Director: James Wan
Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michole Briana White
Run Time: 111 mins
Malignant is a welcome and wholly original return to the horror genre for director James Wan. Wan has had an impressive career to date, establishing himself as a top-tier horror director, launching three very different but highly successful franchises – Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring. He has since turned to bigger budget mainstream fare such as Furious 7 and Aquaman. It is always a promising sign when a director chooses to revisit their roots and tackle a lower budget original concept. Wan’s horror films have been key proponents for the genre in the last twenty years, Saw sparking a wave of splatter horror, Insidious tackling the themes of the supernatural and astral projection and The Conjuring also deals with the supernatural but in a true crime setting. Subsequent filmmakers have tried to ape Wan to mixed results, particularly the jump scare which audiences have increasingly grown tired of. Lesser filmmakers rely on this effect without building up tension or setting an unsettling atmosphere and it has become a very mechanical device. Malignant has been marketed very much in the same vein as a supernatural horror film, more in line with Insidious and The Conjuring, but the result is very far removed from these films and is not what you’d expect.
Malignant is Wan’s interpretation of a Giallo horror and this is a fascinating film that embraces a camp tone. The film opens in a psychiatric hospital where we see obscured glimpses of a psychiatric patient named Gabriel who has become uncontrollable and murders and maims many of the hospital staff. The doctors manage to restrain him and vow to ‘cut out the cancer’ before the opening credits roll.
We then meet our protagonist of the film, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who is well into her pregnancy who lives with her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel). After an argument, Derek slams Madison’s head is slammed into a wall and the husband is murdered by what we are led to believe is a supernatural serial killer entity. There is a connection between Madison and Gabriel, where she can see the murders unfold in her mind but she cannot do stop them and the police do not take her seriously.
Malignant is an ambitious risk for James Wan and the story takes unexpected turns. The first act seems fairly generic on the surface, in the vein of Insidious, although Wan does establish an unsettling atmosphere. The film then morphs into a David Fincher-esque serial killer mystery, where it is at its best. A chase scene between the police and the assailant mid-way through is kinetic and heart-pounding. Its last half an hour or so is outrageous with a bonkers plot twist and is a cacophony of gleeful gore, body horror and John Wick-like ultraviolence, with a hint of Sam Raimi camp.
Wan wildly succeeds in establishing a viable threat with his characterisation of Gabriel, who moves strangely and only wants to inflict pain on his victims. Wan never tries to go for the same type of scare twice, which is refreshing, and the film is devoid of jump scares, which is a bold move considering he pioneered the trope.
The performances are fitting for the camp tone. Annabelle Wallis has played in some real brainrot such as Annabelle and The Mummy but her performance compliments the camp tone and it’s not a performance to take overly seriously. George Young and Michole Briana White as a pair of detectives are excellent and get some strong and humorous lines, and storywriter Ingrid Bisu makes an impression in a small role as one of the forensics. Contortionist Marina Mazepa, who provides the physical performance of Gabriel (whilst Ray Chase provides the voice), is astonishing in that the backward, inhuman movements of the villain are genuine. She is destined for great things. Perhaps she will be utilised in the same vein as Javier Botet, whose Marfan syndrome has allowed him to bring many horror villains to life with his body’s hyperlaxity.
The film is beautifully shot by Michael Burgess, who knows to hold onto a shot longer than is needed to create an unsettling atmosphere. A birds eye shot of Madison scurrying around her house is electrifying, portraying her like a helpless puppet in a doll house. The score by Joseph Bishara is one of the composer’s best and he crafts some memorable themes, erratically veering between Bernard Herrmann reminiscent melodies, unsettling soundscapes and techno synth.
Malignant is a swing in the right direction for James Wan and I’m very glad the film exists as it is a wild ride from start to finish, even if he tries to throw a lot at the screen and it doesn’t all stick. Its twist lenses the first half of the film in a new light but I’m not sure quite how well this film will hold up on a repeat viewing. It is refreshing to see Wan back in the genre he works best in, an in-demand director with a large amount of creative clout and he has chosen to make something so wild. Malignant is an excellent addition in the genre and I predict it is destined for a cult classic status.