When reviewing James Wan’s twisty crowd-baffler Malignant, I contextualized it as 2021’s The Empty Man: a seemingly well-behaved mainstream horror that takes some wild creative stabs in its go-for-broke third act, earning instant cult prestige as a “hidden gem” despite its robust budget, thanks to the dysfunction of COVID-era film distribution. A year later, it’s clear that Malignant has fully eclipsed its 2020 equivalent. The Empty Man no longer exists at all in the public consciousness (a thematically appropriate fate for the film, at least), while Gabriel of Malignant fame is the closest we’ve gotten to crowning a modern horror icon since Bill Skarsgård dragged up clown make-up in chapter one of IT. It’s not enough that horror nerds & Twitter bots were sharing one-year anniversary posts commemorating Gabriel’s jail-cell debut in Malignant; they’re also now searching for “this year’s Malignant” in other films. Within weeks of each other, I saw two different 2022 horrors described as “this year’s Malignant,” which is further confirmation that Gabriel still lurks in the backs of people’s minds (har, har). Having now seen both contenders for the prestigious title of “this year’s Malignant,” I do think there’s a clear winner in the pair, even if I have lingering questions about what that honorific even means.
Orphan: First Kill was the first movie I saw described as “this year’s Malignant” online. It turned out to be a premature declaration. Having to live up to both the shock & awe of Gabriel’s reveal and the perverse discomforts of the original Orphan‘s third-act meltdown is too much pressure for this kind of straight-to-streaming schlock, which is ultimately too cheap & too subdued to amount to much of anything. The workman director behind The Boy & Brahms: The Boy II just can’t match the stylishness or trashiness of a James Wan or a Jaume Collet-Serra. William Brent Bell works in a muted Lifetime color palette & melodramatic register that First Kill never really breaks free from. Worse yet, the film’s “shocking” twist is telegraphed all over Julia Styles’s face within the first few scenes, which takes it out of contention for “this year’s Malignant” before it even gets cooking. Thankfully, Orphan: First Kill doesn’t save its twist for the third act, allowing Styles to square off against little orphan Esther on her own bonkers terms well before the end credits. The second half of First Kill is some deliciously absurd, post-Lifetime domestic horror, and it never stops being bizarre to watch a now-adult Isabelle Fuhrman reprise her role as the forever-young Esther, Colin Robinson style. Since the “first” in the title is super misleading, as Esther has already killed before this movie starts, I’d gladly watch Fuhrman return for another, earlier prequel as the same loveable, pint-sized killer in 13 years. Orphan: First Kill is a delightful, slight horror novelty. It’s just not this year’s Malignant.
The case for Zach Cregger’s debut feature Barbarian is much stronger. While Orphan: First Kill suffers the disadvantage of having to out-twist its already plenty twisty predecessor, Barbarian is coming in fresh as a new work with no expectations hanging over the audience. All most critics will say about the film is that it’s a fun ride and it’s best to go in completely unspoiled, which certainly sounds very Malignanty to me. I won’t touch the details of the plot out of respect for maintaining that mystique. All I can say, then, is that it’s a very fragmented work, one that makes total sense in the context of Cregger’s sketch comedy background. Like with all sketch comedy, not every segment exploring its Evil Airbnb Subdungeon setting is entirely successful (with Justin Long’s storyline being a particular mood-killer). Overall, though, it’s some fun, fucked-up Discomfort Horror that Malignantizes the post-torture porn cruelty of titles like Don’t Breathe into something new & exciting. It also has the best end-credits needle drop since You Were Never Really Here, leaving the audience in a perversely upbeat mood despite the Hell we just squirmed through. It’s not a great film but, frankly, neither was Malignant. The important thing is that it’s eccentric enough in its twists & turns to land a few “what-the-fuck” jaw-drops as its cursed Airbnb reveals all its gnarly secrets. That’s what makes it this year’s Malignant, a “hidden gem” of a mainstream horror that’s pulling typically non-adventurous audiences into some deeply fucked up, perversely playful subdungeons. It’s incredibly cool that something this bizarre was #1 at the box office its opening weekend.
As for next year’s Malignant? My hope is that by then something so freshly upsetting & bizarre will make this honorific obsolete, and we won’t have to hand out the award ever again.