Where to start with Malignant? By now you’ve heard James Wan’s latest is the craziest horror movie since A Cure for Wellness (which is totally underrated, by the way). There’s also the small matter of its rather dubious giallo influences, best exemplified in a brilliant choice of weapon. More accurately, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the kind of schlocky horror movies that were being churned out ad nauseum in the early to mid-2000s. Malignant’s inherent insanity has likely been oversold at this point, regardless of how much or little you’ve read and heard. But, at the same time, it’s also worth acknowledging this is still a pretty nutso movie, even by its own slight aspirations.
Our heroine is Annabelle Wallis, last seen in the execrable Annabelle movies, which share DNA with Malignant since they’re spinoffs of Wan’s Insidious series. Hidden underneath a truly ghastly wig – it’s so bad the film has been dubbed MaWIGnant in certain quarters – Wallis’s character, Madison, is introduced as a meek wannabe mother who’s suffered the ire of her sadistic husband, Derek (Jake Abel) one too many times but seems reluctant to leave him, as many abuse victims are. Derek even blames her for their many miscarriages, marking him out as a real villain. However, after their already creepy Victorian home is infiltrated by a spooky specter, Derek is handily no longer an issue for Madison.
Her luck seems to be changing, even despite yet another miscarriage, but soon Madison realizes she’s got a telekinetic connection with a serial killer who’s stalking the city, killing people at random (or so it seems). When she goes to the cops, alongside plucky sister Sydney (scene-stealer Maddie Hasson, who for some glorious reason has been gifted Drew Barrymore’s haircut from Scream), Madison understandably becomes their prime suspect. Suddenly, she’s under pressure to solve the murders and figure out her own, possibly personal connection to them before it’s too late, all the while hoping the next victim isn’t being lined up at that very moment.
That’s about as much plot as we can get into without venturing into spoiler territory but, even if I spelled out exactly what happens scene by scene, it still wouldn’t ruin Malignant’s many bizarre delights. The first act is mostly dull and by-the-numbers, Wan treading water with essentially the same spooks he trotted out in Insidious, but with slightly more gore this time around, until a MASSIVE swerve sends the film careening sideways. However, this is just the beginning of the escalating madness. There are significantly more twists to come, which increase in insanity as the plot unravels. The fact it makes little sense, even as it’s happening, hardly matters.
You’re either going to be along for the ride, accepting that people park on cliff edges and go through insane asylums in the dead of night, or not. Malignant isn’t necessarily a good movie, or even a competent one. Wan swings for the fences in an impressively unselfconscious manner, but this is still the same sleek, slick paranormal-themed output we’ve come to expect since he shook off the shackles of Saw. The script, credited to Wan, wife Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper, contains a few genuinely funny moments, particularly those involving an overly enthusiastic forensics expert with a crush on the lead detective. Mostly, though, the laughs aren’t intentional, rather they result from the escalating lunacy.
Wallis is tasked with doing a whole mess of different stuff here, and she shines through despite the dodgy head-wear (though major credit goes to the terrific Marina Mazepa, whose fight choreography is hugely impressive). Madison cycles through several emotions in the space of a single scene – fear, depression, confusion, longing – and each one is effectively communicated through the actress’s expressive, wide eyes. Even when Malignant isn’t fully or even barely believable, Wallis’s protagonist, and her painfully resonant struggle to become a mother, is. Peripheral characters make an impression too, particularly George Young and Michole Briana White as the hapless cops investigating the case, but the standouts are all women, namely Wallis, Hasson, and Bisu herself, who plays the gore-hungry crime scene technician.
This is, unsurprisingly considering the two female writers, a very womanly story on its surface. But the film starts off on shaky ground with a disturbing domestic assault, suggesting a lack of consideration for, or even interest, in the overarching effects of trauma. There’s nothing terribly over the top, gore-wise, in the movie to justify its R rating (18 in the U.K. and Ireland) but this moment might have been what pushed it over the edge. Regardless, it’s queasily misjudged, particularly given the goofiness to come. Likewise an injury sustained in the moment is relied on too heavily to communicate what’s really happening – if you guess it early on, prepare to be very annoyed by how long it takes everybody else to catch on. There are soap opera level reveals throughout, each more shocking than the last, but if you’re paying attention, there’s only really one way this can go. To his credit, Wan goes fully there and further.
It’s tough to fully elucidate what kind of film Malignant really is. Likely, Wan’s delightfully deranged little shocker will remind you of several different horror movies at once, each wilder than the last – the opening sequence could be taken as a reference to the legendary opening of Jurassic Park, for instance – but there’s little truly innovative here because this is, at its core, still a mainstream, blockbuster horror movie, made by committee to capture the attention of as many film-goers as possible. The biggest shock, in fact, might just be the synth-wave cover of Pixies classic “Where is My Mind?” which pops up frequently to ensure the filmmakers get their money’s worth. Perhaps Malignant has become such a talking point because we’re so starved for genuinely risky content outside of indie fare, but the fact is lower budget stuff has more freedom to be genuinely inventive, rather than to simply shock for shock’s sake. There’s more care for the characters there, too, because the stakes are so much higher. Taken as it is, Wan’s latest is certainly enjoyable while it’s on, but it’s not much more than that.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): James Wan
Writer(s): James Wan, Ingrid Bisu Akela Cooper
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
Release date: September 10, 2021
Studio/Production Company: Atomic Monster
Run Time: 111 minutes