After years of investing in successful horror franchises like Insidious, Saw and The Conjuring, James Wan was ready to try something new in the genre.

Director James Wan’s excitement was evident when he spoke to STACK on the eve of the release of his new horror film, Malignant, starring Annabelle Wallis.

“With something like The Conjuring, when you’re basing it on people who are still around – and they were, when I made the first Conjuring films – you have to be respectful,” explains the Australian filmmaker. “But when you’re doing a film that you’ve cooked up from scratch, you really have the freedom to take the characters anywhere you want. There’s no limitation, so I feel like Malignant wants to break outside of that box and go against the system. It’s a genre movie, but it’s also very punk to some degree.

“I love the gritty horror-thriller genre, and after many years away from it, I felt it was time to return to my indie roots, to the harder-hitting horror-thrillers of Saw and Death Sentence,” he continues.

“After Aquaman and between the Conjuring and Insidious films, I felt like I needed to cleanse my palate, and step outside of the superhero and ghostly arenas to try something different. I wanted to do something original and bold. Malignant is very much inspired by the kind of movies that I grew up watching, like a loving throwback to the ‘80s and early ‘90s style of horror-thrillers, but to do it my way,” he says, pointing to the great horror-maestros Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Wes Craven and David Cronenberg. “So I wanted to take this opportunity to try stuff that I haven’t done before, like exploring new themes and stories while experimenting with a different aesthetic. Who knows when I’ll get the chance to try something like this again?”

Filmed pre-pandemic, Wan was left spinning his heels, unable to edit the film until restrictions eased. “So, I went off and I did some gardening, and played some beer games, and later – when we were allowed to edit remotely – I got back into the movie again,” he explains. “But that time away, where I could come back and reassess the film, was useful. It allowed me to look at it with new eyes and see where I might be giving my cards away too much.”

“I joke that you can take the boy out of horror but you can’t take the horror out of the boy…”

Wan admits that Malignant’s evil entity, Gabriel, is inspired by the director’s early love of Giallo films, and the traditional Giallo villain with black gloves and black coat.

“I’ve been a big fan of Giallo since I was a teenager, and it’s very evident, even with my first film, Saw, where you can see the shades of directors like Argento or Bava in there. Honestly, even when I make a film like Aquaman, you can see that Argento and Bava are still in my head. I’m like, ‘Get out of here you guys!’” he laughs. “So that’s always in me. I joke that you can take the boy out of horror but you can’t take the horror out of the boy, which is the case here. So Malignant really is a culmination of all the stuff that I love. I don’t refer to it as a genre-bender, I refer to it as a genre-blender – my head being that blender! I have absorbed all these themes and the juice that it spews out at the other end is this movie, Malignant.”

As for the biggest celluloid inspiration for this new film? Wan reckons it would be 1978 Faye Dunaway mystery-thriller, Eyes of Laura Mars. “In the late ’80s and ’90s, there was a short period of thrillers where the heroine sees things through the point of view of the killer; for some reason they have a psychic connection with the killer,” says Wan. “And I love that sub-genre, and I don’t think there’s enough of that today – it’s completely dead, actually. So I’m excited to see if I can revive that genre with Malignant,” he promises.

As with all his films, his style taps into the things that scared him the most growing up. “For me, its always the simplest thing like a door creaking open; you’re sleeping at night, and then the door opens but nothing comes out. No monster, no boogieman – but the door in the darkness creaks open, and that’s all you hear. And I find that inspires the imagination, especially when it’s mixed up with mine! My brain just goes everywhere, like, ‘Oh God! Something’s in there! Living in my closet, my cupboard!’ So I love the idea of inanimate objects like a doll or whatever coming to life. And that’s why I’m very much drawn to the haunted house sub-genre, because it allows me to play with all those themes and ideas. I think it’s the more mundane things, the everyday things, that make it scarier.
“In the case of Malignant’s Gabriel, where you literally have someone inside your head who can do a lot of harm to you and the people that you love, then that’s exciting to me.”

Malignant is in Australian cinemas October 21.

Interview with director James Wan and the cast of Annabelle Comes Home.