Malignant starts off with a child murdering a bunch of people in a research hospital. A doctor gets thrown through a door, the emergency lights blinker the hallway in flashes of sterile green, and the camera runs up to the face of the head physician as she says, with all the fervor of a battle-hardened general, “Take him down now!” Someone shoots a dart from a rifle, a body thuds off-screen. We’re treated to a room filled with carnage, bodies strewn on the ground, the entire place bathed in red light, with the briefest glimpse of what appears to be discarded alien concept art from Independence Day. The head physician says to the concept art, “You’ve been a very bad boy!” and “It’s time to cut out the cancer,” before a booming credits sequence plays like the opening of Se7en on steroids. Director James Wan chuckles to himself in the editing room, tosses a kernel of popcorn into his mouth, texts Patrick Wilson, “lol I’ve done it again!!!!”
I know everyone wants to talk about this movie’s third act. At such a point, a reveal occurs that, depending on how much you’ve been paying attention, is either the most delightfully absurd thing you’ve seen in a long, long time or an expected, yet insanely executed twist. But we are talking about a James Wan movie, which means we are talking about a vehicle for preposterousness that inspires one to ask, “How much money did they give him?”
Twists and turns are abundant in Malignant. This is not necessarily the hallmark of a James Wan movie. His flair for the ridiculous and nonsensical does play a role in why his movies are so much fun. And it’s true that Malignant’s central conceit, which functions on a healthy diet of head trauma, amputations, hysterical screaming, and an acrobatic imaginary friend who somehow controls electricity, is easily his most outlandish yet. The Ringer calls it the “one of the most bizarre movie experiences in years,” comparing it to Venom if it were a giallo film. The point I think they’re trying to make is that James Wan is a director whose grin you can see carved into the foundation of every movie he makes, and it’s a grin that becomes infectious.
The line from Saw through The Conjuring, Furious 7, and Aquaman to Malignant is straight. Each movie acquires more and more of the crystalline digital garishness that lets you see clearly down an actor’s ear canal. The lighting blasts characters from all directions, in all manner of colors, with all manner of particulates in the air (Malignant has some of the brightest police dash strobes I’ve seen in my life). Wan’s camera becomes more and more detached from both reality and the idea that a person could be holding it, spinning and twirling in unbroken cuts like he wants to ride on the rollercoaster again one more time, please. Characters that appear as children in one scene somehow retain the exact same haircut into adulthood. Actors communicate in a language of exaggerated facial expressions and shrieks, like they’re starring in a soap opera rather than a multimillion dollar Hollywood movie.
Wan favors maximalism. Patrick Wilson yelling “AHHHHHH” in almost every scene he’s in in Aquaman, and the octopus playing drums, also in Aquaman. Cars backing out of planes in Furious 7; the incomprehensibly earnest, saccharine love story at the center of The Conjuring franchise. Little morsels that only someone with Michael Bay-like enthusiasm could be convinced will resonate with audiences. I mean, he’s right because here I am talking about it. But I keep asking myself what this says (“says”) about the things people want from studio films. It’s rare to hear about a mid-range, well-marketed movie from a place like Warner Bros. through word-of-mouth anymore. Even less so to witness that director’s trajectory, from indie horror films to blockbuster action franchises, and see the exact same elements at play every time.
This speaks to talent, sure. Wan makes the case that finding success with a big budget is as tricky as finding critical success along more serious, dramatic routes. The scares in his horror films are consistently well-constructed and inventive, his action sequences legible and kinetic. But there’s something else, something even less sophisticated: I think Wan wants to see what audiences will let him get away with, but without thinking of himself as separate from them. Wan seems to crave the kind of cinematic experience that makes you glad there are other people in a theater with you. Forget studio metrics or lame actorly considerations like dignity. Character dialogue will consist of things like, “I’ve wanted a blood-connection my whole life” and, “War is coming to the surface and I’m bringing the wrath of the seven seas with me!” Bones will pop out of skin like champagne corks. The ghosts will look shockingly glamorous and simultaneously terrifying. It’s a gas. James Wan is a madman who loves to say, “Yes and…”
In an interview with The Verge, he said, “If I can get the audience to connect with the characters emotionally … then I always feel like I can sort of put them in the most outrageous circumstances, and the audience is okay to go with that. Because I’m grounding the audience by the emotion of the characters. And whether it’s this action film, or it’s the horror movies that I do, I can put the characters in the most messed-up situations because I’ve set them up like this. That, to me, is the key.” That’s sort of true, but I don’t think anyone would mistake the behavior and reactions of Wan’s characters as “grounded.” It’s not bad. Heightened, maybe. Borderline impressionistic, almost definitely.
I could stick my neck out and do something like compare Wan to Hitchcock, but that wouldn’t do either of them justice. People need to be freed from the mental prison that charts movies on a grade of “good” to “bad,” movies that “say something” versus those that are “worthless.” It’s more about if they mean something to you, if they elicit a response you want more of. I won’t harp on how the studio system is completely broken, making directors like Wan something of a rare breed. But I will step into line with many others and offer the contention that the delights of absurdity and cackle-inducing melodrama are just as consequential as any self-serious message movie. And really, our desert island movies aren’t the ones that made us the saddest or make us seem smart, but the ones we want to watch over and over again. Luckily, James Wan makes those by the bucketload.