James Wan Has A Very Specific Reason Why He's Returning To His 'Gritty' And 'Visceral' Horror Roots For Malignant

Annabelle Wallison as Madison in Malignant

In a bizarre way, James Wan is a victim of his own success. He is a filmmaker who loves to try new things and explore fresh ideas with each of his directorial ventures, but the immense popularity of his movies has meant that it has been more than a decade since he’s made a feature that isn’t either part of a bigger franchise, a sequel, or a series-starter. That pattern may have persisted had he made the decision to immediately jump from 2018’s Aquaman into Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom (which is currently in production) – but that’s a big part of why it was important for him to spend the last couple years making the upcoming horror film Malignant.

This past weekend, James Wan participated in a virtual Q&A session about his mysterious new movie, and throughout the conversation he emphasized how the making of it allowed him to get back to his roots after years of making ghost stories and action-packed blockbusters. Not all details about the origins of Malignant can be openly discussed right now for spoiler reasons, but the director explained that a big part of the way he approached the subject matter he wanted to tackle was by doing something “gritty” and “visceral” like his earliest films. Said Wan,

I've had the aspiration to go back to the early kind of films that I started my career with – like my Saw, Dead Silence, Death Sentence days – where I was allowed to make these films that were a lot more gritty and more visceral, and I just felt naturally this particular concept and story really lend itself to that, and we went along with it.

Based on an original story developed by James Wan and Ingrid Bisu, and written by Akela Cooper, Malignant stars Annabelle Wallis as Madison – a young woman pregnant and excited to bring a child into the world, but who is also trapped in an abusive relationship. It’s a terrifying circumstance all by itself, but things take a step towards the horrific when a monstrous force from Madison’s past comes back into the picture and begins a plague of violence.

Malignant shares a spirit with James Wan’s past work (a significant part of that spirit being “I want to fucking scare you”), but it is wholly original as far as its characters and content, and that’s exactly what made it so desirable for the director to make. As he noted, he doesn’t have a desire to be penned in by expectation, and he didn’t want to just repeat himself:

It is a big part of why I wanted to go back and do Malignant, and make this film the way it is. Over the last 10 years between the Insidious films and the Conjuring films, I've become known as the supernatural ghost guy who comes up with these jump scares. I'm not a fan of repeating myself or at least not repeating this often, and I just felt like it was time for me to do something a bit different again and really kind of harken back to my harder hitting horror films that I broke out with. And really to let the hardcore horror fans out there know that, hey, I haven't forgotten about them.

Those who have watched the trailer for Malignant know that James Wan is unleashing some pretty freaky material with the new release, but the filmmaker really dug into the bag of classic movie tricks to amplify the extreme genre film. He continued,

I just want to come up with an original story that allows me the freedom to experiment with different kinds of filmmaking, to play with prosthetics, play with practical effects and also to play with visual effects to a certain level and make movies with people that I want to collaborate with.

The experiences of making massive movies like Furious 7 and Aquaman have allowed James Wan the opportunity to step outside of his familiar genre and work with material featuring different tones and requiring different techniques – and that certainly scratched an itch for the filmmaker. But there is also a spectacular amount of variety to be found in horror all by itself, and Malignant is part of that exploration.

In his pursuit to tell new stories each time out, Wan acknowledges that there are certain threads in his work that can link the material together, and Malignant is an extension of that. It’s not an ego thing, though; it’s an effort to dig at the themes he’s most interested in. He explained,

I'm playing with a lot of themes that have always fascinated me and that have gone back as far as the start of my career. And I think I'm not so much necessarily doing a tribute to myself. I just think that would be very weird, but I do think that there are just certain themes that I keep coming back to, you know. Like in the same way, if you watch a Guillermo del Toro movie, he has these themes that he keeps going back to, that he loves, and he has a certain aesthetic that he kind of goes with, but he applies them to different kinds of stories.

He added,

I would say it's kind of in that same spirit that I want to do different things, but touch on certain stuff that I've learned from the past that I feel like I'm not quite done with them yet.

One could argue that he has a lot in common with his latest protagonist.

Originally set to be released last year but ultimately delayed because of the pandemic, Malignant is very nearly here. Co-starring Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, and Mckenna Grace in addition to Annabelle Wallis, the film will be playing in theaters and available to stream on HBO Max on August 10. So take the next 10 days to prepare for the latest horror adventure from James Wan, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more from our conversation with the filmmaker.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.