In a bleak age for big studio moviemaking, when not all that many directors seem to really love their job, and even viewer seem to love the medium, we are blessed to have someone like James Wan. The man palpably, overwhelmingly, desperately loves movies, and at their best, his projects are so overripe and juicy with that love that it's hard for me, at least, to avoid being completely swept away by the over-the-top eagerness of them. And when I say "at their best", I am referring directly to his eleventh feature, Malignant, which may or may not be his best film - 2013's The Conjuring has a substantially tighter script - but is surely the most characteristic of his films, the one that has all the things that make his good films fun to watch and redeems the things that makes his bad films less fun to watch. It is above all things enthusiastic, for the medium and its history, and for the opportunity to put into visuals the ludicrous things that Wan has thought up to make his po-faced horror-thriller police procedural so bombastic. While the "SAT vocabulary word that feels vaguely menacing but is perhaps not pinned down very specifically" title would on paper seem to put this in conversation with his 2010 Insidious (though this film has more that is malignant than that film had things that were insidious), the Wan film I was actually thinking of most during the running time was Malignant's immediate predecessor, 2018's Aquaman, united as they are in their proud, and correct belief that the movies which are the most fun to watch are the ones that are the most unapologetically dumb.

Indeed, Aquaman matters twice over, since it is very obvious that the success of that film - the highest-grossing movie ever based on a DC Comics supehero - as well as Wan's stewardship of The Conjuring universe, arguably the most successful non-superhero franchise to start in the 2010s (if not the only one!), gave him enough clout at Warner Bros. that he got to make a "one for me" this time around. Here is the thing about Malignant: it cost a reported $40 million. That money was not ever going to come back to Warners. I don't know how big the market is for a movie like this, but it's certainly not The Conjuring big. The market for this movie is people who would hear the description "What if 1980s-era Lucio Fulci had directed an episode of The X-Files?" and respond, after thoughtful consideration, with "I'm interested, if the main musical motif was a synth-heavy cover of a Pixies song". It is equal parts giallo pastiche, Resident Evil adaptation, slasher movie, parody of "bad seed" movies about killer children, and haunted hospital picture, while also being the first movie I am aware of to satisfactorily take advantage of the peculiar historical feature of Seattle, its buried 19th Century downtown, an abandoned underground city rotting beneath the contemporary metropolis. It's also the kind of movie that is easy describe as a list of all the things that obviously inspired it, while somehow the final product feels entirely original, a completely new thing that remixes all of these influences into a brand new vision.

The story is the kind of genre hokum you only work with if you are very lazy or very much in love with the genre, and nothing about Malignant suggests that Wan or screenwriter Akela Cooper are lazy (Cooper worked from a story Wan developed with his wife Ingrid Bisu - I find the idea of this being how they spend their lazy domestic hours together profoundly heartwarming). In 1993, in a hospital drenched in raspberry-red lighting, a certain doctor Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) wades through the pool of bodies left behind by a certain patient named "Gabriel", who communicates with her by psychically taking over a radio and bending the static into English-like words. "It's time... we cut out the cancer" Dr. Weaver says in a breathless hush, delivered by McKenzie with absolutely no trace of fear that she will look like a melodramatic hambone, as Michael Burgess's camera glides towards her face with a dramatic wide-angle lens, and Joseph Bishara's throbbing bassline crashes into the shredding guitars of the film's opening credits music, angry snarls of metal that put this at least briefly in the company of Wan's breakthrough sophomore feature, Saw.

I am tempted to say, you know by the end of this prologue if you're the kind of person for whom Malignant will feel like a joyous celebration of horror cinema, marshaling every audio-visual element of craftsmanship to put over the biggest, most polished junky haunted house theatrics a body could hope for. Or if you're going to get hung up on arch, kitschy acting and a general sense that the film is looking to razzle-dazzle us more than scare us. Plainly, I am in the former camp, which is as much about me as it is about Malignant; I don't know what I'd say to somebody who thinks, in particular, that the film just isn't very scary, other than that there's more to horror than scares. There's simple mood, for example, something Wan has gotten very good at providing with his tight control of camera angles and colors. In this specific film, he's also very good at making use of how his actors look: I would probably not say that Annabelle Wallis, who plays the protagonist of the movie once the credits end and it arrives in 2020, is doing specifically good work in the role (though she is certainly not the weakest link in the cast), but Wan isn't really asking her to. He's using her expressions as a way to anchor images and sequences of shots, letting everything else in the film move us through the stories and emotions while she's just there to provide a vehicle for our own response to the sprawl of it.

