate the gritty mood that his concepts require.
In the midst of an argument between pregnant Maddie (Annabelle Wallis) and her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel), the viewer is treated to trite, hammy dialogue that blossoms into an unfortunate motif. After Derek shoves Maddie into a wall, the impact becomes a catalyst for the film’s ultimate turn: she finds herself witnessing a number of real, local murders from the comfort of a passive, dreamlike trance. This makes her a prime suspect to a team of inquisitive detectives who aren’t convinced of her supernatural alibi.
As the pace of the murders picks up, the psychological connection between Maddie and the mysterious antagonist becomes the film’s focal point. In a startling act of misdirection, the killer is revealed to be a sentient malignant tumor on Maddie’s head that developed an individual consciousness, possessing her body and forcing it to commit the murders. The brute stupidity of this payoff ends up semantically aligning the film with trashy exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s.
Unlike those films, however, Malignant’s sleek, straightforward execution begs to be taken seriously. Critics were quick to point out the similarities between its bizarre plot twist and the Frank Henenlotter film Basket Case (1982). While Wan’s film certainly shares in its head-scratching absurdity, it makes no effort to mirror Henenlotter’s slimy sense of humor—one that’s arguably necessary to strike a balance with the inherently farcical nature of its outline.
In this area, Wan is a repeat offender. The stylistic signifiers of horror cinema traditions make repeat appearances in an attempt to beautify the empty energy of his direction. Victims, drenched in saturated lighting, meeting their demise by the elaborate hand of a black-gloved killer evoke the set pieces of Dario Argento’s landmark contributions to the giallo subgenre.
However, Malignant fails to reach a point of synthesis in which the use of these aesthetics inspires the heightened and fantastical tone of a film like Deep Red (1975). Its brief visual homages feel like little more than meager references that serve their function as fleeting spectacles and make no larger integrated point.
This is in part because the entirety of the film is on incredibly unstable ground, leaping abrasively into disparate ideas and landing in a series of awkward collisions. Its escalation to the climax is a descent into unbelievable chaos. Wan leans into his learned studio restraint in all the wrong moments, causing a vacuum of movement that he often overcompensates for. The overstimulating noise of the film’s action sequences feel destined to inspire bewildered laughter as a defense mechanism.
The film is ultimately the product of a director torn between a desperation to provoke and a desire to please. Unlike some of Wan’s distinctive and bold projects, Malignant is unremarkable, dressed up in the guise of clashing horror tropes to manufacture any semblance of an identity.