This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

In both formal and narratological terms, James Wan's Malignant has an “ungrounded” quality; that is, it seems fervently unconcerned with verisimilitude and anything resembling gravity. The plot is all forward momentum, lacking a consistently locatable POV (this flies in the face of philosopher Noël Carroll’s insistence that the “mirroring-effect” between viewer and character “is a key feature of the horror genre”). Granted, the plot-specific utility of the film’s slippery perspective becomes clear by the time the resolution arrives, but for most of its runtime it all plays out as rather cartoonish, elastic, emotionally removed. This might sound like a negative criticism, but I kind of appreciated that the film consistently urged me to reconsider my expectations around affect and tone.

Viewed strictly as an aesthetic object, the film is rewarding. Wan foregrounds his enthusiasm for imaginative camera direction, especially in his approach to sustained action sequences. Undoubtedly drawing on the technical tools afforded him via his experience on Aquaman, the director focuses primarily on fluid movement rather than ceding to contemporary mainstream preferences for snippets of telegraphed visual information. It also seems that Wan might have taken some inspiration from his frequent collaborator, Leigh Whannell, whose Upgrade and The Invisible Man take similar approaches to action. Having said that, I must note that Malignant is a far richer and more interesting film than The Invisible Man, which functions primarily as a conduit for obvious talking points mined from social media discourse (gaslighting, mental health), totally bereft of nuance.

Now, onto the content... If viewed in a hasty, uncritical way, then James Wan's horror cinema from 2010 onward might be interpreted as "conservative" or even "regressive," a return to past supernatural tropes whose threats are resolved through powers of normative affirmation (religion, the nuclear family, "order," etc.). With this in mind, Malignant is interesting in that it (re)inhabits a framework very specific to popular 1970s American horror fiction and cinema: namely, the interest in “evil twins” (see Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Brian De Palma’s Sisters) and telepathy/telekinesis (I was reminded of Dean Koontz’s The Vision more than once, but it is perhaps more worthwhile to observe how the film draws on the sociopolitical allegory and narrative strategies of Stephen King’s classic novel, Carrie, and Brian De Palma’s formally exuberant adaptation).

Wan is genre-savvy enough to summon certain familiar components of “the monstrous-feminine” (a theory proposed by feminist critic Barbara Creed that identifies horror’s recurring, restrictive roles for depictions of women and femininity) only to upend and brazenly subvert them. Here, the horror is located as a male parasite leeching off the feminine mind and body, a monstrosity whose face is a masculinist penchant for violence, vengeance, and destruction. It is no coincidence that I mentioned De Palma twice above, because it seems that Wan might be consciously (or unconsciously) quoting from that filmmaker’s approach to genre: formal bombast that demonstrates real allegiance to film’s value as aesthetic object, and a coyly disruptive approach to genre forms that still respects its legacies. I could go on and on about this picture's relationship to Carrie (maybe someday).

Admittedly, there are a few too many moments of loud self-awareness (Scream is a masterpiece, and Craven and Williamson are geniuses, but I would like to see American horror cinema finally crawl out from that film’s shadow). Also, the film’s free-floating approach to drama and characterization prevents it from achieving the kind of power we see in works from genre masters like those named above (King, De Palma, Tryon, etc.). Nevertheless, for a piece of popular mainstream entertainment released in the parched landscape that is 2021 genre cinema (a seemingly endless procession of Social Commentary about as subtle and compelling as an air horn at a sports match), I will certainly take it.

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