Film Review: Malignant

Directed by: James Wan; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C

Regardless of how one might feel about the likes of Saw and The Conjuring, it’s hard to dispute that director James Wan has played a crucial role in shaping the modern landscape of horror cinema. One of the reasons why his films have been successful up to this point can be seen in the personal angles found within each: the embittered villain Jigsaw who teaches moral lessons about the value of life; the harrowing scenario of a child’s coma and demonic possession in Insidious; the historical “truths” behind married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Instead of diving back into the sequel well, James Wan has conjured a new vision of stylized terror with Malignant, which again possesses a deeper undercurrent involving pregnancy struggles and repressed memories. This is also Wan’s most audacious creation to date, and while pushing those boundaries may result in outrageously fun gore and haunted house trappings, Malignant cartwheels into a realm of absurdity that its emotive intents can’t back up.

Not unlike Saw, much of the strength behind watching Malignant lies in the bizarre twists and turn that essentially start with the first scene, so I’m going to evade as many revelatory spoilers as possible while offering some idea about what’s going on. Shortly after pregnant medical worker Madison (Annabelle Wallis) returns to her spooky, shadowy multi-story home after a long shift, she and her abusive boyfriend are assaulted by a blur of an invader, putting her in the hospital. While the police are investigating the murder of another local medical professional, they find evidence suggesting that the victim – and, by extension, the killer -- may have some connection to Madison. In turn, Madison begins to have nightmarish visions that tie to this murder … and murders that either haven’t happened yet or just haven’t been discovered. As more details emerge in the investigations, further info is revealed about Madison’s dark past and how it relates to the eerie, deformed dressed-in-black killer wreaking havoc in the area.

James Wan has frequently injected an elevated tone into the reality of his horror films, yet in his previous works they were anchored by enough grimness in their visual language and rhythm of the dialogue that they could still be processed at face value. From the start, there’s something suspiciously overstated about Malignant that, despite equally grim circumstances at the beginning of the film, make it tough to buy into the cinematic illusion. From the gloomy lighting and eerie angles amplifying the extravagant appearance of Madison’s home to the overdramatic dialogue, performances, and soundtrack – complete with a repetitious cover of “Where is My Mind?” that sounds like warning alarms -- the stylization never stops feeling like the trappings of a haunted house with something unnatural hiding behind every corner. Unfortunately, this undermines the emotive drama built around Madison’s post-trauma stress and history of difficulty having children, let alone that Malignant may not even be supernatural in nature.

As soon as the antagonist brandishes a gnarly golden short sword alongside an enigmatic black trench coat, it becomes clear that director Wan and co-screenwriters Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper really want the villain to become a thing, not just a one-and-done villain. Malignant furthers that impression with a handful of vicious kill scenes that merge ‘80s-level bloody lavishness with convincing modern execution, making up for some of the clashing aesthetics with outrageous scenes of brutality once the killer begins to execute their list of victims. It’s here that the flashy midnight-movie vibe works best, cloaking the identity of the killer with heavy shadows, loud radio distortion noises and fizzling lightbulbs, and during those moments it doesn’t really matter whether they’re some Freddy or Jason-like monster or a human whose identity is being concealed with movie magic. Malignant has its most undistracted fun when the killer’s allowed to unleash hell and escape without a care for the story going on around it.

Crafting an iconic villain is great and all, but there’s a horror movie trying to exist around them as well, and it’s a maddeningly ridiculous one that’s treading water until Malignant can pull the curtain back on their identity. It’s the kind of horror movie where a young woman will drive far out to an abandoned hospital alone, pull up to the dilapidated building at night on the edge of a steep cliff, and be completely fine with going in despite there being a murderer on the loose killing people involved with the reason she’s out there. The kind of movie -- not unlike Sucker Punch or The Final Girls -- where ups and downs in genuine character behaviors or outlandish locations could theoretically be clues pointing toward a false reality or cheeky horror homages, or directorial shortcomings and misguided flourishes of style … or both. While a plot twist can sort some of this out by explaining why aspects of this character or the atmosphere of that location seemed off at first glance, it isn’t a universal solvent for all strangeness, and the silly aspects of Malignant end up preventing it from thriving as a competent slice of horror.

While James Wan’s latest creation essentially overwhelms the audience with twist after twist, there’s ultimately one seismic revelation at the core of Malignant, and the effectiveness of it will likely depend on who’s watching it: someone who needs twists to obey the rules previously established by the film, or someone who enjoys being shocked by outlandishness regardless of whether it makes sense. I’ll be honest, the way the antagonist “transforms” after this reveal – and the visuals that Wan twists into existence in response to it – almost had me feeling like the second type for a minute, relishing the inventive grotesquery despite what caused it. That said, Malignant tears open too many holes in the story and breaks too many rules of the world it established for the ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity to be taken with any kind of seriousness, where even those with fondness for the likes of David Cronenberg and Dario Argento will find it all a bit of a stretch.

Photos: Warner Bros.


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