Starring: Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy), Maddie Hasson (Impulse), George Young (Containment), Michole Briana White (Songbird), Jacqueline McKenzie (Deep Blue Sea), Jake Abel (The Host), Ingrid Bisu (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted)
Director: James Wan (Aquaman)
Writer: Akela Cooper (Hell Fest)
Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes
Release Date: 10th September (US/HBO Max, UK)
When a low-budget director finally gets their shot at the big leagues, one of two things usually happens: they either stay there indefinitely, or go back to their roots once their time in the spotlight is over. However, there is a third option that some take and is probably the best of both worlds: make smaller, more personal projects in between the giant blockbusters. James Wan has already done this once before, returning to his horror stomping grounds by making the comparably small The Conjuring 2 in between Furious 7 and Aquaman, and now he’s done it again before embarking on his second underwater adventure with the DC superhero. Malignant (which, to clarify, is totally unrelated to Wan’s 2011 graphic novel Malignant Man) is in some ways a return to Wan’s grungier Saw origins, but it’s an entirely different beast in other. It’s a film that the marketing has quite rightly been coy about, selling itself as a more traditional paranormal chiller, and to some viewers they will likely be disappointed or completely revulsed once they realised its true nature. However, if you’re willing to jump on board, Malignant is easily one of the most thrilling, idiosyncratic and utterly batsh*t mainstream horror movies in recent memory.
(I don’t usually do this in my reviews, as I generally don’t discuss narrative in beat-by-beat detail, but even mentioning the slightest details of Malignant’s story threatens to ruin the experience. Most films are best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in, and this one has been specifically marketed that way. So, without further ado: POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING! If you are interested in seeing Malignant, especially if you’re a huge horror fan, stop reading now and just go see it! If you’re still undecided and need a little more info to know if it’s your cup of tea, I will try to be as sensitive to potential giveaways in my critique as possible, but there are just some thoughts that have to be said that may give away the game. You have been warned.)
By all intents and purposes, Malignant shouldn’t work. Unlike Wan’s previous horror films that pick a style and mostly sticks with it, this one is like a bag of pick-and-mix, but with various styles and subgenres rather than sugary treats. The first two acts are mostly comparable to the Insidious franchise, especially in how it blurs the lines of perception and reality, but with a slightly more heightened, almost comic book tone. However, it throughout draws stylistic influence from all eras and types of horror: it has the suspense and mystery of Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, the psychological eeriness of Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, and the gruesome imagery of Possession and The Evil Dead. As wild as all these influences sound, they merge together fairly well because the film stays consistent on a story level. There is a compelling whodunnit narrative as we learn more about the characters in drips and drabs and, whilst the final revelations do seemingly come out of nowhere, the pieces are all there and certainly solvable with an open mind. There is some clunky expositional dialogue and unsubtle foreshadowing, but it moves at such a brisk pace and with a knowing sense of self-deprecation that it’s easy to forget about the niggles and get swept up in the mystery.
That said, where the moviesimultaneously comes alive and goes off the rails is in its third act. In possibly the biggest mid-film shift since From Dusk till Dawn, Malignant finally reveals its trump card, drops all pretentions of subtlety, and proudly comes out as a tribute to 1980s exploitation movies. It still has the slick sheen of a mid-budget Hollywood film, but at its core this is absolutely the kind of gonzo high-concept horror flick you’d stumble across at the video store or on late-night TV. It’s a massive and risky swing that will likely turn off many, and even for those willing to go with it won’t find it an easy transition. There are logic holes left that even the biggest suspension of disbelief won’t account for and, whilst its nice to see a horror film be self-contained, it does leave plenty of unanswered questions. However, if you can get past the growing pains and accept the movie for what it is, you will find one of the most visceral, insane and flat-out fun horror movies since The Cabin in the Woods. Again, it’s hard to describe without giving it all away, but here’s a final litmus test: if the works of Larry Cohen and Frank Henenlotter mean anything to you, go see this movie immediately!
One does not usually go to horror movies looking for high-calibre acting, but there are exceptions…and Malignant isn’t one of them. That’s not to say the performances or characters here are bad in any way, but it’s hard to say to say that any of them are particularly exemplary. Annabelle Wallis takes the lead as the meek and disturbed Maddie, and she does a pretty solid job of portraying a character who has clearly been through a lot of abuse. However, her performance kind of begins and ends with that emotion, and we don’t really get much time with her before the plot kicks in to understand what she’s like outside of these supernatural circumstances. We actually get a much better sense of who her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) is through little incidental details that flesh her out, and she excels at emotionally grounding the film and providing some earnest comic relief. George Young is likable but a bit bland as Detective Kekoa Shaw, whilst his partner Regina (Michole Briana White) is mostly saddled with the typical “sceptic who immediately suspects and gaslights the protagonist” routine. Jake Abel and Susanna Thompson have mostly perfunctory roles as Maddie’s husband and mother respectively, whilst Ingrid Bisu (who also co-wrote the story with Wan and Akela Cooper) has a small but memorable role as a forensic officer that evokes Leigh Whannel’s role in the Insidious movies. However, the real unsung stars of the film are voice actor Ray Chase and stunt performer Marina Mazepa as the elusive shadow that is Gabriel. That’s all I can really say about them. See the movie for yourself, and you’ll understand why these two have together created a potential cult horror icon.
James Wan has proven himself time and again as a director willing to make bold and brazen choices, and Malignant is easily his most visually distinctive film yet. Yes, even more so than his movie with the giant octopus playing drums. Its use of harsh reds and midnight blues in its lighting is incredibly 70s, bringing to mind Dario Argento, but then the bombastic camera work is more in line with that of Wan’s blockbusters. There are some incredible tracking shots throughout the film that would make David Fincher blush, like an intense overhead sequence that follows Maddie up, down, and around the house. This frenetic shooting style then works perfectly into the movie’s action sequences. Yes, you read that right: action sequences! There’s an absolutely relentless chase through the streets of Seattle that keeps finding ways to up the ante, and the third act blow-out is best described as “What John Wick was a Cenobite?”, which are only made more visceral by the copious amounts of gore; it more than earns its 18 certificate from the BBFC. The entire aesthetic experience is then further enhanced by the excellent sound mixing and Joseph Bishara’s haunting score, which sounds like the disturbed love child of Bernard Hermann and John Carpenter. The only odd musical choice is its use of an instrumental cover of “Where Is My Mind” by Pixies as a recurring leitmotif; it’s a decent enough cover on its own, but it sticks out a little amongst the film’s mostly older cultural references.
Malignant simply isn’t the kind of movie that gets made anymore, especially by a major studio, and most other directors would have watered it down into something far more generic. In the hands of James Wan though, who both loves the horror genre and is willing to turn things up to eleven, it makes it an experience hard to forget whether you end up enjoying it or not. It’s easily the most distinctive movie he’s made since the original Saw, and reimagines a long-dormant subgenre on a scale its influences could only dream of. Seriously, the fact Warner Bros. even agreed to fund this is frankly unbelievable, and likely only did because of Wan’s track record…and the fact he just handed them a billion-dollar juggernaut in Aquaman. To make a long review short, Malignant is B-movie schlock dolled up in blockbuster drag, and destined to become a cult favourite amongst horror aficionados.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10