What if someone set out to create the most perfect bad horror movie ever made, and they hit every note? Would it be so bad it was good, or so successfully bad it was just bad? Do you need some old-fashioned, inadvertent mistakes in there to really make it sing? Is smartly designed badness enjoyable, or does the fun of watching a bad movie rely on the schadenfreude of others’ failures?
These questions join that study of philosophy that poses unanswerable dilemmas like Ship of Theseus, Yanny or Laurel, and what the hell a cat’s ever doing. Enter “Malignant”.
In its best (worst?) moments, “Malignant” can feel like a museum tour through the history of horror. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, who witnesses a ghastly figure murder her abusive husband. She’s a suspect until that horror begins to stalk her. She boards up her windows and even resists the help of her sister Sydney.
It’s too late; a connection has been formed to whatever this horror is. Madison begins to psychically witness its murders in a sort of waking sleep paralysis, able to observe in her visions but unable to move in real life. Somehow, this all connects to a defunct lab that once experimented on children in a cliffside castle in the forests of Washington.
If you’re well versed in various horror genres, it’s a joy to see what a playground they become in director James Wan’s hands. Early scenes are reminiscent of his haunted house horrors like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, particularly when a barely visible shadow moves in fog and the murderous horror is presaged by electronics going haywire. It’s expertly done, and an early way of showing the audience just how capable Wan can be when he wants. This early showing off is important since the rest of the film goes in the opposite direction. Wan wants the audience to know that the filmmakers and actors could make a tense horror film if they wanted, but that they’d rather go for the height of campy schlock.
Every set of characters exists in a different horror genre, with that genre taking over when they’re front and center. The early haunted house vibe that Wan has resurrected and amped up from its 50s and more violent 80s roots gives way to 90s and 00s horror. Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss exist in that era’s world, reminiscent of “Copycat”, “Murder by Numbers”, or lord help us, “The Watcher”. These are all from a time before CBS decided the procedural should be regularized to the point of homogeneity. The police station is a direct lift from “Se7en”, just with more vibrant lighting.
Each of the murderer’s scenes takes place within a different genre as well. One borrows from 80s slashers, with the eventual murder weapon highlighted several times over before it’s actually used. Another takes place in an apartment overlooked by a glowing neon sign that basks the room in a giallo-red, Wan giving you those same close-ups and highlights as (literally) red herrings but then refusing to use them. That playfulness is ever-present.
The murderer moves unnaturally, climbing ceilings, needing a haircut, and disturbing electronics like ghosts in Japanese horror films. Then we see the murderer’s lair, an homage to 90s goth industrial art direction like you might see in Alex Proyas’s “The Crow” or “Dark City”. Of course, there needs to be at least one room with a giant wall fan because horror beasties…I don’t know, have bad allergies and need good air circulation?
Do you want an underground chase scene that references the failed 1997 adaptation of “The Relic”? Because “Malignant” is how you get it.
As Madison is terrorized by the murderer itself and her visions, she increasingly delivers her lines in that stilted style once developed in the 70s from non-English speaking actors and additional dialogue recording in European giallo films. The style’s hallmark is immediately recognizable for being both monotone and overdramatic, with deliberately misplaced stressed syllables and unexpected rising inflections that achieve an unsettling uncanny valley that doesn’t feel human. It’s so specific and it takes a huge amount of skill to get right, but it’s also something that outside of a giallo world just becomes funny and absurd.
Meanwhile, Madison’s sister Sydney is off in her own modern horror movie doing all the research and uncovering yet one more genre that we’ll watch alongside her: found footage horror.
This is such a mash, and I was guffawing in disbelief every time a character didn’t just do the obviously stupid horror movie cliché, but pushed straight past it so much that it became a deliberate performance of that cliché. There’s still enough skill behind it all – in both cast and crew – that the movie can switch into more genuine horror complete with scares at a moment’s notice.
“Malignant” is neither farce nor satire. Instead, it’s closer to a nonsense work in the literary sense. Literary nonsense, such as the kind written by Edward Lear, seeks to subvert conventions for the express reason of: nonsense. That doesn’t mean it’s directionless, it just means that the direction pulls an element of logical reasoning away from the structure of a story or its world so that we can peer in and see how nonsensical everything else becomes without it. “Alice in Wonderland” is literary nonsense. “House of Leaves” can be understood as a type of nonsense work. “Being John Malkovich” explains a little too much, but in a broad sense it can be understood as belonging to the nonsense genre.
As an intentional genre, nonsense is rare in almost every medium. The only place that might break this is performance art, where replacing logical progression with non sequiturs elicits unpredictable reactions from onlookers.
A nonsense horror movie budgeted at $40 million from an A-list director is unthinkable. It doesn’t happen. That makes me really glad “Malignant” exists. That’s a separate question from whether I like it, though.
I love “Malignant” – but only up to a point. I don’t mean a general boundary that it pushes or a metaphorical point it passes; I mean there’s a minute in the movie where I think it drops the ball and leaves it there. It’s not the much discussed 540-degree turn in the last act – I was on board with the way it embraces the most absurd aspects of 70s and 80s horror.
