September 13, 2021
When talking about the most popular and influential horror films of this century, James Wan’s name pops up on more than one occasion. Spawning the Saw franchise in 2004, Wan illustrated his knack for scary thrills doused in buckets of blood. He would tone things down to a PG-13 rating for the first two installments in the Conjuring and Insidious series. He made sure to prove that he wasn’t just a one-trick pony as he lent his kineticism to Furious 7 and Aquaman (and the upcoming sequel). But after helming several $200 million productions, Wan has gone back to his horror roots with Malignant.
Madison is pregnant and living with her abusive husband - the kind that won't hesitate to bash her head against the wall when he doesn’t get his way. One night, the couple’s house is broken into, leading to the gruesome deaths of the husband and Madison’s unborn child. Her trauma doesn’t end there as she begins to have vivid nightmares of the killer striking down other prey. It becomes clear that these nightmares are visions, as Madison is paranormally linked to the masked killer, as they share a connection dating back to their childhood in a now-abandoned research hospital. In a race against time, Madison must piece together the past and convince the skeptical police before more lives are taken.
When announcing production on this film, Wan claimed that it would be nothing like his previous horror films, which relied on jump-scares and the occult to convey his version of dread. Instead, Malignant would take influence from the Italian horror sub-genre of “Giallo”, which reached its heights in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with films such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria (delightfully remade by Luca Guadagnino in 2018) and Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. These films were defined by their mystery elements, intense color palettes, disregard for logic, and sickening violence.
Wan commits fully to his Giallo promise, delivering grisly murders and an outrageous plot that must be seen to believe. Wan’s camera never lingers for more than a moment. Rather, it whips and pans as we are right with Madison witnessing these unseemly events. It keeps the plot moving at a steady pace, with the last act picking up momentum towards a bloody conclusion.
While he made good on his Giallo promise, Wan doesn’t fully commit to breaking away from his overproduced previous features. The earlier sequences of Malignant, particularly the home invasion, are carbon copies of Wan’s earlier work as characters shuffle around a dimly lit house as they hear creepy noises, only for it to conclude with a jump scare. This modern trope builds a wall between the film’s two halves, with the former stuck in the present and the latter embellishing the past.
The acting and writing in Malignant fall way down in the priority list, with Wan’s direction overtaking all. There is no development for any of these characters, except for a pointless lab technician who has the hots for the handsome detective. Given not much to do besides delivering exposition and crafting some semblance of humanity, the actors are free of blame for their faults.
But what the script lacks in quality, it makes up for in originality as it tells a ludicrously bonkers story that has been sorely lacking from this genre. There is a cult-classic feeling to this story, one that may find more appreciation down the road.
James Wan’s Malignant is a melding of modern horror tropes with classic horror lunacy. There’s enough blood and guts to make even the most seasoned horror veteran wince, and a shockingly outlandish story to pave over the film’s other faults. You may not fully enjoy the film, but you will never forget the experience of watching it.