And oh my, sprawl it does. Malignant, as it gets going, puts so many gears in motion that I'm not even sure which ones are necessary to talk about the plot or which ones would constitute a spoiler, but it gets us far enough to note that Seattle is currently being plagued by a slasher, a killer with long lanky hair and a trench coat, and a very jerky, arrhythmic way of moving that is supplied thanks to a physical performance by contortionist Marina Mazepa that relies far less on digital trickery than I had assumed even while watching the movie. If a good horror movie needs a good monster, Malignant is a top-shelf masterpiece; the trenchcoat-creature feels like something extracted from somebody's nightmares after watching too many gialli, and would have been the pride of any '80s slasher franchise in its strange inhumanity and disgusting lankiness and how instantly this look feels like horror iconography and not just movie design. The cases that turn out to all be this creature's handiwork are handed off to Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), who grump and snark there way through as any good horror movie detectives must. Meanwhile, Maddie Mitchell (Wallis), whose abusive husband was the first victim, is having some horrible visions that place her right into the space where the murders are happening, the world seeming to melt around her as she loses track of where she is versus where the victims and the bizarre killer are.

So far, so simple: that's at least a few different pieces of boilerplate, but it is boilerplate, and Malignant has the decency to make things easy on us before it starts going apeshit in the last third of its longish, but never languid 111-minute running time. Even before that happens, Wan and company have begun amping things up with ever-increasing gore effects and the addition of scenes that are a pretty weird fit for any of the horror subgenres that the movie has officially announced itself as occupying, such as Shaw's journey through the Seattle underground in a sequence that answers the question, what if The Silence of the Lambs was the story of chasing an alligator through the sewers? And this is still in the sedate part of the movie; by the end, an additional element been added to the killer's physical design that makes it feel like some particularly gruesome Japanese ghost, there has been a full-scale Matrix-style action scene with Jason Voorhees-style kills, and the film has gazed with unmistakable rapture in close-up at a gore effect that only gets away with being so fucking gross because it is so fucking cool.

James Wan has maintained that, despite the evidence of his filmography, he doesn't particularly love horror movies; he loves movies, full stop. Malignant is proof for and against this. Against it, because it is a treasure trove of nods and influences for the horror movie faithful - anybody can do a giallo homage that copies Dario Argento, but one whose main point of contact with the genre seems to be The New York Ripper is diving quite a bit deeper - and it's simply not possible to imagine it coming from a mind that doesn't have a deep reservoir of knowledge about some of the very strangest corners of the genre in the 1970s and '80s. Proof for it, because Malignant grabs so much non-horror stuff and crams it into a horror framework. Either way, though, the fact that Wan loves his medium is unmistakable. Movies like Malignant don't get made without a feeling of extraordinary joy fueling them, both in the "tee-hee, can you believe what we're getting away with?" sense, and the "I adore cinema so much that I cannot possibly make the choice to exclude any of it from my big messy sack of Movie-Movie delights". And that's the thing: for all the blood, the shadowy gloom, and the earnest, unsmiling expressions on the actors, this movie is above all things fun. When it douses sets in knee-deep fog, when it cranks background noises up to drown out the dialogue, when it turns the camera all around to make Maddie's visions just as disorienting for us as they are for her, this isn't because the filmmakers think that horror movies are intense and scary and draining, it's because they think horror movies are a blast to watch, and an even bigger blast to make. And so they are, though rarely so much of a blast as this big silly valentine to the genre and everyone who thinks that the best way to take it seriously is to have fun with it.