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James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ is a Mix of Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and ‘Frozen’

The filmmaker makes a strange comparison between his giallo-inspired latest and the Disney animated feature.
James Wan Malignant
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 24th, 2021

Entering the Discourse is a thrice-weekly column where we dig into who is saying what about new releases and upcoming projects. Today, we discuss James Wan’s comments about his upcoming return to horror, Malignant, and its giallo roots.

James Wan is the godfather of contemporary horror. Saw, which he co-directed with Leigh Whannell, was one of the first “torture porn” films and helped shape the subgenre. The Conjuring brought audiences new Catholic superheroes and a revamp for the exorcism film. Insidious made haunted houses scary again. Now, Wan marks his return to the genre with Malignant, which appears to be Wan’s take on the giallo films of the 1970s.

His first project after taking on the Aquaman franchise, Malignant is a return to Wan’s horror roots. In an interview with IGN, Wan explains:

“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 [Brian] De Palma, [Dario] Argento, and all that. “

The Malignant trailer is full of imagery that harkens back to the work of Argento and other giallo directors. Giallo is a subgenre of horror that saw its golden age in the 1970s. These films, such as Tenebrae and Bay of Blood, are crime-thrillers full of gruesome deaths, red lighting, leather gloves, and an amateur detective who must get to the bottom of the mystery.

Wan directly references Argento’s Opera, explaining that this film “really has shades of all those ’80s and sometimes ’70s of more violent and visceral thrillers.”

Giallo is an aesthetically stunning genre, and the use of lighting and space in the Malignant trailer reveals James Wan’s respect for that period of horror history. Gabriel, the film’s villain, is shown decked out in black, the staple outfit for any giallo killer. Red light bathes every frame, and the film’s protagonist embodies the ethos of the giallo main character who is thrust into violence seemingly by chance until they realize the depth of the crimes at hand.  

In defining the film himself, Wan says, “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.” While the trailer does reveal a giallo-inspired film, Wan also explains how this film draws on De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain to create something “in the vein of (De Palma’s) most outrageous whodunit vision.”

This is not just a typical possession film. This is something darker and sexier than his previous films, pulling from a grittier side of horror history. 

He also explains the plot of Malignant as the horror version of a certain Disney animated feature, as the story revolves around two sisters trying to figure out a series of murders. Specifically, he says, “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.”

This then begs the question, if the sisters are like Anna and Elsa, then is Gabriel like Olaf? We can only hope.

Wan has a very specific style that makes all of his worlds feel deeply uncomfortable. A room is a little too bright, or the shadows are a little too wrong. His films aren’t just scary, they’re eerie. But Wan does use a little spice in his films to really get the heart rate going: jumpscares. While they are often well-crafted, they are a staple of his filmography, and Wan knows it. He says: 

“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. 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.”

With Aquaman under his belt (and a sequel on the way), Malignant marks the next step in James Wan’s horror career. He is not just an indie horror darling anymore, but a franchise-creating filmmaker taking on massive IPs in the comic book universe. This makes his return to horror all the sweeter. Even while working in the world of superheroes, Wan still wants to bring his horror stories to life.

James Wan’s Malignant is set to hit theaters and HBO Max on September 10th. 

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)