There was a point while I was watching James Wan’s MALIGNANT when my eyeballs fell out of my head and rolled across the floor. I had to get down on my hands and knees, scoop them up and push the damn bastards back into my skull. It’s been far too long since a movie has surprised me to such a degree and I think I’d almost forgotten what a glorious experience that is. The brazen originality is even more astounding when you consider that the lion’s share of the film plays like a stroll through the horror section of a video store. It’s almost a Where’s Waldo? of horror homage; a colorful kaleidoscope spitting out splinters of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (’64), SUSPIRIA (’77), PHENOMENA (’85), NEXT OF KIN (’82), THE SENDER (’82), I MADMAN (89), DARKMAN (’90), BASKET CASE (’82), BRAIN DAMAGE (’88), SCISSORS (’91), HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL(’99), GOTHICA (’03) and so many more. Personally it made me feel like a pig in slop as so much of the set-up felt like a big budget remake of my personal pet fave MADHOUSE (‘81). But then, just as you’re snuggling into the safety of the familiar parading by to the beat of one fantastic score, the entire highly stylized snow globe is turned on its head and shook ferociously and an incredibly novel and exciting new beast emerges.
Annabelle Wallis (who’s got a wonderful Juliette Binoche meets Mary Steenburgen in DEAD OF WINTER (’87) vibe going on) plays Madison Mitchell, a very troubled and very pregnant woman with an abusive husband and a repressed past (her younger self is played by the always excellent Mckenna Grace). One evening her home is invaded by a sinister, shadowy figure that leaves her with a mutilated hubby, a null and void pregnancy and a big giant bouquet of flashbacks to a traumatizing childhood and psychic visions of murders as they occur. Madison is my favorite type of horror heroine in that she is an unapologetic, freaked-out mess that everyone thinks is crazy until the inevitable moment they do some light research and find the files that explain everything…well, almost everything. Lots of folks are going to find the over-the-top acting style and sometimes comic book-like approach a little too hokey to handle but I honestly found it refreshing not to be weighed down with tired faux-gritty “realism”. This flick is a long way from SAW (’04) and the further away we get from SAW the happier I seem to be.
MALIGNANT needn’t worry about cynical audiences and lukewarm box-office. This bad boy is destined to be obsessed over endlessly. No, it’s not for everybody but thems the breaks when you draw outside the lines and stake new ground. I get the feeling Wan followed his heart and made exactly the film he wanted to and maybe he too was missing the broad colorful strokes and heights of fantasy horror achieved in less dour decades. In the end, it doesn’t matter what specific titles or sub-genres influenced Wan, by and large he clearly meant to remind of us of a time when movies were freer and more fun and that goal was exceedingly met. I for one can’t stop thinking about this wild, phantasmic explosion of dream-like insanity and I’m so grateful knowing that I can still find myself completely shell-shocked by a horror film.