Malignant is a movie you need to watch as soon as possible. Given our age of social media and the need to talk about wild and unexpected things, I don’t expect the secrets of James Wan’s new film to remain under wraps for long. I would even advise you to stop reading this review now just to go in as cold as possible even though I certainly won’t spoil any of the major reveals. What I can say is that Wan has created a full-blown treat of a horror film, a movie that doesn’t scare as much as it hits you with devilish delight in its increasingly outlandish reveals. Coupled with a Giallo edge and garish colors that heighten the intensity, Malignant is easily among the most fun experiences I’ve had watching a movie this year.
After a prologue at a research hospital in 1993 involving a dangerous patient named “Gabriel”, we cut forward to the present day in Seattle and meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a woman in an abusive marriage who’s trying to keep her latest pregnancy. However, after her violent husband slams her head against the wall, a dark force enters the couple’s life. The mysterious force can seemingly control electricity, has an awkward gait, and a penchant for absolutely ruining anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path. When Madison awakes, her husband is dead, she’s lost the pregnancy, and now has visions of this malevolent entity committing crimes against people she’s never met before. As Madison and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) try to convince Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) about this evil entity, they must also discover how exactly it’s connected to Madison.
Do not let anyone tell you how it’s connected to Madison. A large part of what makes Malignant so much fun is the element of discovery. At most, I would say go into the movie trying to think of the most bonkers outcome you could imagine, and then watch Malignant exceed it. I came kind of close in my prediction, but even that wasn’t enough to fully prepare me for off-the-wall Wan gets in his movie. But what makes these twists work so well is that Wan fully embraces them as extreme. He doesn’t try to “ground” his movie; quite the opposite, he uses dynamic camera moves, a colorful palette, and thoughtful editing to push the boundaries of reality so that the rest of the film is on the same wavelength as the bananas script. Too many other filmmakers make the mistake of taking their premise so seriously that it drains the surrounding film of all life; Wan takes his craft seriously and puts it to glorious ends while implicitly acknowledging the dark comedy at work here.
Horror doesn’t always have to be dour. Far from it, the genre contains multitudes, and while I wouldn’t classify Malignant as a horror-comedy, it remembers that there’s room in the genre to be playful and give the audience a good time beyond jump scares. Malignant isn’t a scary or unnerving horror film, but it is kind of horrifying in what gets revealed and in its gore. Wan has simply coupled that horror with a knowing wink and a nod that doesn’t feel self-satisfied as much as it’s inviting us to have a good time with this preposterous premise. By leaning into the fantastical, Malignant is a terrific experience that made me want to invite over a bunch of horror-loving pals, let the booze flow, and dive into what Wan has unleashed.
I will say that even if Malignant does get spoiled for you, I would argue that the strength of the direction and the outrageousness of the premise is so powerful that you can still enjoy the movie. While going in cold is the ideal way to experience Malignant, I also see this as a movie I would happily return to every October and working it into my spooky season rotation because it’s such an absolute blast. Yes, there are a few times when the exposition slows it down a bit, but then Wan turns around and provides a payoff so fulfilling that the groundwork was truly necessary to deliver such a strange reveal.
However you watch Malignant, it demands to be experienced. I’m not a die-hard Wan defender, and yet this film is easily my favorite thing I’ve ever seen from the filmmaker. Wan has shown he knows how to scare audiences with films like Insidious and The Conjuring, and he also knows how to please them with movies like Furious 7 and Aquaman. Malignant is like a hybrid of the two, a grotesque and captivating mashup that knows how to use a horror framing to tickle and bewitch his audience. Start spooky season early with this one. You won’t want to wait.
Malignant is currently in theaters and on HBO Max.
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