A friend who caught an early screening of Malignant said it was far and away the worst film from The Conjuring and Insidious director James Wan, and a contender for every “worst of 2021” list. That description triggers one thing in this writer: full and unbridled excitement for whatever madness Wan cooked up. The worst movies provoke no feelings whatsoever, ones where I struggle to remember any specific detail by the time I get home from the theater (or go upstairs after settling for a home premiere, as 2021 often allows).
Malignant is not that kind of movie.
James Wan swings big in his latest horror movie. Yes, there are some questionable decisions to be found in its 112-minute runtime (including the, uh, 112-minute runtime), but they are the decisions from a filmmaker who has made it clear over the past 17 years that he is not interested in presenting any semblance of reality in his projects (cue Dom and Brian in Furious 7 driving through not one but two skyscrapers to land in a third). Even when dealing with something based on fact in his Conjuring films, Wan likes to challenge himself by embracing the inherent hokeyness of something like a giant crooked ghost and then figuring out how to scare you anyway. He usually succeeds.
And he clearly has much love and respect for the horror masters of yore, whose names are often mentioned along with his when talking about the great craftsman of the genre. Throughout Malignant, an astute horror fan should feel right at home, as the script (by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper) primarily draws influence from Italian films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also Dark Castle’s late ‘90s/early ‘00s funhouse thrills, Hammer horror, and the more polarizing entries in the filmographies of Wes Craven and John Carpenter. And yet it still remains unmistakably his, with the tricky camerawork, (indoor!) fog machines cranked up to 11, and bright reds and blues that have been a feature of all his previous genre exercises.
Anyone who only knows Wan for his billion dollar blockbusters like Aquaman and Furious 7 might be thrown for a loop by the approach. And even for those familiar with the Conjurings (which keep their weirdness to a relative minimum) might benefit from a little primer of past horror films that immediately sprang to mind while watching it. So consider this list; if you were to put these six films in a blender and project the results, it might somewhat resemble Malignant.
[Ed. note: This list includes spoilers for James Wan’s Malignant, so if you’d like to avoid that, go watch the movie in theaters or on HBO Max.]
After making his directorial debut with Saw, Wan’s sophomore film, Dead Silence, was primed to be a major hit when it was released in early 2007 (between the release of the third and fourth Saws), but audiences just couldn’t connect to the film’s kooky puppet-driven plot or Hammer horror aesthetic. Despite being tonally confused due to studio meddling (in a reverse of the norm, Wan and partner Leigh Whannell wanted a PG-13 kind of vibe; the studio wanted R rated Saw-like gore), Dead Silence established quite a few things about the filmmaker’s canon going forward: unusual supernatural elements, an outdoor world that seems overcast at all times (the low budget Saw had no exterior scenes), and — most importantly to Malignant — a commitment to jaw-dropping plot twists delivered with a straight face. The rated version of Dead Silence is the superior one, though the unrated adds even more gore if you seek it out and want both options.
Lots of Dario Argento’s gialli concern an innocent person witnessing a murder and being suspected of it, but Tenebrae’s version is closest to Malignant, as the evidence points to more than just being in the wrong place at the right time. Here, author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) is troubled to learn that someone is killing people who are connected to him via the release of his new book (his agent, an obsessed fan, etc.), just as Malignant protagonist Maddie (Annabelle Wallis) discovers the people whose deaths she keeps seeing all treated her as a child. Argento’s work is, like Wan’s, a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but 1982’s Tenebrae is one of the most accessible (read: coherent) entries in his filmography, making it a good place to start if you’re a newcomer to this one-of-a-kind auteur’s work.
Tenebrae is currently available to watch on Shudder.
Argento is practically Disney-level mainstream compared to Lucio Fulci, who is perhaps not as skilled as his contemporary or, at least, wasn’t blessed with competent crews as often. 1977’s The Psychic is hardly his best film, but it’s one of the last traditional giallo films he made before hitting his peak with Zombie and his other more famous undead films, and the one horror buffs might think of most during Malignant. The plot centers on a woman who is having visions of deaths she wasn’t present for, at least for its first half or so before the film’s big reveal takes center stage. Bonus for Tarantino fans: you’ll recognize the film’s theme music, which he used in Kill Bill.
My Soul To Take
In a perfect world, this and not Scream 4 would have been Wes Craven’s final film (well, in a perfect world it’d be neither, but you know what I mean). Hitting theaters a few months before what would be his swan song, 2010’s My Soul To Take was also written by the filmmaker, making it a “truer” Craven film than another Williamson/Kruger-penned trip to Woodsboro. Craven’s tale of a serial killer’s soul being spread across seven children born on the same night in a small Massachusetts town is vintage nonsense from the filmmaker, who previously explored similar territory regarding souls in his would-be franchise starter Shocker. The horror genre certainly has a number of bugnuts story concepts, but usually they’re made by people who don’t know how to point a camera either. Seeing it from legit filmmakers like Craven or Wan is what makes such baffling ideas enter must-see territory, if only for the sheer bravado of committing to something so off-kilter.
It’s Argento again! If you got through Tenebrae and find yourself wanting more, then go deeper into his insanity with his 1993 return to giallo-esque fare (and first solo film made entirely in America), which shares a “revenge on the doctors” backstory, albeit one that in some ways is even more ridiculous than the one in Malignant. It also has a distinct weapon fashioned from one of the victims’ belongings: While Malignant’s Gabriel uses the pointy end of his first victim’s Caduceus award, Trauma’s killer uses a “Noose-O-Matic” out of surgical tools. The two even share killer doll movie royalty; Annabelle Wallis reunites with Wan after starring in the first Annabelle, and Trauma features none other than Chucky himself, Brad Dourif.
If you’re here just wanting more movies like Malignant (bless you), or simply don’t care about spoilers, then it’s safe to note that Wan’s film is not the first to use a conjoined twin that never fully formed as its antagonist. You might have seen some tweets alluding to “a film that I can’t name without spoiling Malignant’s twist” — well, that film is in fact Basket Case, the debut from indie horror stalwart Frank Henenlotter. This film tells you right up front what is going on; the normal looking Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) was separated from his mutated twin Belial when they were younger, and now the two seek revenge on the doctors who split them up, with the larger brother carrying the other in a basket as they carry out their revenge plan. Basket Case is at the opposite end of the budget spectrum, and tonally different, but it’s a perfect example of how a particular idea can yield vastly different results depending on the filmmakers’ resources and sensibilities.