Why James Wan’s “Malignant” Is the Cult Horror Movie of 2021

“Bonkers.” “Disturbs.” “Spectacularly, shameless, crazy.” Few recent horror films have drawn such wacky raves as this year’s “Malignant”, the brazenly gory comeback of “Conjuring” director James Wan’s giallo. He earned instant cult status among horror fans with his daring twists, memorable moments, and memorable movie monster – a long-haired boogeyman named Gabriel with a penchant for murder and surprisingly nimble parkour skills.

Written by Akela Cooper and based on a story by Wan, Cooper and Ingrid Bisu, “Malignant” (now on digital and premium VOD and on its way to Blu-ray November 30) stars Annabelle Wallis as Madison, a woman plagued by grisly visions of a serial killer clad in a leather trench coat as brutal murders begin to pile up around Seattle.

This is just the start of a winding plot that reaches lyrical heights of terror, absurdity and intrigue, spiritually bringing Wan back to the roots of the independent genre of his early films while pushing the boundaries of grand horror. modern audience. Not to mention add an evil new fashion icon to your Halloween costume vision board! If you missed “Malignant,” now is the time to add it to your must-see list.

Warning: Spoilers follow for the horror film “Malignant”.

Since Wan’s “Saw”, “Insidious” and “Conjuring” horror franchises regularly cross the $ 100 million mark, it may be tempting to reduce the $ 33.2 million in global “Malignant” revenue. – originally slated for a pre-COVID summer 2020 release, then moved to a hybrid debut in theaters and on HBO Max last month – to a rare commercial stumble. Taking a brief detour from making tentpoles, he turns to the fences with R-rated slasher violence and nods to Italian thrillers, Gothic Hammer horror and sinister 1980s B movies and 1990 in a film much crazier than its recent successes.

But for Wan, a horror nerd who kicked off his career with the brutal “Saw” films alongside fellow Australian Leigh Whannell, and one of the most prolific makers of genre dishes in the studio today, ” Malignant “also offered something supremely alluring: the chance to do something inexplicable.

“I’ve become very synonymous with the horror genre, so I know there are a lot of expectations surrounding the genre of movies I’m releasing,” says Wan, video chat from London, where he directs “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. “. the sequel to his $ 1.1 billion blockbuster 2018 for Warner Bros., which also distributed “Malignant”. “But I hate being labeled. So for me it was about breaking the expectations that I know people have of me. “

Filmmaker James Wan on the set of “Malignant.

(Matt Kennedy / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Wary of being known as “the scary guy” and “the guy who ghosts in a haunted house,” Wan decided to go out on his own label. He quietly filmed “Malignant” in Los Angeles between big budget “Aquaman” photos. Upon its September release, positioned as a moody domestic mystery thriller with a marketing campaign that masked its twists and turns, the risky and radical “Malignant” surpassed the average audience but spawned viral affection and revenability from fans. kind of hungry for something. cool and unpredictable.

“I grew up with ’80s horror movies,” Cooper says. ” I want to see them. So, seeing the reactions of people who are like, “Holy s—, this movie just got off the rails in act 3!” and they enjoyed it – that was the point. This is what the horror lacks.

If you understand what the film is about, the fun of “Malignant” is contagious, from its dizzying tonal changes to brutal killings to the campy flourishes flashing from the rafters. Its finest details are among its most strangely delicious, proof that Wan & Co. is having a blast. The way a character inexplicably parks their car near the edge of a cliff? “I take full responsibility for it,” laughs Wan.

Another Wan Special: The superhuman precision displayed by the antagonist of “Malignant” as he throws an office chair into the air and across a massive room, knocking out two running targets like a discus thrower. Olympian – a moment not in Cooper’s original script and another “breadcrumb” that tells viewers what kind of movie they’re watching.

A man in glasses holds his hand next to a camera

Director James Wan on the set of “Malignant”.

(Ron Batzdorff / Warner Bros. Pictures)

“There are things you write down and then James will do and it’s like, ‘Oh, James was having fun that day,’” Cooper said with a smile. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have written of our villain throwing a chair across the room in WWE.”

“Malignant” was first born when Wan and Bisu, who are married, began to bounce around an idea of ​​her while they were at home with their dogs. “I’ve always been obsessed with medical abnormalities and the idea of ​​parasitic twins,” says Bisu, an actor of Romanian origin (“Toni Erdmann”, “The Nun”, “Conjuring 3”), who is also a producer executive and appears in “Malignant” as a romantic crime scene technician named Winnie.

