There is perhaps no way to write a review of James Wan’s off-the-wall horror film Malignant without either being so vague as to be incomprehensible, or spoiling the whole fun mess. But I’m going to try.
Annabelle Wallis is Maddie, a young woman living outside Seattle with her husband, Derek (Jake Abel). Derek is murdered and Maddie badly hurt after an intruder breaks into their home, though the police suspect Maddie might be behind the killing. Following Derek’s death and her miscarriage, Maddie starts to believe that she has a telepathic connection with the killer as she begins to “see” more murders. As bodies pile up, Maddie enlists the help of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) to help her figure out her connection to the killer, whom she suspects is a figure from her repressed past.
For such a brash, noisy, violent horror, Malignant is a sneaky film, partially because it seems to be so obvious. We’ve seen this story before, after all, many times: a haunted young woman, plagued by abuse and an apparently traumatic childhood that she can’t remember; creepy images of a shadowy killer, glimpsed largely in profile and silhouette, whose bursts of bloody violence only serve to punctuate the suspense. We know what’s going to happen. Don’t we?
Well, we do and we don’t. Even if I tell you that the third act throws the slow arc of the first two into relief, there’s a high likelihood you can’t predict exactly what form thing will take. I certainly didn’t. What makes Malignant remarkable in some ways is not that it bends genre conventions, but that, for a big budget horror film from a major studio and director, it is so unconcerned with being palatable. It’s weird. It’s creepy. It’s off-kilter. It often doesn’t make sense—or maybe it does, but in a fever-dreamish sort of way. Murders are filmed in a combination of dark, moody tones and sudden explosions of bright red blood and flashing signs. Killers flee to underground lairs, a la Phantom of the Opera, and fashion weapons out of medical awards. Children’s hospitals perch high on gothic cliffs. Reality gives way to fantasy, rationality to dream logic.
Perhaps we should expect this from Wan, who gave us the Saw franchise, Aquaman, and the high-octane melodrama of the among the best Fast and Furious films. But somehow he manages to surprise in his willingness to push the bounds of good taste and believable horror, and in the fact that he makes everything work.
Much credit should go to the excellent screenplay from Akela Cooper, who also scripted Hell Fest and a number of genre TV credits, including an episode of American Horror Story. The script is both perfectly paced and has an injection of humor and disbelief that helps to focus the film and provides some needed respite from the violence. This is not a self-serious horror movie, but one that revels in its own extremes, and that recognizes that this is all supposed to be fun.
It’s that sense of fun that makes Wan, both as a director and as a producer, such a standout in horror today. None of his films take themselves overly seriously—even the popular and comparatively staid Conjuring films have an arch understanding of their ghosts and witches and demons. It’s a game, a joke, a delight—something that Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, all influences on the aesthetic and content of Malignant, also understood.
The tension between the seriousness of the subject matter and the wildness of the aesthetic is balanced by the performance of Annabelle Wallis as Maddie, a young woman abused by her husband, haunted by her past, and desperate to take command over her life. This becomes more prevalent over the course of the film, but early on we see Maddie returning home after her husband’s death and her miscarriage. While her sister encourages her to move out, Maddie refuses. This is indeed a horror convention, but there’s a triumph to Maddie’s tenacity—she won’t be cowed by the violence that she’s endured, a theme that runs through the entire film, even as she seems to be imprisoned by her repressed memories and uncanny connection to a violent killer.
The pacing of Malignant might annoy some, with the first two acts setting up the third, but anyone who has seen a giallo should probably know to expect this. The building suspense is the point—it’s all a setup, a laying of groundwork. The tonal shifts are not really shifts but progressions, a movement from something recognizable, even rote, to something gleefully unhinged. You can’t watch the first and last ten minutes of Malignant and make a reasonable guess how it got there, but who the hell watches horror films like that?
In a world of bleak “elevated” horror films, Malignant engages with the roller-coaster fun of the genre while also managing to inject some of our own cultural and psychological fears. Like any horror film, there is indeed a purpose to this mayhem, and it isn’t just entertainment. It certainly wears its sentiments on its sleeve, but no one should expect subtlety from this genre, or from James Wan. There are nods to Wan’s previous work, including Saw and Dead Silence, dressed up in a gleeful, punkish mashup of giallo and body horror. Malignant is the best of contemporary horror written in bold, bloody, flashing neon letters.
Malignant is in theaters and on HBOMax.