James Wan not only cut his teeth in the horror genre, but he’s also the man behind the camera of such franchise-launching movies as “Saw”, “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”. All three were modestly budgeted but wildly popular chillers. Wan stepped away from the spooky stuff to helm two major tentpole blockbusters, both big successes – 2015’s “Furious 7” and 2018’s “Aquaman”. Warner Bros. quickly signed him up for a second “Aquaman”, but before diving back into the big budget waters, Wan returns to his roots with “Malignant”, a devilishly creepy horror flick with a fun and nasty edge to it.
I suppose you could call me as a fan of Wan’s horror stuff. I generally like the first “Saw” but not its countless sequels, the two “Insidious” movies were fine yet nothing that ever stuck with me, and I truly love the two Wan-directed “Conjuring” films. They are what stoked my excitement for “Malignant”. But what’s best about his latest venture are the many things it does different; those things that set it apart and make it feel like something fresh (and more than a little bonkers).
Among my favorites of Wan’s many sly touches is how he teases us with an opening fifteen minutes that doesn’t feel new at all. In fact, it comes across an standard haunted house horror fare – kitchen appliances turning on by themselves, lights flickering throughout the house, the floors creaking and doors mysteriously opening. It’s all so intentionally unremarkable and (with the exception of one really cool overhead camera trick) it sees Wan retreading old ground that he himself helped make conventional.
But then “Malignant” surprises us with the first of several unexpected turns as Wan starts to show what he’s really up to. And along the way its story (conceived by Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu, and the film’s screenwriter Akela Cooper) takes on a number of different genre-inspired forms – that of a grisly crime thriller, a murder mystery, a supernatural horror, a slasher flick and something more that I won’t dare give away (PSA – avoid spoilers at all cost).
English actress Annabelle Wallis plays Madison Mitchell, a pregnant Seattle woman who we learn has suffered three miscarriages in two years. Her understandable anxiety isn’t helped by her cruel and abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). In an especially violent outburst, Derek slams Madison so hard against the wall it leaves her head gashed open. Later that night he gets his comeuppance at the hands of a brutal shadowy spirit.
The police chalk it up to a home invasion, but after learning of Derek’s abuse and noticing no signs of forced entry, they begin investigating Madison. In the meantime Madison begins having tormenting visions of gruesome murders as they’re happening in real-time across the city. The eerie way Wan and his effects team capture her visions is just one of several eye-popping touches you’ll find scattered throughout the movie.
I’m reluctant to share much more because “Malignant” is a movie that begs to be discovered. Part of the fun is in how the crafty storytelling lures us into thinking we have everything figured out only to prove us wrong over and over again. And as more truths are unearthed, Wallis ably navigates us through her emotionally knotty character arc, channeling terror in a way that’s more than simply screaming on cue. It’s a solid performance.
Everything comes together in a wild go-for-broke final act that you’ll never see coming. It’s as batty and gore-soaked as anything you’ll watch this year and earns every bit of the movie’s R-rating. It’s also a ton of fun. The last twenty minutes sees Wan and company gleefully letting loose with the kind of 80’s B-movie grotesquerie that once lined the horror section at your local video store.
It’s such a fitting finish for a movie that’s so proud of its influences – a movie that tips its hat to giallo and embraces camp without a moment of hesitation. It all makes ”Malignant” a movie that’s impossible to label or categorize. At the same time it’s not some cheap and messy hodgepodge of horror sub-genres. There’s a method to James Wan’s madness and he’s a nimble enough filmmaker to make it all work. What can I say, I kinda loved it. “Malignant” is now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.