When you’re a director responsible for over $3billion in box office returns, almost anything you put forward is going to be greenlit. James Wan, the brilliant mind behind 21st century horror classics like Saw and The Conjuring, has earned a level of trust from film studios the world over that his films will be profitable and, most crucially, entertaining. In the wake of trying his hand at blockbuster filmmaking with Furious 7 and JumpCut favourite Aquaman, Wan returns to his horror roots with this schlocky, violent, psychological horror-thriller, Malignant, the product of a man with absolute confidence in his abilities, and the kind of mainstream swing for the fences rarely seen nowadays.
Following years of tragic miscarriages, Annabelle Wallis’ pregnant Madison is stuck in a relationship, a terribly unhappy and suffering at the hands of her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel). Following an awful attack on her by her husband, Madison begins to experience visions of horrific murders in real time, witnessing them first-hand from the safety of her own home, as a leather-clad, seemingly supernatural serial killer roams the streets of Seattle seeking revenge against those who wronged them.
One must commend the marketing department for trailers that manage to sell Malignant as a conventional horror film. By focusing on the visions-of-murders narrative, Malignant has very easily been sold as a natural successor to Wan’s Insidious or The Conjuring franchises, and yet, it cannot be understated that this is as far from a conventional horror as we’ve seen in recent years. Certainly, it has its fair share of haunted house thrills, thrills that are much closer in tone to Insidious than they are The Conjuring, but Malignant’s secret weapon lies waiting in the shadows, longing to be uncovered by an audience expecting nothing like the thrills that await them. Where Malignant ends up is sure to divide audiences, but for this reviewer, Malignant is an absolute blast.
James Wan’s visual style, never better than in The Conjuring and ramped up to 11 in Aquaman, works effortlessly with the horror genre. Wan isn’t one to shy away from moments of flair, and a brilliantly executed top-down one-take that tracks Madison sprinting through the halls of her home is a remarkable sequence, highlighting the film’s terrific production design as the house transforms into a dolls house, a neat visual representation of Malignant’s central theme of self-ownership. He rarely uses the background to tell his story, there’s no need to scan the frame for potential scary delights, Wan is more of a guide, showing us exactly what he wants us to see at the exact right moment. Malignant has more than its fair share of classic horror sequences. The build-up of tension, a slow zoom into darkness, the fake-out jump scare, Wan uses them sparingly but effectively, knowing exactly how to play on an audience’s expectations. An early, wonderfully innocent jump scare (a rarity here, Wan isn’t out for cheap frights) that sees Madison’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), appear adorably in an upstairs bedroom window is very funny, but the subversion here serves a grander purpose.
The clash of tones of creating a jump scare from a cute moment alludes to Malignant’s off-kilter delights, dotting humour throughout to create the atmosphere needed for its third, stupendously inventive final act. While it does suffer from the occasional over-use of humour (there’s a sweet but somewhat unnecessary romantic subplot between Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and CSI agent, Winnie (Ingrid Bisu, executive producer and Malignant’s story writer) that feels at odds with the brutal deaths they’re standing over), the tonal mishmash does serve its purpose, priming you to let go and enjoy the ride as its barmy third act kicks into gear.
Annabelle Wallis plays Madison excellently, as terrified as she is infuriated at the idea of something foreign invading her home and her mind. In its darkest sequences, Wallis allows the supernaturality of it all to wash over her, entirely embracing its silliest traits and selling them for all they’re worth, justifying the tonally confused decisions as she throws herself headfirst into its conclusion. The detective duo, Shaw and Michole Briana White’s Detective Moss, are as befuddled as Madison and her sister at the paranormal activity that surrounds her, a welcome escape from the all-knowing Ed and Lorraine Warren, elevating proceedings by calling out Malignant’s boogeyman tropes, tongue firmly in-cheek. Even in the film’s most aloof moments, during the VHS tape sequences of a 90s psychiatric hospital, Jacqueline McKenzie’s Dr. Weaver delivers a satisfying throwback to the giallo brand of cinema, having no qualms delivering her extravagant one-liner as the film cuts to its opening credits, all in service of her role in the story. Each character has been written so serve a purpose to best tell its story; certainly, exposition and characters saying what doesn’t need to be said is a classic problem in horror, something Malignant doesn’t shy away from, but the characters are secondary to the psychological delights deep within Malignant’s blood-spattered walls.
What Malignant may lack in scares – it is worth emphasising the thriller element of this is far more prevalent than its horror – it makes up for in style, unerring confidence, insanity, and all-around fun. It’s one of the more inventive and engaging mystery stories, presenting numerous clues en route to its grand reveal. While the reveal may not be the hardest to guess, its execution is what sets it apart. When the moment lands, hands were clasped to mouths, and I practically leapt from my seat in total euphoric glee. The sequences that follow are the “James Wan turned up to 11” we’ve come to know and love, peaking with a spectacularly gruesome prison fight sequence and a deliriously impressive one-take fight sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in John Wick, The Raid, or even Tenet’s physics defining forwards-backwards action sequences. Malignant is James Wan exercising all of his most creative elements, and he’s crafted something genuinely special here.
Malignant has its fair share of flaws, and it’s a question just how much of the audience will go with James Wan and company on this wild, deranged ride as it veers a few too many minutes over the desired runtime of a feature such as this. However, for those that welcome this brand of all-out, balls to the wall, bonkers filmmaking that has gorgeous cinematography, thoroughly impressive action choreography, and a twist you really must see to believe, you’re sure to be rewarded with one of the most entertaining cinema trips of the year.
Malignant is currently in cinemas (as well as on HBO Max in the US).