Sunday, October 03, 2021

It's Not a Tumor!

Malignant (2021)

I wasn't expecting much of Malignant (2021, directed by James Wan). The film has received withering reviews from other quarters and my own experience with James Wan's other horror movies has been indifferent to actively hostile. So imagine my surprise when I found myself cackling like a maniac when the film turned its cards face up and let its freak flag fly. I wasn't expecting a movie that so gleefully followed its muse over the cliff, but by golly, when that moment arrived I was ride or die for the duration. Mind you, I don't want to suggest that Malignant is a "good" movie. It's not, really. James Wan is still who he is and the movie is still burdened with the family über alles moralizing Wan picked up in the Insidious and Conjuring and Fast and Furious movies, but the raw materials? Oh, mercy!

Following a prelude at an experimental hospital where a doctor vows to "cut out the cancer" from an unseen troublesome patient, the story follows one Madison Mitchell, who is pregnant as the film begins. She is the principal earner for her marriage, and bone tired from her pregnancy. It's her third pregnancy; the previous two ended in miscarriage. Her husband is a no-account lout who would rather sit around at home drinking and watching sports than get a job, and he's hostile to her suggestions otherwise. He's also physically abusive, and after he slams her into the wall hard enough to make the back of her head bleed and threaten the health of her unborn baby, she locks the bedroom door and curls up in bed. Her husband is consigned to the couch. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find the house's electricity flickering. He sees a figure in the living room which vanishes as the light blinks. He thinks it's Madison, but the shadow figure ambushes him and hits him so hard that the cops the next day compare his corpse to a car accident victim. Madison has also been assailed, and is found unconscious upstairs. At first, the cops think it's a garden variety home invasion, but since there is no evidence of a forced entry, their suspicions fall on Madison. Those suspicions are heightened when Madison begins to see visions of other murders. Her visions include a glimpse of the murderer, who she recognizes as Gabriel. Gabriel was her imaginary friend when she was a child. The cops are understandably skeptical. Madison's adopted sister, Sydney, takes matters into her own hands and begins investigating both the victims--they are all associated with a sinister experimental hospital--and Madison's past before her adoption. What she discovers is horrifying, but Madison is taken into custody for the kidnapping of a woman found in her attic before Sydney can give the cops her research. And Gabriel has his own ideas about Madison's incarceration.

Malignant (2021)

My first impression of Malignant: its opening shot is overtly Gothic. It reminds me of the locales where those remakes of William Castle's films in the early aughts were set. The establishing shot of the experimental hospital looks straight out of the 1999 version of The House on Haunted Hill. It lacks only Jeffery Combs as a mad doctor. There is mad science enough, though. The opening sequence suggests a lot: is the monster in this film a mutant? The result of an experiment gone haywire? It's obviously got some X-men shit going on because it can control electricity. As the doctor is dictating her notes, you know that those notes are going to be discovered thirty years on in some kind of expository discovery. Sure enough. The credit sequence features a bunch of surgical footage that suggests that this film is never going to play on TNT. My second impression: the house in the present is still Gothic, with hardwood interiors and dark spaces aplenty. It's one of those movie houses that appears to be larger on the inside than on the outside and in at least one sequence later in the film, shot directly overhead, it seems impossibly tall, too. Third impression: this film has a sense of horror movie justice. The acts its characters commit in life determine if they become monster chum. Poor Derek signs his own death warrant when he lays hands on his wife. You might as well light up a neon sign over his head saying "Victim!" The film is obliging on this point. At this point, I was convinced that this was a variant of The Brood: A pregnant woman creates a monster from the id to murder her familial tormentors? Yeah. That tracks. The film does not oblige on this point, however. It has another, different movie as a role model, one equally steeped in body horror, one equally steeped in rage.

The film pokes around as a mystery for a while. It uses the Seattle Underground as a setting, which would seem a natural locale for a horror movie, but it has sat fallow since it was used in the second Kolchak TV movie, The Night Strangler. The mundane locations have the chilly underlit mopes of most contemporary studio-made horror films. The murder sequences bring the film alive when they come, and Gabriel's lair is anything but naturalistic. It's got a big damned fan as a backdrop that should be visible from the exterior of the space, but which for some reason isn't. It's there to add atmosphere, one presumes. Wan uses a lot of the tricks he developed on the Conjuring films when he places Gabriel in the frame, only for him to vanish once a curtain blows over him or a light flashes off then on again. Wan is a filmmaker who is lazy about his techniques, and doesn't develop new ones unless he absolutely has to. The film saves its most batshit insane elements for the last act, once Gabriel's true nature is revealed and the film plunges off the rails and out into space. Once Sydney finds the video tapes of Madison's pre-adoption life, and once Madison herself is stuck in a cell with a bunch of women who view her a bougie and soft, the movie uncorks its lunacy and gives it full reign. Its like letting a demented djinni out of its bottle and watching it wreck the place and I couldn't stop laughing from that point onward. I had to stop the movie for a bit to catch my breath. This part was more fun than I could have ever hoped for, with Gabriel doling out violent mayhem Terminator-style.

