The Search for This Year’s Malignant

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Malignant (2021)

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.

-Brandon Ledet