The Unearned Absurdity of James Wan’s Malignant

Malignant revived some honest old-fashioned finger-shushing in the Twitter public when it came out. Posts had the tone of Hitchcock’s Psycho billboards (“Don’t give away the ending. It’s the only one we have”). The film argues for its existence with its wham-bang ending so convincingly that naysayers have been pegged as “not getting it,” like they left their seats before the good stuff. As James Wan’s Aquaman got closer to parody the more seriously it postured (“Did she not love me??”), Malignant came dressed as an exotic horror throwback but relies on so much cheap TV thriller camp that its horrific revelations are less sinking than relieving. It would have been a cheat if they weren’t there, which prevents them from feeling earned.

The film begins “out there” (where else can it go?) with a monster parasite that can control electricity wreaking havoc from its laboratory prison. The actors are like battering rams against the absurdity of the dialogue (“It’s time to cut out the CANCER”). This style evens out in the calmer surroundings of the main plot, but the actors seem less at home in it – the Sam Raimi craziness of the opening feels more like the movie’s native aesthetic, which may eventually come back around. As it goes on, Wan’s ability to innocently blunder through rote scenes as though they hide terrifying truths is more mystifying than its inexplicable plot details (eventual “explanations” make them more inexplicable, not less). In interviews, he describes this subject matter as “very dark, so we just felt like we needed a little bit of levity, and we felt like the cops could kinda bring a jaded, cynical sense of humor to the film.” But it never gets that serious, and no dialogue trope jumble can help. This film needs more levity like a Lifetime movie needs more awkward pauses.

These cops, who intervene in Madison’s (Annabelle Wallis) life after some first act shenanigans, are less believable than the film’s most outlandish climaxes (shush!). They discover crucial information about witnesses who just left the room, yet rather than running after them to tell them this vital, plot-accelerating information, they wait at their desk for the scene to change. By the time they’ve reconvened, the information has become pointless because the other person learns it somewhere else. The cops only learned it to show us, and you just have to accept the fact that no one shares anything that would make the movie shorter. Malignant takes place in a world where phones exist but never serve a useful purpose, stuck out of time (even the TVs inexplicably have static because it’s scarier). The characters bumble through it like they’re all the sidekicks of protagonists that never show up until the screenplay let's them do the one thing that makes the movie go.

This results in frustrating pacing, with characters speaking to each other in unjustifiably careful details while stingily withholding obvious observations from each other so the plot can progress how it pleases. Meanwhile, the audience is always well-informed, waiting for the Scooby gang to catch up with the things we’ve seen from the other perspectives. Some scenes are so forcefully obscured that the characters don’t even seem to want the truth. Others are so blatantly informative that Tommy Wiseau could test for the part (to communicate that Madison’s boorish husband is a boor, the screenplay writes him the line, “How many times do I have to watch my children die inside of you?” before punching her in the belly. Its emotional acumen comes from the Manos: The Hands of Fate school of writing). The combination results in a film that relies on that first-viewing ignorance to pull off its haunted house scares since on rewatch, it would be even more head-scratching (the mysterious villain has no explainable means of communication, even in retrospect). Like any good thriller, the film is always asking the question of “who” knows “what,” but it doesn’t always have a coherent answer as to "why" and "when." All that matters is that the audience knows everything it needs to on that first viewing.

The film’s eccentric climax seems to aim for Giallo-inspired absurdity injected with American direct-to-video trash, somewhere between Argento and Henenlotter (Basket Case), plus a little Hideo Nakata (Ring) for spice. But those films were 90 minutes long, cheap to make, and didn’t apologize for being weird. They did it because they didn’t know how else to be, not because they wanted to be mistaken for something older. At 116 minutes and $40 million, Malignant fills its empty spaces with disinterested plot tropes that last far longer than an homage to bad movies yet never become better than one. Everything before “that” scene seems obligatory, engineered to satisfy the genre for long enough to make the climax mistakable as climactic. For 90 minutes, the whole length of a normal Giallo, Malignant’s airtime is an illusion of investment built on the promise of becoming interesting rather than the reality of being tense. Even horror films that jump the rails owe their audience a good ride on the rails first.