But, as I say, this film isn't especially good. A great deal of time is wasted following the cops on the case, which contributes very little to the narrative train of the film. It's not the cops who uncover the backstory, in spite of the emphasis on handsome detective Shaw and jaded detective Moss, and the side-narrative of the cute CSI who has a crush on Shaw. A more disciplined film would either find a way for this stuff to contribute or cut it to the bone. The cops seem to function solely to place Gabriel in the police station at the end of the movie so he can engage in an ultraviolent tantrum as he springs Madison from jail. I can imagine the film completely stripped of this stuff. That said, the scene with Madison in lock-up, when she reacts to taking a beating, is one of the highlights of the film and I wouldn't lose it for the world. Wan isn't careful with the geography of scenes either. Even considering the sometimes sketchy nature of the film's ostensible on-screen reality, it feels like this has to indulge in a lot of offscreen teleportation to make the plot work. And Wan almost fumbles the whole thing in the last three minutes. Hell, maybe he does fumble the film outright with his "the real blood ties are the ones we made along the way" bullshit. This sort of thing is so cloying it makes my pancreas hurt just to watch it. There's a regressive subtext throughout the film that conflates happiness with motherhood without even offering Madison any other paths to self-fulfillment. When it's revealed near the end of the film, Gabriel's greatest crime toward Madison is the murder of her unborn children, which is the shock that wakes her up to what Gabriel really is. Nevermind the trail of corpses that has led the audience to this point. Unborn lives, to some viewers, will outrank living adult human beings. This seems either tone-deaf to it's political moment, or on a specific side of the body politic. In any event, it's troubling, but maybe not surprising given the reactionary nature of some of Wan's other films.

Malignant (2021)

The most frustrating thing about Malignant is the way it suggests themes of identity, of invading psychic entities, and of secret sharer doppelgangers, only to leave them unexplored. Given the way the plot all falls out, this could be a rich exploration of guilt and epistomology--the film overtly changes the set of reality onscreen, after all. This would all match the Gothic imagery and plot structure and might result in a richer viewing experience. What is Madison's culpability in Gabriel's crimes? What is her legal exposure after the end of the film? What does a life sharing her mind with Gabriel hold for her going forward (other than potential sequels, given the filmmakers). I mean, a more intellectually curious filmmaker could fill those dead spots where the cops are flailing around with all of these quesitons. How would this play if it had been made by one of the Cronenbergs (Possessor has a familial resemblance to this film, after all)? Or Wan's occasional collaborator, Leigh Whannell (Upgrade is also a cousin)? Wan has the wit to frame his story as a Gothic--complete with a literal madwoman in the attic--but seems indifferent to the possibilities of the Gothic's occasional daliances with doppelgangers even though it's right there in the visuals. There are numerous shots of Madison staring into mirrors (in one she sees the reflection of one of Gabriel's victims staring back at her). There's one particular shot of her staring at her own shadow as if Gabriel IS that shadow. It's like it's the shadow who occasionally slips the leash from Peter Pan. So Wan must know what he has. The imagery is too spot on. But he seems unable or unwilling to think about these things except in terms of how they play out as plot. He's content to describe Gabriel as The Devil, and the motivations behind the film's murders as "The devil made me do it." While I know that most movie-goers just want filmmakers to tell them a story, unadorned plot by itself is boring. Give me more.

Still, I can't discount the genuine pleasure to be had for about forty minutes of its run time, playing almost to the very end of the film. Hell, a lot of horror movies spin their wheels for longer and for less pay-off. Malignant has a genuine monster that is starkly horrifying when revealed on screen and that's not nothing in this day and age. It reminds me a bit of Orphan, which similarly jumps the rails as it reveals its big surprise. If you're unwilling to follow it, its flaws are its undoing and I can well understand an audience that won't dig this at all. But if you are willing to follow it, you might be transported. It's just a matter of matching its wavelength.

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