A new vision of terror.
Don’t go into James Wan’s Malignant expecting another Conjuring. This is an entirely different beast. Knowing as little as possible is the best way to experience this film. So, proceed with caution.
Malignant is one of the freshest horror movies I’ve seen in a very long time. Whatever your thoughts are on the film, one can’t deny its overwhelming originality or admire Wan’s go-for-broke ambition. Malignant is part slasher, part psychological thriller, and part murder mystery. It’s a modern American giallo and comes with all that the genre entails. The film boldly goes to unexpected places and features a jaw-dropping twist followed by an off-the-wall third act that’s giddily grotesque, disgustingly hilarious, and just plain bonkers. I consider myself to have a wild imagination and am rather cluey when it comes to guessing movie twists and turns; still, Malignant moves in directions I could have only dreamed of. While I did predict some of the reveals, it was still fun to watch these play out in gory, disturbing fashion. Horror fanatic or not, Malignant is totally worth your time. We may never see anything like it again.
Malignant is written by director James Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper, with Cooper credited for penning the screenplay. The movie opens in 1993 with a short, strange prologue that sets the campy tone. We are taken inside the Simion Research Hospital, where doctors are treating a young psychiatric patient named Gabriel. Things don’t exactly go according to plan. Some people die, and shit hits the fan quickly.
We then jump twenty-eight years forward, where we meet a pregnant woman, Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis, who’s sporting a ridiculous dark-brown wig). Madison is living in Seattle and has endured two years of miscarriages which have strained her marriage to slacker husband Derek (Jake Abel). During a fueled argument, Derek violently slams Madison’s head against a wall, which forces her to lock herself in her bedroom to escape her abuser. Madison soon falls asleep. She later wakes to discover Derek’s mangled body downstairs after having a vivid dream of a shadowy figure entering their home and brutally slaughtering him. The killer, who still happens to be in the house, then attacks Madison, rendering her unconscious.
A battered Madison then wakes in the hospital, where she is informed by her sister Sydney Lake (Maddie Hasson) that her unborn child didn’t survive the attack; she is both devastated and distressed by this news. Madison is interrogated by detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) before returning home. Soon enough, Madison begins to see waking visions that leave her paralyzed, transporting her to the scene of a crime; she sees the sinister madman who butchered Derek commit some truly grisly and horrific murders. The killer is using a sharp golden trophy he’s repurposed into a bladed instrument to mangle and disfigure his victims. There’s a wince-worthy bedroom kill that’s especially shocking, earning the film its R18+ rating very early on. Madison eventually goes back to detectives Shaw and Moss and tells them about her terrifying daydreams, quickly becoming embroiled in the investigation herself. The officers believe that the maniacal ‘monster’ is on some sort of murderous vendetta linked to Madison’s past — but Madison has next to no memories of herself as a young child.
Although Malignant might seem like your standard slasher flick, it’s anything but. Intentionally pulpy and camp — a lot of the dialogue is particularly awful — the film possesses an eerie atmosphere. It almost feels as though you’re watching a tacky daytime soap opera, only sick and twisted. And Wan’s stylistic, innovative use of lighting, framing, and reflection, coupled with some nifty camera tricks, keep the proceedings thrilling until the film goes all-out screwball in the deranged, bat-shit-crazy final act. On a visual level, Malignant is dynamite, despite being deliberately hokey. There is not one dull shot in the entire film. Wan constantly finds new and exciting ways to play with the camera, exploring every dark corner and crevice, and mapping out the space and setting to maximize intrigue, tension, and scares; a seemingly innocent scene at Madison’s laundry clothes dryer gave me quite the jolt.
Malignant sports a top-notch production: from sets, make-up, costumes, cinematography, and VFX, everything is A-grade. All the kills are spectacularly violent and wonderfully executed, too, filmmakers seamlessly mixing practical FX with CGI. We also get a heap of startling jump-scares, all, of course, meticulously staged. There’s also a stunningly gruesome bit of body horror, which has been brought to life via some first-class puppetry. The standout sequence, however, is a blood-spattered massacre that starts in a confined holding cell and quickly spills out into the connecting cop shop; it’s something you’ve got to see to believe!
Malignant blatantly pays homage to giallo movies, and Wan references more unfamiliar titles like Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985), Tenebrae (1982), and Trauma (1993), rather than the usual classics Suspiria (1977) or Deep Red (1975). Malignant, though, is still surprisingly its own thing; this is Wan’s take on giallo, not traditional giallo, and the film possesses many of Wan’s own hallmarks. There are also shades of Frank Henenlotter and cult cinema in general, but delving any deeper would mean venturing into spoiler territory.
The film’s score, composed by Joseph Bishara, Insidious (2010), helps maintain suspense. Furthermore, music supervisor Michelle Silverman, Aquaman (2018), intensifies key moments with synth-heavy compositions and superb track inserts. Musical highlights include Panic Priest’s new wave ‘Nighthunter’ and ‘When Your Walls Fall’ by Celldweller, which scores the opening credit montage and plays in parts of the police station slaughter. There is also a brilliantly energetic cover of the Pixies’ 1988 classic ‘Where Is My Mind,’ performed by Safari Riot, which is used as a musical motif throughout the film.
The cast is uniformly game, surrendering to the film’s knowingly cheesy and camp script. Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle (2014), is excellent as Madison, a woman who’s living a walking nightmare. She gives a showstopping central turn and sells all aspects of the role. It’s a daring and complex part, that’s for sure, and one that Wallis will undoubtedly be remembered for. Elsewhere, Australia’s Jacqueline McKenzie, Deep Blue Sea (1999), totally hams it up as Dr. Florence Weaver, delivering one of the flick’s silliest lines: ‘It’s time we cut out the cancer!’ she dramatically states while staring into the camera. Michole Briana White, Songbird (2020), and relative newcomer George Young are fun as investigators Moss and Shaw, respectively, the latter evoking a younger James Wan. Shaw’s also a pretty ballsy detective; the guy is willing to go to extreme lengths to catch a perpetrator — I’m referring to that chase sequence! Stuntwoman Zoë Bell, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019), also has a cameo as a jailbird named Scorpion, who appears in the movie’s most nutso scene, while Mckenna Grace, Annabelle Comes Home (2019), crops up briefly as a young Madison.
Wan has clearly set out to make something different, breaking away from the ‘ghost story’ formula he’s renowned for — think the Conjuring and Insidious films. Love it or hate it, Malignant wholly succeeds as a new and unrestrained vision; Kudos to James Wan and co. for being gutsy and daring enough to reach for the sky and beyond in terms of madness and the macabre. Wan, who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s (like me), was always a horror nut, and he wears his influences on his sleeve here. In a recent interview, Wan likened Malignant to an obscure VHS with super-cool cover art, something you’d find buried deep in the back of a video library’s horror section. As somebody who spent the better part of their youth chasing down old unheard of horror films, Malignant is the movie I’ve been searching for all my life. It’s a love letter to the horror fandom and destined to become a cult classic. I dug it. A lot!
Spoiler: The film’s title, Malignant, is quite ingenious. Don’t overthink it, though, because it might just give something away.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)