Wallis is no Toni Colette just like Malignant is no Hereditary, which knew the value of showing skill "on the rails" so that jumping them would seem heart-dropping. But she’s a trooper, despite being boxed into a tactless situation. She never breaks out of her trance, but she always seems willing to. Blips of technical passion like a long shot that hovers over her house like looking into her honeycomb cover for the film’s slips into parody, as in the comedically numerous establishing shots of Madison’s cramped fairytale house, complete with fog and thunder (it’s timed with a wolf howl that isn’t there). On the inside, it expands TARDIS-style into a million-dollar getaway cabin, with that unmistakable feeling of being a home rented for a movie. Even the Sanitarium is a comically foreboding castle by the sea, a perfect place to build Edward Scissorhands in. Tension in the film produces rain and thunder on a cosmic cue. If the monster can inexplicably control electricity to make the plot work, the heroine can just as inexplicably control the weather to get the intended tone.

The lead-up to the twist involves a string of killings that are more time-killing than stress-inducing. The characters talk in bullet points about these events without tangibly developing their relationships, as though they exist in vaguely linked yet separate movies (a good stretch of it is a “why don’t you believe me?” movie, where Madison pleads to be taken seriously for the horror movie she’s dreaming about). Madison’s sister (Maddie Hansson) shows up in a pretty princess costume after getting off work and immediately throws lady eyes at the stock male cop character (George Young), but neither her acting career nor her crush ever come into play again. They’re filler details rather than setups. She ventures to the medieval medical pavilion to retrieve some records (the police never considered it) and despite renting hallways fit for a diabolical playground of spooky scenarios, the film lets her go in, get the video, and go watch it at home without being troubled about it (everyone seems to live both equidistant from each other and 10 minutes from this castle). The situation is the film’s entire weakness in miniature – it passes up on a tense scene to play a tape of information to characters who barely even have a chance to act on it. The audience just needs to know it as efficiently as possible.

And then, “that” happens.

If the trite and true devices of the first two-thirds of Malignant seem obligatory to sell the movie to a major studio, the last third seems like Wan relaxing into his true ambition, which he can pull off due to the trust garnered from the billions banked by his other movies. Maybe the slog of the first 90 minutes is the price of a $40-million-dollar horror film. The endowment is an undercover restraint. For comparison, that’s nearly seven times what it cost Panos Cosmatos to make the superior Mandy, a film that has the gall of great Giallo for its entire phantasmic runtime, not just as a punchline. It’s twice the price of Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, a true successor to the complex aloofness of the Argento-era films and a virtuoso of psychological wind-ups. Instead of spending money on CGI, it focused on vibrant 35mm photography, arriving closer to an homage of the 70s, yet greater than one.

On the basis that the squeamish enjoyment of its final act effectively (and expensively) imitates the catharsis of cheap horror, Malignant has acquired an instant reputation as a sensational step back in a forward direction. Wan eventually does bring on the splatter along with some shiny CGI and a bit of practical knowhow, but even with their fake gore and anomalous dubbing, those Italian classics didn’t resort to a hum-drum thriller as a time-killer “to get to the good stuff.” Malignant’s screenplay is paced like an episode of Black Mirror that has to wait out a two-hour time slot to reveal the clever twist of its one-hour script. An over-emphatic score by Joseph Bishara accentuates the deficit, resorting to cheap jumps to tell you when you’re supposed to squeal. Its climaxes are all spring-loaded.

A cherry cordial may seem like a treat after a course of undercooked vegetables, but that testifies less to the nourishment of the chocolate than to the comparative unpleasantness of what you had to endure first. This genre has been sustained by sugar-high chocolate comas for decades, with raspberry neon blasts of bloody glass shards and screaming eyes. I want to be clear that I'm not arguing against the absurdity of eating cinematic chocolate. I'm arguing for the importance of cooking vegetables properly if you're going to make us eat them first.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

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