James Wan explains how he made a 'feminist' horror movie with 'Malignant': 'None of this is by accident'
"Feminist" might not be the first word that comes to mind when one considers James Wan’s Malignant, but an argument can be made that it should be. While many know Wan as the blockbuster director of billion-dollar grossers like Furious 7 and Aquaman, horror fans revere him as a prolific writer-director in the genre, single-handedly spawning more long-running franchises than any other human. His track record includes birthing the Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises, all of which are still active in various forms today.
Released in theaters last year, and currently streaming on HBO Max, Malignant is a James Wan throwback horror movie, one that pays homage to several different subgenres including giallo and slasher film. The story follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who is experiencing what appears to be shocking "visions" of real-life murders that bleed into her waking life. It turns out these are not visions but reality as seen through the eyes of Gabriel (voiced by Ray Chase), a parasitic twin attached to the back of Madison’s head. Dormant for years, Gabriel was brought back to the surface when Madison’s abusive husband (Jake Abel) smashes her head against a wall.
Newly minted horror icon Gabriel and all the insanity that surrounds him may have nabbed all the headlines and generated all the memes during the film's initial release. A year later, it’s the film’s more thematic elements that hit particularly hard. That’s because beneath all that horror movie spectacle is a movie about the control men crave over women’s bodies. And in a grander sense, Malignant is about the repeated traumas that the patriarchy regularly inflicts upon women and how that manifests in their physical bodies when left untreated.
Wan credits his female collaborators — including his wife and executive producer, Ingrid Bisu, and screenwriter Akela Cooper — for adding that timely perspective. "Conceptually, my wife Ingrid brought it to me," Wan tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Ingrid is really fascinated by medical abnormalities, and she brought me this evil twin idea. We think of the evil twin thing and we think of it as a joke, right? It’s more of a cliche joke that we make fun of, 'Oh, it’s my evil twin that did so and so.'"
Wan, Bisu and Cooper took that germ of an idea and developed it into a movie that blended scares and social commentary. "Even though the movie has all these crazy over-the-top gore and prosthetic effects, Ingrid has a really sort of feminist bone to her, and so the idea of women having control taken away from them [comes from her]," Wan explains, pointing to an explicitly thematic moment that didn’t make the final cut. "At the end, we initially had this [scene] that I thought was a bit too on the nose. Madison fights to get her body back and she says 'It’s my body, it’s my body, it’s my body.'
"That really sums up how we feel collectively, and that was very important for Ingrid," Wan continues. "You can have all these crazy horrific things in it, but at the end of the day, it is a story about a woman and her evil brother trying to take [control] away from her, and she has to wrangle and fight to get it back. That was very important for us: that the film has something to talk about and is not just cool effects.”
Revisting Malignant now — especially in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade — the movie takes on a new relevance and bluntness that "elevated horror" movies like Alex Garland’s Men generally get all the headlines and thinkpieces about. In contrast, the Malignant discourse was more about the prosthetics used to make Gabriel a reality or the crazy action sequences in the final act. But the actual themes of the movie hit like a ton of bricks.
"None of this is by accident," Wan says, recalling how he and Bisu recruited Cooper for Malignant after being impressed with her work on the upcoming horror film M3GAN, due out in 2023. "She turned in that script, and I loved what she did. When we were looking for writers to help us flesh out Malignant, she was one of the very first people. I knew that I wanted a writer with a female perspective; that was very important to Ingrid [since] that was her POV, and that was important for us to maintain in the scripting.
"It is a shame that the people didn’t dig into the thematic more," Wan continues. "I do think it’s because Gabriel is so out there and the twist literally just overtook all the conversation out there, which is cool from a horror movie standpoint. I wish people talked about the thematic aspect of it."
But Wan also thinks that Gabriel becoming a meme is satisfying in its own way. "That was really fun for Ingrid and I. We knew going in it that Gabriel would become a meme because he’s so out there, and we think that that’s what’s fun in today’s climate — we want him to live that way in pop culture."
Pressed whether he has plans to revisit Gabriel in a potential Malignant 2, Wan dodges the movie's franchise potential. "Put it this way: I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter what movie I go in to make, I try to know the big umbrella world. I create this world in my head even if I don’t put it down, so I know exactly the story that I’m telling and how to navigate it through this bigger world. So yes, I have bigger stories to tell if audiences out there want more of it. I joke that if people want more than they should start a groundswell movement [on social media] using #Malignant2."
It’s not as if Wan is currently starved for a new gig. He’s putting the finishing touches on the hotly-anticipated Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, due in theaters in December 2023. He also has plenty of horror films on deck through his production company, Atomic Monster, including one in early development tentatively titled Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit. "One of the things we always try to do is find new stories and new voices from writers and filmmakers, and Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit is another one that’s very exciting for us," he teases.
And when he’s not making his own horror movies, Wan's got a catalog of genre favorites to revisit or see for the first time — starting with Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case. That 1982 cult classic film is about a man (Kevin Van Hentenryck) who seeks vengeance for the unwanted surgery that separated him from his deformed conjoined murderous twin brother, who he now keeps hidden in a basket. Given the similarities between Malignant and Basket Case, horror fans have been speculating what influence Henenlotter may have had on Wan’s movie.
"This may shock people out there, I actually have not seen Basket Case," Wan admits. "I love Frank’s other stuff, y’know, especially his talking penis one. Brain Damage is a great film, too. But no, I have not seen Basket Case. I know lots of people have made the reference between Malignant having similarities to Basket Case and I’m fine with that, because it’s Frank, and that guy’s an awesome filmmaker."
Malignant is currently available on 4K UHD and is streaming on HBO Max.