Filmmaker James Wan once again returns to his horror roots in Malignant, the first trailer for which has now debuted online. In an exclusive chat with IGN, Wan elaborates on what makes Malignant a different kind of horror film than his previous works such as The Conjuring, Saw, and Insidious, calling the New Line film a return to “my more gritty, rough thriller roots.”
Malignant follows Madison Mitchell (played by Annabelle Wallis), who is suffering from bizarre, terrifying visions of brutal murders. In order to stop the killer and save herself, Madison must reckon with her own troubled past.
Coming on the heels of Aquaman’s success, and with a commitment to make an Aquaman sequel, Wan seized the moment to squeeze in a smaller, more personal film in-between his DCEU productions. As Wan explained: “I wanted to make a movie in between those two giant films, which, just something smaller, more intimate, and really harken back to the style of filmmaking or the kind of films that excited me when I was when much younger, when I was a teen growing up, idolizing filmmakers like De Palma, Argento, and all that. I just thought, ‘When am I ever going to get the chance to do a film like this ever again? Now is the time for me to use this opportunity to make the kind of movies that I don’t think really get made at this level anymore.’ And so it really came from the want to just make a hark back, a throwback kind of film. And this was just a story that I came about that really fit that desire.”
At Wan’s insistence, much of Malignant is shrouded in secrecy. Even the significance of the title proves “a tricky one to talk about without giving it away,” Wan admits. “I’m a big fan of titles that have multiple meanings to it. And with Saw, we felt there’s one part of that that obviously refers to the visceral aspect of a tool, but at the same time, it touched a bit on what the voyeuristic aspect of the film was as well. And so with Malignant, I just felt like this title really encompasses the tone of the film, the subject matter, which actually has a fair bit of medical horror attached to it. So it just felt appropriate.”
The malevolent figure plaguing Madison is Gabriel, who the trailer reveals was a presence in her childhood and who she referred to then as “the devil.” The trailer reveals Madison had a very troubled youth before joining her new adoptive family. It seems she does not recall much of her dark past until official documentation and home videos resurface.
So who — or what — exactly is Gabriel? Here, too, Wan is coy about the exact nature of his film’s villain but promises that the choice of this particular nemesis also allowed him to shake up his own filmmaking style and not repeat himself, a core reason why he even wanted to make this film. Malignant, Wan promises, is “not a jump scare film” and that those familiar with his filmography may wrongly assume how the horror and stylistic elements in the film will play out.
“What I will say (about Gabriel) is I’m very aware of the reputation that I have built for myself in the horror genre in recent years. And I’m always trying to find new ways to reinvent myself so that I don’t get stale, so to speak. Or rather, I don’t want peoples’ perception of me to get stale. I don’t want people to keep thinking, ‘Oh, James is just doing the same thing again and again because he’s able to do it. He does it well, and that’s all he does.’ And I hate that. And so part of the reason, too, why I wanted to make Malignant was that I want people to know that this is not a jump scare film. And I worked very hard to make a movie that doesn’t really have my traditional jump scares because it’s not that kind of a movie. And I feel like I know that people now associate me with demonic possessions, and haunted houses, and stuff like that. And so with that in mind, I knew I wanted to play with peoples’ perception of me.”
Wan calls Malignant a blend of several genres. “It’s horror, but it’s also a traditional thriller. It’s psychological, it’s serial killer, but it’s also potentially a monster movie.” This brings us back to Gabriel and the question of who or what they are. “My goal was to create a villain that you’re not quite sure what it is. Is he a demon? Is he just a human serial killer or someone’s figment of someone’s imagination? Is he an imaginary friend that has come to life? It could be any of those things. And I think that’s part of the fun with the film is trying to work out what the hell this thing is.”
In addition to Annabelle Wallis as Madison, the film co-stars Maddie Hasson as her sister, Sydney. The relationship between the pair is an integral element of the film, with Wan deeming it “a sisterly investigative story. The story roughly is about what Madison’s now experiencing. For some reason, she’s having these visions of this series of really gruesome, grisly murders. And she doesn’t know what’s happening to her. She feels like somehow it’s connected to her and all that. And her sister and her are trying to work it out. So they’re trying to find out what is going on here. And I joke that it’s like the horror version of Frozen. It really is. There’s a horror version of Frozen in that there is some of that sisterly camaraderie, but with a lot of crazy shit that happens around them.”
While Frozen may seem a very odd reference when it comes to horror, Wan’s actual influences for Malignant are more in line with the films of Dario Argento and Brian De Palma. Wan calls Malignant “a little bit of my homage to Argento’s Opera and Terror at the Opera, and it really has shades of all those ’80s and sometimes ’70s of more violent and visceral thrillers.” Wan also cites the inventive aesthetic and psychological makeup of De Palma’s less celebrated horror films as being an influence here. “ I would definitely say it’s more in the vein of Raising Cain, Dressed to Kill. It’s in the vein of (his) most outrageous whodunit vision.”
While the Malignant trailer reveals some wall-melting digital trickery, Wan insists he still embraces his passion for old school horror filmmaking here: “My goal is to try and create as much of (the effects) in-camera as I can, but whilst embracing today’s modern technology and how best to combine the two. To me, the best of both worlds is taking old-school camera and practical effects and combining them with some modern approaches. And I think Malignant really falls in that camp.”
While Wan has made sequels before — The Conjuring 2, Insidious: Chapter 2, and the now-filming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom — he says he only does them when there’s a new hook to the story that interests him or some new aspect of the characters he loves that he feels is worth exploring. Otherwise, he’s not interested in repeating himself: “There’s a reason why I don’t make three movies in the same series. It’d be lucky to get me to make a sequel. And then after that, I just get bored. I want to do something different.” Wan sees Malignant then as an opportunity to defy people’s expectations of what they think they know about his horror filmmaking sensibilities — although he admits there’s an inherent risk in that.
“How do I take (people’s assumption of his approach) and make you think that you may potentially be watching a possession, or a haunted house, or a demon movie, but then how do I untwist that? And that’s what I’m always trying to do. Whether I’m successful or not, at least that’s my goal. My goal is to try and stay one step ahead of the audience, stay one step ahead of myself if I can help it, and try and do something different. I do think Malignant is somewhat outside of what people know me for, if even within the horror genre. And I think that’s going to be good and bad because there will be people coming in to watch this movie, going, ‘F***, were we expecting classic James Wan kind of scares and horror, and he’s not giving that to us.’ Well, I’m kind of sick of it. I don’t want to do that again. I’ve done it so many times already. And so I want to try something different. And I think whether I succeed or not, at least I don’t want to keep repeating myself.”
Malignant opens in theaters on September 10 in the US, in the UK on September 3, and in Australia on September 9.