Of course, there’s no sincere argument to be made that the COVID-19 pandemic has been good for the movie industry. Ensuring the safety of film production has raised the price & risk for all new content, while the return on investment at sparsely attended movie theaters has simultaneously lowered the reward. This pandemic has been absolute hell on the financial logistics of mass-marketed moviemaking as a business. However, I do think the current dysfunction of movie distribution occasionally does wonders for a movie’s street cred – especially when it comes to mainstream horror releases from the past two calendar years. While delayed release dates & theatrical-only distribution strategies have cooled public appetite for once-anticipated horror releases like Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake, out-of-nowhere mainstream horrors like The Empty Man have earned gradual word-of-mouth street cred as “cult classics” despite the major studio support system behind them. The most recent specimen of that COVID-era phenomenon is James Wan’s Malignant, which enjoyed a day-and-date streaming premiere on HBO Max the same weekend it was released into mostly empty theaters. Just like The Empty Man, Malignant is a seemingly well-behaved mainstream horror that takes some wild creative stabs in a go-for-broke third act, earning instant cult prestige as a “hidden gem” despite its robust budget thanks to the dysfunction of COVID-era distribution. I personally found The Empty Man the more rewarding experience of that pair, but you gotta appreciate these big-budget crowd-bafflers whenever you can find them, especially when they manage to drum up wide audience enthusiasm in an era when most movies fail to.
For the first 80 minutes or so, you can definitely tell Malignant was directed by a mainstream horror mainstay who’s delivered modern industry-standards like The Conjuring, Insidious, and Saw over the past two decades. The film’s setting & tone are traditional to the point of feeling stale. Every set piece is overloaded with the ~spooky~ visual clichés that leaked out of movie theaters and into local haunted house designs as long ago as the early aughts: fluorescent green lighting, moldy wallpaper, creepy hospitals, found footage, jump scares, surgical gore, etc. It details the police investigation of a serial murderer named Gabriel (a very 90s horror villain name) who shares a mysterious psychic bond with a freaked-out woman struggling to uncover her true familial history prior to her childhood adoption, and why she keeps dreaming the murders through Gabriel’s eyes in real time. If you’ve seen a few horror movies in your time, you can approximately guess the inevitable reveal of how Gabriel and the Final Woman are connected. What you cannot guess is the goofball delirium of how that twist is executed, both in the visual design of Gabriel as a fully onscreen killer (as opposed to the more typical masked & gloved slasher villain role he serves in the first hour) and in the unembarrassed humor Wan finds in his own audacity. Late in the game, Wan breaks free from his reputation as the humdrum Conjureverse auteur to have some over-the-top action horror fun as the goofball responsible for movies like Dead Silence, Furious 7, and Aquaman (you know, the one where the octopus plays the drums). It’s a last-minute twist in story & tone that’s going to turn a lot of fun-adverse audiences off for being too wonderfully stupid, but it’s so daringly committed to its own inanity that everyone has to see it no matter how they’ll individually feel about it.
I really wish Malignant didn’t take over an hour to fully let its hair down, but it does push Gabriel’s image & backstory to enough of a goofball extreme that it’s well worth the effort it takes to get there. Better yet, the way the film pretends to be a totally normal, by-the-numbers slasher before the Gabriel reveal means it has a much better chance of luring an unexpecting wide audience in for its prankish finale – recalling other recent go-for-broke horror finales like in Orphan or The Boy. My guess is that Wan believes he’s having as much fun as possible with the material for the entire runtime too. The way Gabriel is cross-lit, gloved, and forging his own personally branded murder weapon in a Rambo-style workshop feels like a horror-nerd catalog of at least forty years of movie tropes collected from various Euro thrillers & American blockbusters. Wan’s digitally aided camera is “mounted” to ceilings, floors, washing machine doors, and spinning industrial fans as he amuses himself with his studio-budget haunted-house set pieces, struggling to make them look novel despite the familiarity of their mainstream horror iconography. There’s also something to be said about the way the film is averse to overt moral or political messaging, aiming to expose its audience to Freaky Shit instead of pursuing some grand overriding metaphor – the usual mode of modern horror storytelling. I wasn’t as personally amused with the material in the first hour as the director appeared to be, but he more than earns that indulgence by the time the credits roll. Malignant feels reverse-engineered to be divisive—appreciated only by the sicko few—but it presents its most outrageous ideas in a familiar package that could potentially lure a wide audience into its fucked up, goofball orbit. It’s hard for any movie to make noise on a massive scale right now, so I have nothing but admiration for the few weirdo visions that can pull it off.