When you think of the current horror movie genre—which has had a pretty decent run over the last decade—certain creative names and properties come immediately to mind. In the case of three of the genre’s most successful franchises, Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, that name belongs chiefly to director, producer, and co-writer James Wan. The Malignant filmmaker was the guiding force behind the genesis of all three film sagas, and he remains one of the most well-regarded filmmakers in horror cinema.
Wan has expanded his portfolio in recent years, directing Fast and Furious entry Furious 7 and diving headfirst into the DC universe with both Aquaman and its currently-filming sequel. But somehow between his two adventures with the King of Atlantis, Wan has managed to make a new horror thriller that both brings him back to his roots and points the way for his future in the genre: Malignant.
“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,” Wan tells Den of Geek during an interview over Zoom. “I’m not a fan of repeating myself, 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 let the hardcore horror fans out there know that, hey, I haven’t forgotten about them.”
It’s true: after the more subtle scares of the films and their sequels that Wan mentioned, which were patterned more like ghost stories with their use of silence, empty spaces, and things left unseen, Malignant is a sharp, vicious blow directly to the face. It’s a gruesome, gory shock show and an unabashed monster movie in which a young woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis), survivor of a terrible tragedy, begins to have visions of a string of grisly murders—seemingly perpetrated by the same vile being that has caused her recent torment, part of a mystery that stretches back to her past.
In terms of tone, pace, and atmosphere, Malignant does have more in common with some of Wan’s early films, like Saw and Dead Silence, than it does the more spiritually-tinged entries in the Conjuring universe. But that’s where the resemblance more or less ends. After several years of working with sequels and franchises, Wan wanted to make an all-new, original horror film again.
“I don’t want to be stuck just doing the one thing that I’ve become known for right now,” he says. “I don’t like to repeat myself and that was a lot of the driving force behind making Malignant the way it is—and also, you know, not wanting to make a sequel, do a remake, whatever. I just want to come up with an original story that allowed 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.”
Wan adds that his desire to create a brand new horror story—one that certainly has an original new menace at its center—is what led him to step away from one of his most successful previous undertakings.
“There’s a reason I didn’t come back to do Conjuring 3,” he admits. “I was too busy making Malignant and that was my primary goal, to go off and come up with something different, something new and continue kind of exploring stuff that interests me.”
Of course, should Malignant strike that same chord of terror with audiences that Wan has so lucratively played in the past, it wouldn’t completely be a surprise (if, based on the movie, perhaps more of a stretch) to see Wan presiding over another horror franchise. Yet his aim right now is to keep moving forward and keep expanding both his own creative horizons and that of the genre he still loves.
“Really at the end of the day, I just want to keep reinventing myself,” he says. “I don’t want to get stale. I’m very thankful for what I’ve achieved in this genre especially, but I still think I have a lot more to give and I want to keep finding other stuff to do it with.”
Malignant is out in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Sept. 10.