*The following contains spoilers for Malignant (2021). *
Now, whenever I visit my hometown—which I recently did—I think about my favorite movie theater, a single auditorium that hosted contemporary arthouse and late show cult classics. A theater that sadly shuttered its doors due to the pandemic.
Goddamn, what I wouldn’t give to see a movie like Malignant with a rowdy midnight crowd, complete with call-and-response heckling and the rehearsed usage of props. If you’ve ever been to a late screening of Rocky Horror or The Room, you know what I’m talking about. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to force James Wan’s Giallo-lite, cinematic prank masterpiece into the same category with cult heavyweights like Tommy Wiseau, I can’t help but consider Malignant’s potential to at least be included on a weekend marquee.
The narrative storyline follows Madison (Anabelle Wallis) as she’s stalked by a stringy-haired killer connected to her through a mysterious psychic relationship. Aside from a high-octane introduction, one that gives off serious Sam Raimi energy, the setup here is nothing remarkable. What’s remarkable to me, and why I think this movie has some staying power, is in the marketing. The intent. The lovable what-the-hell-even-is-this factor.
First, let me clear up my use of the word “prank.” I don’t believe Malignant was created with any ill (malicious?) intent. It’s just that the marketing before the film’s release, at least from what I’d seen, never clued audiences into how absolutely fucking nuts it really is. This, I think, is a wonderful thing.
Maybe you’ve seen the teaser that I’ve seen. The one where Annabelle Wallis scrambles up the stairs, sprints down the hall, and slams her bedroom door in the face of some invisible entity. It’s exciting enough stuff. And if it wasn’t obvious from the vibes, there’s the onscreen text that reminds you this film is coming at you from the minds behind both The Conjuring and Insidious universes. While this ad was the pre-roll for nearly every YouTube video I watched for a month leading up to Malignant’s release, I still had no clue what the movie was about. It looked like a ghost thing. It had James Wan’s name on it. I’m a fan of his other franchises. More ghost shit sounded fine to me.
After watching the film, I’m delighted to say this movie was not, in fact, more ghost shit. In hindsight, the marketing here conjures up memories of Harmony Korine’s somber, neon-lit tragedy, Spring Breakers. The trailers initially cut for Korine’s film manifested Hangover-type comedy energy, didn’t they? What with the dubstep and drinking and the promise of a raunchy coastal romp? And when I went on opening night with a theater full of other eager-to-laugh teenagers, the house lights at the end revealed about forty percent of the audience had mysteriously vanished during the show. Sure, you could probably make an argument that this is a form of false advertising, but I never thought of it like that. In fact, I’d encourage the industry to implement more marketing misdirection. In an era where so many movies show their hand too early, put their best bits in the trailer, I’m thrilled when a campaign comes along like Spring Breakers or, in this case, Malignant (which I’m about to spoil).
So, the teasers for Malignant gave off a certain vibe. And as I sat down to watch this film with my parents one evening while I was in town, we were fully anticipating another supernatural endeavor from James Wan and co. Instead, we were introduced to Gabriel, a backward-walking, trench coat-clad, electricity-commanding, half-tumor monster guy. No specters or phantoms here, but instead a semi-removed conjoined twin that lives in the back of Annabelle Wallis’ skull. It’s like Frank Henenlotter directed Fight Club. And it was this reveal, ninety minutes in, and the straight-up cinematic absurdism that comes after it, that caused me to fall in love with Malignant. It turned out to be less Insidious part four than it was a horror-themed action flick complete with a long, explosive fight sequence ala John Wick. The only catch is you have to sit through nearly ninety minutes of thin, expository dialogue and hilarious spatial continuity errors to get to this amazing sequence.
One element of the film that’s been puzzling me for weeks is set design. The exterior shots of Madison’s home display a narrow, almost Victorian-looking haunted manor. You might expect the interior to look similarly narrow and Victorian, but you’d be dead wrong. Once inside the house, all spatial continuity is thrown out the window in favor of a massive ground level, a wide living room, and shockingly high ceilings. What’s going on here? Is this part of the joke? An oversight? Is this vastness merely a set-design accommodation for pandemic-era film production? The film references the exterior of the house so frequently that its TARDIS-like interior dimensions feel purposeful, but no character ever comments on the size of the house. No meta wisecracks, the kind you might find in a more obvious parody, are muttered. I’m not alone in my confusion. Take it from my dad who, mid-viewing, said to the rest of us, “That house is too fucking big inside.”
Like its pair of combined central characters, Malignant is an ultraviolent odd couple that lives somewhere between pure camp and earnest creative vision. I was both impressed by its imagination and technical achievements while laughing so hard I cried multiple times.
- Once, because of the comically spooky music that accompanied Madison telling her sister, “Sydney, I’m adopted.”
- A second time because someone passed a perfectly fine lot to park their car inches away from the edge of a cliff.
- A third time because a woman in a jail cell was inexplicably dressed in 1970s disco attire.
- This leads us into the final thirty minutes, the matrix-stye fight scene in a police station that is so well-directed and out of place it had me in hysterics.
Even the soundtrack feels like some joke for B-horror and cult film fans. Between the early 2000s industrial-rock title sequence and the repeated use of a bizarre “Where Is My Mind” synthwave remix, the score tilts this project further toward parody than loving homage. It’s another baffling touch to an already unstable viewing experience. I mean that in the best way.
The question now, and why Malignant has occupied a large chunk of my brain real-estate for weeks, is a matter of intent. How self-aware is this movie, really? Were James Wan and his fellow co-writers, Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper, giggling as they scripted the film’s third act? I sure laughed watching it, but the tone remains unclear to me. It’s been nearly a month since I watched the film and I’m still no closer to any answers. To my discredit, I haven’t really sought out any interviews with Wan. Part of me doesn’t really want to hear what he has to say, because watching Malignant was without a doubt the most fun I’ve had with a movie this year, and I don’t want anything to dampen this memory. I doubt any of this winter’s lineup will beat Malignant in terms of pure glee and astonishment. Maybe Dune. I don’t know. Probably not.
Despite its murky conception, Malignant is a bold, creative movie without much to say. It only wants to delight and disturb you, which it does with abundance. It’s a brilliant bait-and-switch that wears its low-budget horror and Dario Argento inspirations on its black leather sleeves. It’s the kind of risky movie and marketing campaign I wish more studios would greenlight—without requiring the director to make a billion dollars in superhero sales first. It’s the kind of movie I hope to one day laugh and scream at in a dark, crowded auditorium. Maybe sometime in Autumn, on a cold weekend around midnight.
Recommended cocktail: In lieu of a traditional cocktail pairing, you’re better off inventing a drinking game to go along with this one. For example, maybe you get some friends together and take a shot of tequila each time Gabriel (for whatever reason) uses electricity to speak. For an added challenge, take a shot each time someone in your group laughs.
Alex Tronson is a writer living in New Orleans. His work has been published in Barstow & Grand, Misery Tourism, Expat Press and Hobart.