Friday, April 5, 2024

Cult Corner: MALIGNANT

 by Anthony King

A comic book movie masquerading as schlock.

September 10, 2021
Studios: New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster, Starlight Media, My Entertainment
Director: James Wan
Writers: Akela Cooper, James Wan, Ingrid Bisu
Cinematography: Michael Burgess
Composer: Joseph Bishara
Editors: Kirk M. Morri, Travis Cantey
Running Time: 111 minutes

Cast: Annabelle Wallis (Madison Mitchell), Maddie Hasson (Sydney Lake), George Young (Det. Kekoa Shaw), Michole Briana White (Det. Regina Moss), Jean Louisa Kelly (Serena), Susanna Thompson (Jeanne), Ingrid Bisu (Winnie)

Sibling-based cult movies: Adaptation (2002) Cat People (1982), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

Pairing recommendation: Brain Damage (1988)
I figured it was time to get to a movie that clearly belongs in the cult canon yet is one I dislike. A lot. A COVID casualty, Malignant's release date was pushed back a year from August 2020 to September 2021 due to the pandemic. After a light theatrical release in Europe, Warner Bros. tried a day-and-date release in the United States. The film was available to stream on HBO Max for a short period of time while also playing on screens across America. Due to the odd nature of release (that became the norm for a while) the film bombed at the box office with a worldwide gross of just under $35 million. This alone unequivocally qualifies Malignant as a cult film. So here we are.

I was one of the purportedly 753,000 “households” that streamed Malignant upon its initial release on HBO Max. I have been a fan of James Wan since Saw (2004). I'm one of the few that would consider Dead Silence (2007) a three-and-a-half to four-star movie. The first two Insidious films, and the first two Conjuring films are groundbreaking. I haven't seen Furious 7 (2015) or Aquaman (2018), but I suspect they're solid if not at least competently made. You could have considered me excited for his latest horror film. A modern master of horror going back to his roots after hitting big with a superhero movie. The “horror community,” if not the world, was a’buzz. When I saw Ghostbusters II (1989) it was the first time in my life of movie fandom that I was disappointed. And then it happened again the following year with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. From then on I was jaded enough (at eight years old) to not hold my movie hopes so high. So rarely was I ever let down like again (by movies) that I can't even remember a title that affected me. Until Malignant.
The film follows Madison, who has recently suffered yet another miscarriage on top of the brutal, mysterious murder of her abusive husband. Her sister, Sydney comes to visit and care for her sister. The detectives investigating the murder of Madison's husband look at the widow with suspicious eyes. Meanwhile there is a dark and elusive serial killer on the loose in Seattle killing doctors that treated him as a child, and Madison is able to see these murders during vivid dreams. It all comes to a head when everyone's past is revealed and an action-packed fight sequence tears through a floor of the hospital. While the overall story of a woman taking back control of her life after years of abuse is inspiring and admirable, and while the excitement of the director coming back to the genre that made him a sensation was palpable, Wan isn't able to escape his new title of Comic Book Movie Director. It seemed so much energy was put toward making an unforgettable supervillain that the two things that Wan excelled at in the past – story and character – were brushed aside. This is a shame because Malignant has the bones to be a very good if not all-time great horror movie.

For a while it seemed Hollywood was trying to force feed its minions (us) supervillain origin stories. Maybe they still are. Venom (2018), Brightburn (2019), and Morbius (2022) are just a few that come to mind. (I've seen two, and loved one; I'll let you guess.) I am a giant fan of the bad guy/monster perspective. Angst (1983) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) are masterpieces in my opinion. And both could be considered movies about trauma. While a few supervillain stories take a more jovial approach – the Suicide Squad films and its Harley Quinn spinoff – most seem to be forcemeat squeezed into a premade mold that leave no room for imagination or soul. Others, like Todd Phillips' Joker (2019), a movie I unapologetically love, take a different approach, wading into the trauma waters. Wan seemed to have taken the latter approach (trauma), given to him by Cooper and Bisu, and tried to incorporate some of the former (jovial). Unfortunately the mix doesn't work and it comes out soulless.
Perhaps too much time was focused on the action bits that none of the schlock really plays. Wan is obviously taking inspiration from another master of horror, Frank Henenlotter. A direct line could be drawn from Malignant to Henenlotter's similar film, Brain Damage, but the bones of the newer film are also crafted from Henenlotter's Frankenstein riff, Frankenhooker (1990), but especially his trilogy about siblings Duane and Belial, Basket Case (1982, 1990, 1991). I recently rewatched the first Basket Case on Arrow's new 4K edition. I'd first seen the film on a shitty VHS rip online and I absolutely hated it. Then I saw it again during The Last Drive In, where I hoped Joe Bob could have made me appreciate the film. Bupkis. So I had little hope that a new transfer could change my mind, yet, lo and behold, I finally found an appreciation for the film I'd been searching for. This gave me hope with Malignant. I hated the film during my first viewing, but I had hopes that my rewatch would shed new light upon it. No such luck. In fact, I disliked Malignant even more the second time around.
Perhaps too much time was focused on the action bits that none of the drama really plays. Trauma horror has been overplayed as of late. Hereditary (2018), Midsommer (2019), Doctor Sleep (2019), and The Invisible Man (2020) are four of the biggest titles and culprits of trauma horror. I love all four of those films, so I'm not averse to the theme when done to near perfection. All four movies mentioned go all in on the trauma. It's trauma first and foremost, followed by the horror aspect. Like Mick Garris always says, a horror movie is a drama first. Malignant, on the other hand, doesn't fully commit to either the trauma or the horror. It wants to be a comic book movie, which is the oil to horror trauma's water.
Malignant has its fans, though. Of the people I follow on Letterboxd, seven people gave the movie five stars. Five people gave it four-and-a-half stars. Twenty people gave it four stars. On the other end, one person gave it a half star, three gave it one, two gave it one-and-a-half, and five, like me, gave Malignant two stars. It could very well be a perfectly fine three-star movie, as its average on Letterboxd admits. I simply don't see it. Because of the film's rabid fans, and some of the above reasons, Malignant enters the Cult Corner with a bullet.

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