Malignant is being pushed as the next supernatural horror epic from James Wan, the creator of The Conjuring universe and the billion-dollar motion picture classic Aquaman. Undoubtedly, a sizeable number of people who either streamed Malignant on HBO Max or bought tickets to see it in a bonafide movie theater were expecting a spooktacular scare fest along the lines of the director’s trademark franchise – a well-directed haunted house movie with fun if predictable scares and a glossy blockbuster sheen.
Malignant is not that movie. Malignant is so loudly, aggressively, gleefully not that movie that a solid chunk of its audience went home terribly confused. (It currently has a 50% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a C on CinemaScore.) And while that confusion is unquestionably by design, I have to wonder whether it’s a good thing. Spoilers, obviously, lie ahead.
Malignant is a cinematic prank. According to its big-budget marketing campaign and its extremely by-the-book first half, it is a middle of the road blockbuster supernatural horror film about a phantom slasher. Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is being stalked by a shadowy figure who is murdering the beejeebus out of her abusive husband and various elderly doctors and forcing her to watch via some mysterious psychic connection. The first hour or so plays out very much like you would expect a movie from the director of Insidious and The Conjuring 2 to play out – we meet the main character and her family, we’re presented with a vague malevolent force that reveals itself in a series of cleverly-staged jump scare sequences, and we follow the main character as she begins to investigate this evil force and piece together its nature. It’s entertaining enough, thanks to Wan’s talent for crowd-pleasing chills, but it feels somewhat dull and predictable, even for blockbuster horror.
And then the third act happens.
The killer, who calls himself Gabriel, is eventually revealed to be Madison’s malformed conjoined twin, who was painfully removed from the back of her head when she was a child. Trouble is, they didn’t manage to quite remove all of Gabriel, and his tiny little face has been living on the back of her brain ever since. Now he’s come screaming back to life, and when I say “screaming,” I mean “he pushes his brain face out of the back of her skull and pilots her body backwards to commit all the murders.” With about 20 minutes left in its two-hour runtime, Malignant suddenly has a monster explode out of its main character’s head and brutally dismember an entire police station. It’s like John Wick, if John Wick were a Garbage Pail Kid.
What Wan has done with Malignant, it seems, is craft his own version of a 1970s exploitation horror film and disguise it as the kind of comfortably spooky modern horror blockbuster for which he has become known. The movie banks on the sheer surprise of its third act, and judging by the vast majority of reviews and social media reactions following its release, the gamble succeeded. Malignant is a delightful bait-and-switch, one that depends on the audiences’ knowledge of both modern mainstream horror and Wan as a filmmaker. In essence, it is a practical joke. It’s the infamous South Park Season 2 episode “Terrence and Phillip in Not Without My Anus,” wherein creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone promised to reveal the identity of Eric Cartman’s father and instead ambushed their fans with a 30-minute standalone fart joke starring two background characters.
Now, the fact that Malignant is effectively the longest episode of Punk’d yet produced is totally acceptable to me. I stood up and threw a chair out of my window the moment that tiny brain face burst out of the back of Annabelle Wallis’ head, such was my excitement. But I do wonder whether the fact that Malignant succeeds as a practical joke makes it a successful movie? Are audiences 10 years from now going to know enough of the context around the film’s release to understand the gag? Or will it just exist as this bizarre drive-in schlockfest from a studio-bankrolled filmmaker with mainstream sensibilities and a subdued but no less madcap chaotic streak? I suppose time will tell. But it’s a question worth asking as mainstream filmmaking tethers itself more and more to a Twitter-bound audience able to digest media and deliver up-to-the-minute commentary. In the same way that referencing a popular contemporary commercial – such as the Grey Poupon joke in Wayne’s World – immediately dates your film, designing your movie from the ground up as a prank to trick your fanbase is risky to its long-term viability as a work of art that stands on its own.
Horror, like many genres, has conversations with its audience, and Wan in particular is good at this – there’s a classic Wan sequence in Malignant in which we follow a doomed victim through his apartment as the director constantly winks at us by showing us all the places a scare could happen, but ultimately doesn’t. Making the entire movie a practical joke on his audience is, in many ways, an evolution of this conversation, so the idea isn’t without some precedent. Does it make Malignant a good movie? I’m genuinely not sure, but it is literally out of its gord and I loved it with all of my heart.
5, 6, 7, 8…
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