How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Really Enjoy Malignant

My fraught history with horror and James Wan’s wacky new movie.

When I was around 12 years old, I spent the night at my friend’s house to go through a right of passage: seeing my first modern horror movie. The first three Friday the 13th movies were playing back to back on HBO, and we stretched our sleeping bags out in front of the TV to watch all of them. I remember being so proud of myself by the time the last one ended! I’d discovered that the movies weren’t nearly as scary as I’d been imagining from their reputation, and were in fact just goofy fun. I’d conquered my fears!

Then we turned out the lights, everyone went to sleep, and I experienced another right of passage: the first time I stayed awake until sunrise. Every time I glanced out a window, I saw Jason peeking in. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured Jason crushing a guy’s skull with his bare hands, or slicing a guy in two while he was doing a handstand. It seemed like forever until everyone else woke up and I could grab my sleeping bag and nervously power-walk back to the safety of my own bedroom.

The reason I mention all of that is because it will never not be weird to me that there’s an entire genre of movie — an entire genre of entertainment — that I can experience and have absolutely no control over my reaction to it. It’s an unpredictable physical reaction to what’s usually an intellectual activity.

Now, I assure you that I’m not actually an alien, sent to Earth to learn to live like the hu-mans. I understand that for as long as there have been horror movies, they’ve been sold in terms of a physical reaction: “pulse-pounding,” “spine-tingling,” etc. I know that that physical reaction is a crucial part of the appeal for some people.

But man, what a drag, when you want to be the type of person who can casually watch horror movies or play horror video games. Or when the rest of the US seems to want to make Halloween happen earlier and earlier this year, and I’m inundated with footage from haunted house events and I’m left feeling like Jews must feel from November to January. Imagine if I couldn’t make it through romantic comedies without being overwhelmed with anxiety that I’d pass out!

Which is a real possibility. Certain scenes in Un Chien Andalou and Audition made me experience what felt like a gray-out: tunnel vision, ringing in my ears, and a light-headedness that left me unable to process what was happening. I can’t handle the sight of blood, either, fake or real. Both are something that I thought I could just man up and eventually get over it. But after 50 years and the past several years spent as a frequent guest in hospitals, I’ve seen a lot of blood and feel no closer to being able to mind-over-matter it. (I hope I never have to see a dialysis machine ever again; it’s such a perversion that they actually look like ICEE machines created by Satan).

The most frustrating aspect is that it’s so unpredictable. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s well made or not; I mentioned those two murder scenes from Friday the 13th Part 3 in particular because they’re so silly. Even as a kid, I could tell that they were absurd and gimmicky, but that’s what made them so memorable. Sometimes the least significant thing will set me off, playing in constant rotation in my brain for weeks. I love Edgar Wright’s Don’t trailer from Grindhouse more than words can express, and there are even shots in that which turn my stomach. And while I understand intellectually that the whole point of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer is to be offensively over the top, it’s still too much for me. It’s weird understanding that the room full of razor wire in the original Suspiria is pure nonsense, but still shuddering and having to close my eyes at the thought of it.

Meanwhile, almost every time I try to check out the popular horror movie of the moment, I leave disappointed: The Conjuring bored me, Paranormal Activity just pissed me off. The last ones I actually went to see close to their time of release were Happy Death Day and its sequel, which I can’t really count, since they’re genre-hopping, not much more horrific than an episode of Murder She Wrote.

I’ve started reading the Wikipedia entry for any new horror movie that comes out, to spoil myself on what happens and figure out if it’s something I can handle watching. It convinced me to skip out on Midsommar, because it sounds both too gory and too much for me in terms of emotional intensity. But it backfired, because I’m also skipping out on Hereditary. Not because it sounds too intense for me, but because it sounds so ludicrous that there’s no way I could possibly enjoy it.

Which, finally!, leads to Malignant. HBO Max has been advertising it aggressively, but even just the poster suggests eye trauma — eye injuries and teeth injuries are both non-starters for me — so I assumed it just wasn’t for me. But I kept hearing good things about it. I finally saw Aquaman, which by most accounts, gave James Wan the clout and backing to be able to make Malignant, and I was impressed by several moments of self-aware weirdness in the midst of an otherwise by-the-numbers blockbuster. I figured I was maybe doing Wan a disservice by just dismissing him as “the Saw guy.”

