In an ideal world, word of mouth would supplant all marketing material, especially for movies. Case in point: many horror fans will soon flock to see Malignant, director James Wan’s newest scary offering. Having seen it as a result of its trailer, I wished it would’ve been either the type of movie it’s sold as or the brilliant work of insanity it could have become. Instead of, you know, lingering in a four-quadrant imaginary box of kooky missed opportunities.
Malignant in a Nutshell
Here’s the spoiler-free setup. Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a domestic abuse victim with an at-risk pregnancy, dreams of murder. Specifically, she sees strangers in her dreams succumb to a funky looking wraith who calls itself Gabriel. Picture it as a goth Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2 with a grasp of electricity beyond flickering lightbulbs.
Soon enough, Madison realizes that not only are real people dying, but she’s “witnessing” the crimes being committed in real time through her visions. Cue her obligatory backstory as a troubled orphan with repressed childhood memories of a shady medical facility, back when Gabriel was both her “imaginary friend” and “the devil.” Can she unravel Gabriel’s true nature, as well as what binds them both, before the cops pin everything on her? Or worse, before Gabriel kills her and those she loves?
Film Marketing 101
What does this all have to do with marketing? Movie trailers, posters and the like have the simple mission of convincing you to buy a ticket. One of their most common tricks is to tie a film to other IP on which its creators were involved. Hence the Malignant campaign hinges on Wan’s pedigree.
The marketing guys at Warner Bros. would have you believe Malignant is in the vein of previous Wan projects like Insidious or The Conjuring. The presence of Annabelle alum Wallis would seem to support this. Truth be told, the movie actually shares more DNA with the baroque wackiness Wan showcased as the director of trippy superhero flick Aquaman.
Speaking of superhero movies, Warner’s own Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Suicide Squad were all responses to fan backlash at Warner’s failed attempt to out-Marvel Marvel Studios with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. That, plus a popular hit-song-heavy movie trailer, turned the original Suicide Squad into an over-stylized music video. In contrast, the original visions of both Wan and Patty Jenkins took Aquaman and Wonder Woman, respectively, to the heights of both critical acclaim and commercial success.
Held Back by Expectations
Likewise, I suspect studio pressure to sell Malignant as full-on horror forced Wan to dial up the suspense. The film thus simmers in ineffective moodiness for an hour, suposedly to please the fans. A shame, really, since Malignant does find its footing nearly two-thirds of the way through as a no-holds-barred homage to Sam Raimi circa Evil Dead II and Darkman. Clues abound that the whole of Malignant was meant to be this more in-your-face version implied by the climax. The opening sequence. The foot chase. The part where music composer Joseph Bishara channels Where Is My Mind? from the Pixies.
I blame marketing because, as a horror veteran, James Wan could direct a by-the-numbers version of Malignant in his sleep. However, the James Wan behind this Malignant long outgrew the plucky nerd that, together with film school pal Leigh Whannell, birthed the Saw phenomenon. Wan, Whannell and their peers have basically redefined the genre for nearly two decades with franchises like Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. Of course they are capable of doing much better by now.
Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve
Maybe that’s my beef with Malignant, the fact that you can clearly see the better, campier version of the movie right there below a thin layer covered in scare tactics and grit for grit’s sake. There are enough horror tropes here for genre fans, who will most likely not focus on my peeves. Technically speaking, the entire production is top notch and every department is firing on all cylinders.
Wallis, specifically, proves game to carry Malignant in whatever direction it chooses to go. She brings her scream queen cred from Annabelle, as expected. Her “classic Hollywood” screen presence, reminiscent of Angelina Jolie’s, shines through even under pitch black wigs and fugly wardrobe. Both Wallis and Mckenna Grace, who plays Madison as a kid, channel the character’s trauma even under the limitations the plot puts upon them. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Ray Chase stands out as the voice of Gabriel. Michole Briana White does double duty as the no-nonsense cop and the requisite comic relief.
To be clear, I have no problem with a bait-and-switch. So long as the filmmaker, free of studio pressure, can do it subvert expectations in a satisfying way. Think of William Brent Bell in The Boy, M. Night Shyamalan at his best, or even Wan’s bestie Whannell. Both share cinema sensibilities as frequent collaborators. However, I’d argue Wan became a more visual director while Whannell evolved into a better storyteller. Had Wan given Malignant the air-tight pacing Whannell showcased as director of The Invisible Man and sci-fi gem Upgrade, an instant classic would’ve been born.
Total lack of expectation these days is a privilege reserved for endangered species like film critics, channel surfers and the “pick-something-for-me” streaming service crowd. Dear reader, you already knew whether you wanted to watch Malignant or not, well before you started reading this article. Do you seek validation for your predeterminate choice, like Neo to the Oracle? “I liked Malignant” and “I wish Malignant could have been more” is about all I can offer you.
Fortunately, Malignant has enough scares and surprises to make it worth a genre fan’s time. Wan and his screenwriters, Akela Cooper and Ingrid Bisu, have created an original monster movie with true franchise potential. They even managed to give it the obligatory “ominous adjective” horror title that nevertheless actually works in the context of the film. My advice, rather than to lower expectations, would be to skip the trailers and just embrace the experience.
Now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.
Movie title: Malignant
Movie description: A serviceable horror entry that nevertheless fails to reach the heights of insanity its plot hints at from the start
Date published: 2021-09-12
Director(s): James Wan
Actor(s): Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace