James Wan knows how to make a movie look good. Be it a high-end blockbuster like Aquaman or the creepy and intimate Conjuring, his films are slick and exciting and entertaining. Malignant is certainly no different and Wan fans should rejoice. From clever jump scares and unreliable fugue states to strange flashbacks and the snap-crackle-pop of breaking bones, Malignant is fun, weird, and, yes, entirely ridiculous. As great as Wan can craft a movie, many times his scripts severely detract from true greatness. Aquaman, for all its flash and splash, was truly terrible. Malignant, although leaning more into the world of the Conjuring, was not much better.
Wan’s talents build the more he directs. Look at the level of craftsmanship between the first two Conjuring movies, as an example. The Conjuring was tight and dusty and shadowy while the sequel jumped into blockbuster action with dissolving backdrops, believable levitation, and painful possession. Malignant is terrifyingly beautiful to view. The rain-washed setting of Seattle was perfect for a tale of mystery and misplaced revenge. The shadows here are dark and deep. The camera swings around bleeding memory into reality. Lights flicker. Sounds echo. This is horror at its finest.
Once the true threat is revealed, unfortunately, the remainder becomes merely comical. Gothic horror gives way to comic book action and the movie quickly disintegrates. All the make-up and f/x and monster-movie reverb sadly cannot elevate this one from the basest of tropes.
The formula for many a good scare story lies as the origin here as well – that of familial tragedy and revenge on those who perpetuate the sin. Madison Mitchell is pregnant but not necessarily happy. Her abusive husband certainly does not make her life any easier. After one particular altercation, Madison suffers a blow to her head and her world changes. She begins having waking dreams where she witnesses gruesome murders.
From there the mystery grows and questions begin. Why is she receiving these visions? What is her relation to the killer, as well as the victims? Yet, instead of clever reveals, the story falls back onto stereotypical soap-opera fantasies, each which become more and more ridiculous and with zero real explanation. Yes, the killer’s origin is a good one – and original enough – but even Bruce Banner required a jolt of gamma radiation to unleash his monster. Malignant was missing that jolt.
Annabelle Wallis plays Madison as a defeated ghost. And she lends good physicality to the role. In the end, though, she is reduced to nothing more than a scream queen. And man, she screams well.
The true find for Malignant is Maddie Hasson who plays Madison’s sister, Sydney. She is spunky, fun, and real. She, perhaps even more than the police, wants to find answers out of care for her sister. She is more than a care keeper; she is the true friend of the movie.
Some of the supporting roles are fun. George Young’s five o’clock shadow plays the gruff but likable Detective Shaw. And Ingrid Bisu, a James Wan veteran (and his spouse), returns as a CSI tech who definitely deserved more screen time.
James Wan’s creative prowess continues to grow. The digital f/x bleeds with the practical that truly up the stakes for all future horror movies. The killer’s stilted movements are gruesomely unique. Madison’s shifting of perspectives is full-on glorious. Malignant looks great.
Yet, there are also some deeply questionable moments. The medical institute, for instance, and yes of course there is a medical institute involved, smacks of a matte painting from the seventies. And the killer’s voice sounds like full-on camp aping Evil Ash from Army of Darkness. Are these the results of budgetary decisions, or strange callbacks?
Another strange callback is Joseph Bishara’s 1980’s dance beat score. Elements of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho strings are mixed in with John Carpenter’s piano notes from Halloween all with a rocking disco guitar jam. The music is loud, rocking, and entirely fantastic.
Malignant is sure to excite and entertain James Wan’s legion of fans. The f/x are cutting edge and the cinematography is a showcase of high-end horror cinema. Like Aquaman before it, the story goes off the deep end and never recovers. This creepy, solemn feature escalates into a superhero movie with a pitiful excuse of a resolution.
There will no doubt be a cycle of sequels to come, each more ridiculous than the last. I am hoping that James Wan’s next horror movie is more spooky than super.