It wasn’t an amount of gore either. I am not a fan of torture horror like “Saw” or “Hostel”. I don’t judge someone who is; it’s just really not my thing. We all have genres we like and dislike. “Malignant” is bloody, but it actually had less gore than I was expecting. What’s there is treated with a cool distance, and where the movie does enter into body horror, it’s done in ways that evoke 80s underground films. In other words, while the gore’s there, it lacks the misanthropic notes and hyperrealism of torture horror. It’s also more cinematic than voyeuristic. It instead evokes the budget-limited creations of 80s creature horror.
The point where “Malignant” lost me – and I’ll only speak about genre to avoid spoilers here – is when it descends from its museum tour of horror and just becomes an action movie. It becomes more of a spoof here, and others might like those notes more than I do. To me, I wanted to stay in those horror lanes the film had asked me to enjoy for its first hour-and-a-half. It hadn’t been an action movie at all, and being asked to suddenly shift from all these lusciously realized horror flavors to a bloody take on “Matrix”-lite action felt like a let-down.
I would have been happier with a “watch the skies” style ending of a slasher, the emotionally abrupt cutoff of a giallo, or a lingering-too-long conclusion to character horror. Perhaps these wouldn’t have been nonsense enough, though. Maybe dropping horror and turning into an action movie is that final step of nonsense and I just wasn’t willing to take it because I was so happy with all the horror elements.
On the other hand, action offers harder genre anchors. “Malignant” meanders on such a dreamy cloud of constantly-swapping rhythms that pace is completely unimportant. Becoming an action film suddenly gives it a hard, overly familiar rhythm that abandons that floating lack of pace. That’s what I found jarring. It may be a nonsense genre switch, but the realization of it abandons other elements of nonsense I was enjoying a lot more.
What does that amount to? As much as I enjoyed most of “Malignant”, it doesn’t stick the landing for me personally. That leaves me with that initial question:
You have one extremely talented director like James Wan who wants to make a really good bad film. Everything he wants to accomplish, every element of bad movie he wants in there, it’s all achieved note-perfect.
Another director makes a bad film by succeeding in enough places to make us continue watching, but failing in notable ways. We’re tentatively invested, but the floor keeps falling out on it. The movie becomes bad unintentionally, and those failures become enjoyable.
Which one is the better bad movie? The question isn’t really important, but it highlights how “Malignant” is unique, for better or worse. “Malignant” is so intentional about its badness that it becomes a performance of badness, rather than just being bad. Both approaches are still enjoyable in many of the same ways, but from something like “Malignant”, we begin to expect perfection. If it deviates from what we want, even if it does it well, it gets shaky and leans a little bit more toward average, which isn’t as enjoyable as bad can be.
Yet with an unintentionally bad film, we expect that shakiness. We begin to welcome it. We’re not looking for perfection in its performance of anything else; we’re seeking the opposite. In fact, when it deviates from what we want, it leans more toward that badness, which is what makes us enjoy it in the first place.
This is the key difference between a perfectly achieved, intentional bad movie, and a faulty, unintentionally bad movie. One has to be perfect and exceed our expectations. It has to perform its role exceptionally. That’s “Malignant”. The other has to be faulty and fail our expectations. It has to do everything but perform its role.
“Malignant” is so good at being bad that it creates a trap for itself. It’s so perfectly done that the joy you can get out of it as a horror fan is essentially unique. Yet it lacks that looser, organic element to a bad horror movie that just lets you go with the flow and accept wherever it stumbles. “Malignant” might be the most perfect bad movie ever made, but in being so, that limits how good of a bad movie it can be.
Ship of Theseus. Prove God exists. Or doesn’t. The Munchhausen Trilemma. The Grandfather Paradox. Cats (in a box, walking through walls, etc). And now “Malignant”.
If you like those places where “Malignant” goes, you’re going to love it. It will be one of the most valuable and honest relationships to a horror movie you’ll ever make. It will be with you, whenever you need it, whenever you need to curl up under a blanket with hot cocoa and just smile and feel reassured at its ridiculousness for two hours – it will be there for you for the rest of your life.
If you can’t imagine why anyone would sit through anything I’ve described, you’re going to hate it. It’ll be like a date you realize is a mismatch in the first 20 minutes, where you’re either smart enough to get up and leave, or you will yourself to sit through it out of a misguided sense of politeness.
A lot of viewers may be like me. They may fall for it immediately and love where it goes, but feel betrayed when that horror movie fusion is traded out for another genre entirely. They may wonder where the movie they fell in love with went and why the movie wasn’t more forthright about everything from the start. Maybe it’s a commitment thing; the movie changed because it’s just not made to stay in the same place too long. That’s understandable. The viewer’s had fun and they’ve learned a lot. They’ll always treasure what really worked, but the magic has passed, and as much as it once felt right, this isn’t the movie they want to spend the rest of their life alongside. Maybe they can meet again, in a few years, once they’ve both changed a bit and can understand each other better. They’ll grab coffee. Maybe then, there’ll be comfort. Maybe they’ll just sit there out of politeness. Maybe they’ll go for it. Maybe the viewer will have moved on to James Wan’s “Malignant 2: The Patrick Wilson-Industrial-Complex”.
All three reactions are groovy. They’re just made for different viewers. People’s preferences for camp are all so specific and individualized that it may just be hard to tell whether you’ll like, love, or loathe it until you’re halfway in, giggling at its brash absurdity, wondering how humanity’s sunk this low, or both.
You can watch “Malignant” on HBO Max. Treat the movie as having content warnings for domestic abuse and miscarriage.
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