They presented a rough story treatment with character and intrigue points and ideas that would later become a spectacular action sequence set in a jail cell and police station. Cooper, who had written the upcoming horror thriller “M3GAN” and is currently writing “The Nun 2” for Wan’s production company Atomic Monster, came to meet them. Bisu asked, “Have you heard of a teratoma?”

Cooper had grown up on a Missouri farm devouring Stephen King novels like “Pet Sematary” until the sun came up. Watching ’80s horror with her family – movies like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Hellraiser II” and “Pumpkinhead” – also left its mark on her young imagination and sent her on the way to life. writing fantastic genres and horror stories. “I saw ‘aliens’ in theaters sitting on my mother’s lap,” Cooper says through a computer surrounded by collectibles from movie monsters.

She clicked with Wan and Bisu, and was indeed familiar with teratomas – a friend had had surgery to remove one. Cooper has added emotional layers to Madison’s journey as a woman who has faced domestic violence and a series of miscarriages, but who also finds love and support in her relationship with her foster sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson ).

“Akela took everything we had planned and she had to flesh it out,” says Wan. “She found the heart of what Madison went through.”

For inspiration, Cooper turned to Irvin Kershner’s “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978), starring Faye Dunaway as a photographer who sees visions of brutal murders, and the 1993 adaptation King. by George A. Romero “The Dark Half”, who finds a novelist in Putting the screenplay on screen, Wan, cinematographer Michael Burgess and composer Joseph Bishara have borrowed heavily from the stylized films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, wearing their gender influences on their sleeves.

A woman lying with her eyes wide open

“Malignant”, starring Annabelle Wallis, shows her Italian horror influences.

(Photos Warner Bros.)

Wallis, who previously starred in the “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle,” channeled the touchstones that Wan describes as “Barbara Steele meets Shelley Duvall from” The Shining, “while the grotesque Gabriel invoked the Cronenberg’s body horror and a Raimi-esque sense of fun. To bring it to life, Wan’s team combined skilled physical performers, voice actor Ray Chase, animatronics, a stunt team, and visual effects.

“I thought I would do a lot of trickery to be successful,” says Wan, who experimented with puppetry and reverse reading before performer and contortionist Marina Mazepa was chosen to perform Gabriel’s physical action, upside down. “She was literally able to do like the whole fight scene – I’m not kidding – in reverse choreography,” Wan said, excitedly pulling out his phone to share a behind-the-scenes look.

Leaning into the euphoria of “Malignant” seemed good, despite an original finale that was much darker and didn’t leave much room for a sequel. “That ending was really powerful,” says Bisu, “but we felt like [Madison] deserved a happier ending.

A woman on the phone looks scared

A moment of tension in “Malignant”, with Annabelle Wallis.

(Ron Batzdorff / Warner Bros. Pictures)

Listening to his instincts the other way around also left Cooper feeling empowered. Encouraged by Wan to write Det. Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Det. Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) as people of color, Cooper was happy to see them both survive to the end. “A lot of times as a black writer and for writers of color you prepare for an argument,” Cooper told me days later during a Q&A at the Nightstream Film Festival. “Obviously James and I grew up, we didn’t see each other much in horror movies – and if we did, they were the first to die, or I ended up sacrificing myself to save the White Lady. “

“Now, however, as I gained more experience and write more and more mainstream [projects], I’m just going ahead and making the characters characters of color, “continues Cooper, who has several film and television projects in development and is co-executive producer of the upcoming Paramount + series” Star Trek: Strange New Worlds ”. “And they live.”

Hollywood needs more risk-taking films, says Wan, who hopes “Malignant” might help persuade even a few executives to open the door to new types of horror.

“I hear directors, once they reach a certain level, they talk about wanting to do this filming again, like they did when they started, to get back to big swings, ”he says. “But they never do, because they’re afraid to do it.”

“And maybe I should be afraid. Maybe it will come back to haunt me and my career in some ways. But you know what? I’m happy to see the reactions [to ‘Malignant’]. Makes me think I took a big swing and that’s a good thing. Otherwise, people like me will continue to make safe films. And I don’t want to do this.

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