So I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, which I have to say, doesn’t do the movie any favors. It sounded not just hyper-violent and gory, but seemed to be in really poor taste: making light of mental illness, domestic abuse, and miscarriages.

But it’s almost Halloween, so what the hell. I watched it anyway. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews that said that it was taking itself too seriously until well into the movie, which is a complaint that I don’t get at all. The very first shot is a ludicrously gothic cliffside hospital outside Seattle, the start of a cold-open sequence that ends with a doctor looking square into the camera and declaring “We have to cut out the cancer!

Reading the Wikipedia did spoil any potential for surprise, but I think it actually made the movie more impressive. There are a lot of scenes with the killer that are shot for maximum creepiness: weird, jittery movements, and details that seem wrong for reasons you can’t quite place. At first, I was surprised that anyone could watch it without immediately picking up on what was going on, but then I realized that it all mixed together to be imperceptibly unnerving.

The movie’s full of attention-grabbing shots: the CG transitions when Maddie finds herself witnessing an attack, the unnecessary but memorable overhead tracking shot following Maddie through the rooms of her house. But really, it’s all turned up to maximum: the depressingly dingy gray house, the inexplicably cavernous and gothic police station, the gray and foggy Seattle underground, the murder workshop with the giant spinning fan blade. And of course, the abandoned gothic mental hospital with its basement full of HIPAA violations. The whole movie feels like a filmmaker let loose to play.

It results in a kind of heightened alternate universe where the laws of common sense and good taste don’t apply. It doesn’t feel accurate to call it “camp,” since “camp” to me implies a need for the audience to understand that you’re in on the joke. Malignant is more of its own thing, enjoying itself too much to waste any time winking at the audience.

In fact, it’s so unconcerned with whether the audience knows it’s self-aware, that I’ve even seen some comments acting as if the filmmakers had no idea how ridiculous it all is. That seems absurd to me, since there’s a confidence to the movie that I think is undeniable. But that doubt clearly comes from audiences being so unfamiliar with filmmakers indulging themselves without desperately seeking reassurance that they’re still cool.

You won’t be able to read or hear about Malignant for long without someone mentioning giallo. While that is a little bit of film-school wankery, it’s also undeniably a major inspiration behind Malignant. I’m too unfamiliar with the genre to have been able to make the connection myself, but once it’s been pointed out, it’s obvious that this was an attempt to recreate one. “Recreate” being the key word, because it’s not a parody or a performative homage.

Of all the horror movies I’ve seen, I’d say it’s most similar to Drag Me to Hell. Not in tone; Drag Me to Hell is a lot more in-your-face, recreating exploitative 1970s B-movies that had little pretense of making art films. Instead, they’re similar in that they both feel like they’re beholden only to themselves, not the audience’s expectations.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been watching Insidious, as part of my get-acquainted-with-the-works-of-James-Wan series.1I will not be watching any more Fast and Furious movies, however. It’s got some of the little goofy touches that I’m getting to be a fan of — which is making me wonder why The Conjuring struck me as so humorless — but is otherwise a more straightforward, almost old-fashioned, horror movie: jump scares, sudden blasts of music, ghosts appearing in the corner of the room, etc. I’m surprised how much I like it, actually. It’s creepier and scarier than Malignant, in my opinion, but feels a lot more safe. Less original, less cinematic, more concerned with playing to an audience.

I feel like I’m not getting any closer to coming up with a Grand Unified Theory of Horror Movies: an explanation for why I can laugh through the copious gore and animal abuse of Drag Me to Hell, or the bone-cracking and face-stabbing of Malignant, but watching the video from The Ring makes me feel like I need to lie down in a room by myself. And I’m nowhere near understanding why I can’t make it through more than a few minutes of horror video games like Friday the 13th or Phasmophobia without my watch alerting me to dangerously high heart rate, or feeling like I’m about to hyperventilate.

Maybe it’s because a movie like Malignant perfectly hits the tone, not comedy or parody but still not to be taken seriously, feeling instead like it’s been beamed in from some alternate reality. Maybe it lets me dissociate enough, while even badly-made horror can affect me if it feels like it wants to be taken seriously. I hope I can figure it out soon, because it seems like horror movies are getting good again, after decades of self-serious sadism and torture. Plus I kinda want to go to Knott’s Scary Farm.