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

Orphan (2009)

Jaume Collet-Serra is an interesting fella. I’ve gotten to know the Spanish-born Hollywood director through his recent string of high-concept, single-location thrillers like The Shallows, where Blake Lively fights a vengeful shark while stuck alone on a rock, and The Commuter, where Liam Neeson takes down a global conspiracy network from a pedestrian commuter train. However, before Collet-Serra was making over-the-top Liam Neeson thrillers that could be reductively described as Taken on a Train (The Commuter) or Taken on a Train (Non-Stop), he got his start directing mainstream horror productions for Hollywood bigshot Joel Silver. The first was a fairly innocuous remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax, best remembered for its stunt casting of Paris Hilton. Collet-Serra’s sophomore effort was something much more novel, an aughts perversion of The Bad Seed that leaned heavily into shocking twists & children being depicted in sinister, adult scenarios. 2009’s Orphan was a modest hit that has been largely forgotten in the decade since, only remembered by those most incensed by its controversial amorality & head-on dedication to tastelessness. It’s also quite possibly Collet-Serra’s best work to date, as it allows the director to chase a new bonkers idea every few minutes instead of tying him to a single concept at feature length. As much as I’ve come to respect Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.

Vera Farmiga stars as a grieving mother whose third child was miscarried, stillborn. Nightmares about horrific, gory childbirth scenarios and guilt over past relapses into alcoholism plague her marriage with an insensitive oaf played by Peter Sarsgaard. To help alleviate the trauma of losing her would-be youngest daughter in childbirth, she decides to adopt – turning a family tragedy into an act of charity. The adopted child is a precocious, morose little girl with a cold Russian accent & a mysterious past, coming across like a 90s Goth update to Rhoda Penmark. The titular orphan’s old-fashioned wardrobe (including a ribbon choker she refuses to be seen without) looks like it belongs to a fairy tale princess, teasing a supernatural twist in its gradual reveal of her background. Whatever the cause, she’s deliciously evil, taking perverse pleasure in staging “accidents” that harm other children, purposefully spying on her new parents mid-coitus, and eventually just full-on murdering adults with guns, knives, and hammers. The reveal of her true biography & motivation to kill is astoundingly tasteless, ludicrous, and easy to guess well before it’s explained; the journey to get there is still a perversely fun ride. Collet-Serra turns each set piece & heinous act into a new toy to play with, the same way he’d later gleefully fool around with all possibly novelties offered by the planes, trains, and bloodthirsty sharks of his subsequent thrillers. The ill-considered morality of Orphan suggests that there is great danger in adopting an unknown orphan with a foreign-born past, which is a much more harmful angle to take than movies like Cooties, The Children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which reflect parents’ fears of their own kids. My guess is that neither Collet-Serra nor fist-time screenwriter David Leslie Johnson paused long enough to consider that morality as they chased this preposterous scenario’s potential for over-the-top, in-the-moment thrills. To be honest, the movie is all the more entertaining for it.

I’ve come to associate Collet-Sera most closely with over-the-top visual gimmickry, which is his most consistent auteurist tell. As absurd as their basic premises can be, some of the things that most stand out to me about the director’s post-Taken thrillers will be the way he constructs a time-lapse montage in The Commuter or the way he makes text messages appear visually dynamic in Non-Stop. Orphan’s best quality is in the freedom it allows Collet-Serra to indulge in this visual gimmickry in a variety of locales. The way he shoots kitchen window reflections, POV angles from car doors & paintings, and (in an early precursor to A Quiet Place) children communicating via American Sign Language is endlessly fun, as there’s a new toy for the director to play with in every new set piece. The pinnacle of this over-stylized visual artistry is a sequence set on a children’s jungle gym in a public park, which Collet-Serra shoots like a Gothic horror set in a maze. The menace of children-at-play on plastic slides & monkey bars is delightfully handled with a straight-faced terror, concluding with a genuine jump scare despite the tableau’s built-in absurdity. If made a decade later, Orphan might have been entirely set in that single jungle gym set piece, with the titular villain chasing around the same pint-sized victim (presumably not played by Liam Neeson) at feature length in a challenge to see how far the premise of that chase could be stretched. Here, it’s allowed to thrive for just a few minutes as an isolated novelty before the film moves onto its next ridiculous indulgence (and there are plenty more to come). It’s a willingness to visually experiment & indulge that keep the movie perversely fun despite the amoral implications of its twisty, ill-considered plot.

There’s a generous reading of Orphan that sees its fear of adopted children gone murderously rogue only as a reflection of Vera Farmiga’s character struggling with her own anxieties as a “flawed” mother with a shaky past. Farmiga sells the emotional core of that conflict as best she can, especially in arguments with a husband (Sarsgaard) and a therapist (esteemed character actress Margot Martindale) who are cruelly dismissive of her skepticism over her new adopted daughter. The film just has too much gleeful, amoral fun for that reading to fully play out, especially in scenarios where the orphan is beating victims to death with a hammer or inserting herself into adult, sexual scenarios with a perverse curiosity. The Babadook is a film about a mother who is unsure of her own stability & value as a nurturing parent. This film is more of an update to The Bad Seed, where it’s the kid who’s clearly at fault & taking pleasure in the chaotic violence that surrounds them. It’s a set-up with some disturbing, half-cooked implications about the adoption process as a result, something I wouldn’t fault any viewer for finding too distasteful to be entertaining. Personally, I consider Orphan to be an exquisite slice of mainstream-horror trash and a thoroughly entertaining showcase for a visually-skilled director who can’t help himself whenever afforded an opportunity to over-indulge in a set-specific gimmick. I’d love to see Collet-Serra return to this style of filmmaking, where his tones & gimmickry are allowed to be more free-wheeling & varied in their minute-to-minute whims instead of being dedicated to a single concept for an entire film. It’s a looseness in premise & morality than I believe has produced his best work to date.

-Brandon Ledet