Cinema is a form of content and expression, and one that will hopefully never vanish. Even through the past year and a half, dealing with a pandemic and an increasing amount of options for watching content, cinema remains a constant.
With this ever-changing landscape, the industry has always been able to rely upon horror. Ever since “John Carpenter’s Halloween” was released in 1978, the horror genre has been a mainstay at the domestic box office.
A film with a measly budget of just about $300,000 placing eighth at the domestic box office is the perfect blueprint for other studios to use to succeed financially. After more than 40 years, these frightening flicks are still the most reliable form of entertainment on the big screen.
Other genres have birthed eras of their own and have briefly worn the crown. These genres include: high-concept action, romantic comedies, coming-of-age, fantasy, and most recently, comic books. Despite these moments in film history, horror has been there to keep things chaotic and exciting for the most part.
That’s not to say that horror has not gone through its own growing pains and evolution either. Different eras in horror are very easy to spotlight. The 1980s were prime time for the slasher boom: “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” etc. The 1990s saw an unfortunate era, which mainly consisted of over-produced and poorly received slashers that were too self-aware. These films had been cast full of TV stars and flash-in-the-pan actors, which was an attempt to copy the classic “Scream” formula, but to differing success.
Moving into the aughts, Hollywood combined two lesser universally beloved genres: remakes and torture porn. The early 2010s saw the rebirth of haunted house or possession movies like “The Conjuring,” the “Insidious” universe, and “Paranormal Activity.”
And now, with films such as “The Witch,” “Get Out,” “Hereditary,” “Midsommar,” “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and “The Lighthouse,” we are firmly in the “highbrow” horror movie moment. This term I find disrespectful to the genre as a whole because it implies that any other subgenre is dull or below average. However, this is certainly not the case because formulating a film to fit a mature and convoluted style does not make it necessarily good, (I’m looking at you “Velvet Buzzsaw” and “Antebellum.”)
Since the birth of the 2000s gore boom, the man who has been more on top than arguably anyone else in the industry is James Wan. The creator of “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring,” Wan has been one of the most successful and influential filmmakers in the last 20 years. These franchises have garnered over $1.2 billion at the domestic box office.
On top of this, Wan has directed two of the most financially successful films of the last decade outside of horror; “Furious 7” and “Aquaman.” So the question is this: When you become so powerful in an industry and studios owe you because of the accolades you have brought them, what is your next step?
If you ask Wan, I think his answer would be to direct one of the most refreshing and absolutely ludicrous films that anyone in American cinema has produced in a very long time – his newest release, “Malignant.”
Word spread over the last two years in the horror community that Wan was going to adapt a giallo film for western audiences. Giallo is a popular subgenre of horror that typically centers around a murder mystery. Derived from Italy and peaking in popularity in the 1970s, this genre is very unknown to the casual moviegoer. Even avid film fanatics still may be unfamiliar with the subgenre unless they are deep into the horror lexicon.
“Malignant” is a difficult film to explain without getting into spoilers, which I will not do. To put it best and to attempt to simplify a rather insane story, a woman who is involved in an abusive relationship has a miscarriage, which is then followed by several deaths of those she knows. With the help of detectives and her sister, they attempt to unravel the mystery of who is committing these heinous acts and solve the gruesome mystery.
This film does have many characteristics that would help it identify as giallo. This includes the previously mentioned detective side plot of a woman who is typically in an abusive or distressing relationship, and a killer who dons all black attire while taking victims in extremely violent ways with an oddly beautiful weapon of destruction.
Wan nails the aesthetic of a giallo killer with this film’s villain known as Gabriel. This character has collected much attraction from horror fans and appears to be on the same level as such iconic horror characters like The Babadook, Red from 2019s “Us,” and The Lipstick-Face Demon from the “Insidious” films.
The movement and portrayal of Gabriel is genuinely disturbing and hard to take your eyes off. The cast also executes the material to the best of their abilities, especially with Annabelle Wallis in the lead, Maddie Hasson as her sister, and George Young as the head detective on the case. These performances are unabashedly over the top, and the cast is well aware of the type of film that they are in.
This is another credit to Wan, as this style of film and his script are from a time capsule of a different era. Wan stated that he wished for this film to feel like one that someone would find in the back of a video store in the 80s. Without a shadow of a doubt, Wan succeeds at hitting this mark.
“Malignant” feels like it is a prime candidate for horror legend Joe Bob Briggs and his TV show, which showcases niche horror films that deserve more attention. Unfortunately, it also feels like a prime candidate for the most misunderstood film of the year.
Due to a combination of Wan’s previous filmography and poor marketing, “Malignant” will likely receive its fair share of negative reviews and frustrated customers.
The trailer for the film intends for the viewer to expect yet another Conjuring-esque movie, but this film is nothing like that, not in the slightest. Those films are very polished and have a distinct sense of direction and storytelling. “Malignant,” on the other hand, does not feel the need to explain anything to its audience. We go on this adventure with the characters and attempt to unravel who is committing these acts and why.
Many films nowadays will unnaturally reveal plot and motives justified by the fear that audiences may have to consider some clues by themselves and interpret a mystery alone. Movie culture has regretfully moved into a time where everyone feels the need to pick apart every aspect of a story. This takes away from the visceral sensation of allowing your mind to be in the hands of an artist who wants to make you feel a unique and refreshing state of emotions.
Do not go into “Malignant” expecting a date-night feature where you can use a jump scare as an excuse to grab your partner’s hand. This film will make you regret buying the snacks you bought because you’ll lose your appetite and become enthralled in the motion of the movie.
Wan offers a subgenre of horror that I would wager to say the audiences are new to and throws them off into the deep end. Although “Malignant” is certainly inspired by giallo films, it also borrows from the exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s.
Wan takes a very similar plot to the one shown in the 1982 bonkers film “Basket Case.” From Frank Henenlotter and made with a budget of $35,000, it follows two brothers seeking revenge on doctors who tormented them when they were younger.
“Malignant” is violent, rollicking fun, while also being delightfully dumb. Beautifully choreographed with scenes reflecting those that Wan developed in “Aquaman,” “Malignant” is scored brilliantly and features a soul-stirring cover of “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies. The film is also acted with the bravado of Tom Selleck entering a competition for best mustache.
“Malignant” appears to be Wan approaching a studio and asking to have total creative control on a film as a reward for the success he has brought them. Despite the mixed reactions from the casual moviegoers, Wan’s newest feature is a refreshing change of pace during a moment in the industry where it’s difficult to pull off camp and over-the-top stories while still being respected.
The film has only grossed a worldwide total of about $30 million in comparison to its $40 million dollar budget. Although it is still early, it is difficult to see how “Malignant” can make a serious profit. Despite this outcome, studios should keep pushing for more films like this one.
I believe the upcoming era of horror films should progress toward pleasing romps created by capable filmmakers who can balance the tone of a thrilling film while still being well-made and having a specific identity.
Studios have intelligently taken established properties and rebooted them to fit social issues and current conversations. 2018’s “Halloween” focuses heavily on believing victims and female empowerment. This year’s “Candyman” maintains the original film’s focus on race relations and gentrification, while “Spiral,” the “Saw” spinoff concentrated on police reform.
These films have resulted in mixed critical and audience reception. Although on paper this combination seems clever, I believe viewers now more than ever are seeking content that they can rely on to escape and feel emerged in a fictional world as opposed to one that always insists on reflecting the world we live in.
For instance, the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels honed in on a more easygoing and less serious version of the story, resulting in the most successful box office results in the franchise. The “Child’s Play” franchise had a similar outcome as well. Chucky has been chugging along for five decades now with the same storyline. This franchise is so successful because it trusts its committed and intelligent fans.
The “Friday the 13th” series has had a stronger cult following with new younger fans as the franchise tragically lays dormant for the time being. Which brings me to my final point: James Wan is the key to any studio that wants to spark attention, love and respect into any popular IP.
Wan made “Aquaman” earn over $1 billion and had people thinking the once punchline character is radical. Therefore, Wan should be put in charge of the “Friday the 13th” reboot. This series hasn’t had a film since 2009 and needs to come back pronto.
Fans miss seeing Jason Voorhees cause mayhem. Those films work best when they are silly, exaggerated, well-paced events that still maintain the gore and mature content to give it that edge that makes it so taboo and engrossing. These are all aspects of filmmaking that Wan excels in.
Horror films should not all be the same. Patterns in film are inevitable, but outliers are necessary to create new fans and craft passionate stories. It is time for a new beginning in the world of this often-overlooked film genre, and I believe that “Malignant” and James Wan are just a small example of how important change is, both financially and artistically.
“Malignant” is certainly a film worth your time – that is as long as you are open to being buckled into a roller coaster that you haven’t seen the layout of before buying a ticket. HBO MAX is a suitable platform to enjoy this flick, and James Wan deserves much more attention as a powerhouse in the film industry moving forward.