Australian filmmaker James Wan needs no introduction. Since directing Saw and its super successful sequels, he’s played a directing or producing role in several of the biggest horror projects of the last 15 years (Insidious, The Conjuring, and Annabelle to name a few.)
His most recent effort Malignant dropped in on us days ago like a storm of chaos, and within hours of its release to HBO Max it had the internet raving with passion and ranting perplexed. There’s a nutty list of reasons as to why this flick has people talking.
James Wan’s Malignant is a film best enjoyed when entering with little understanding as to what it’s about. There’s much I can’t share about the movie, including a shocking twist reminiscent of older outrageous horror that doesn’t shy from “going there” (ridiculously gross places.)
What’s safe to be said is this is one of the wilder movies you’ll see in your lifetime; like a bloody homage to schlocky 80s creature features, meets a modern, stylish haunted house chiller, meets a sort of darkly comic fantasy film. It’s a decidedly chaotic, spectacularly entertaining mess of scary visuals, gruesome violence, and almost comic book-adaptation action. Wan’s style is all over the place and his tongue is in cheek, as we jump between paranormal frights, awkward drama acted hammily, and gross out mania. Frankly, I feel this flick’s for the horror heads, lovers of the absurd, and general drunks, but any viewer can acknowledge there’s a wild world well-constructed here, by an inspired filmmaker with a grip on scary and strange sense of humor.
The film opens in the 90s with a hospital sitting ominously atop a hill. A team of psychiatrists, doctors, and facility workers struggle to tame a boy in a room who we don’t see. A demonic voice sounds from the room. Blood’s splattering as bodies pile. After what feels like a bit of farcical acting, Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) announces gravely they’ll have to remove “the tumor.”
We cut to the present day and meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis,) a pretty young pregnant lady in the Seattle area who lives in a giant old house with her abusive, jerk boyfriend Derek (Jake Abel) who loves watching UFC. After a slight argument he slams her into a wall, which causes her to cut her head. Derek runs to the kitchen and she locks herself in the room. As Madison sits seeing visions, a dark, stringy-haired crawling creature appears in the kitchen and attacks Derek. Madison later enters the kitchen to see him on the ground with his neck broken. While being treated at the hospital, Madison learns she lost her baby.
Following the miscarriage and death of her boyfriend, Madison for some reason chooses to stay alone in her giant house where a contorted, crawling, demonic-looking specimen recently broke in and committed murder. It’s a horror film, after all. She has the support and care of her sister Maddie (Sydney Lake,) who stops by, but Madison’s life is a haunting mess – the creature makes frequent appearances in her place; it contacts her and unrelated folks through phones and radios, and she begins having horrible nightmares of murders being committed – vivid ones, and just before these murders are carried out in real life.
Now Madison’s entangled with the police and their suspicions. Does she know this stringy-haired creature? How does she seem to know exactly when and where these gruesome kills are going down? The main cop sides with Madison and wants to believe that this home-invading demon thing exists. He even has a run-in with the crab-walking ghoul in what amounts to a thrilling chase scene and fight. Still, Madison must know something beyond this surface nuttiness. The rest is up to you to watch.
Malignant kicks off with obtuse gory madness, then simmers into what feels like an ominous paranormal haunt, following a paranoid depressive woman post-tragedy in a scary old house. Wan gives us plenty of foggy outer shots of the home, and frankly I find each one beautiful. The camera lingers overhead with doom, or rises up from the ground with vengeance. Scares featuring the stringy-haired creature invade steadily. One shot looking outside as the creature appears beneath a light post is pure horror.
Wasting no time, Wan wedges in more styles and different feels as more story unfolds, lending to zaniness. Some of the acting in dramatic scenes appears deliberately stale, like it’s parodying a commercial. Lines are generic, characters act almost soapy. It starts becoming more apparent there’s a joke to be in on. Moments of seriousness are concluded with a dry one-liner from a character, before we’re catapulted into another scare or marvelously violent murder sequence.
Horror veers in multiple lanes, between haunting imagery, sleazy slasher antics, and grotesque body horror. Filing the horror of Malignant under one specific subgenre is difficult, but I can say for certain when matters aren’t melodramatic or cinematically over-the-top this is a real frightfest. There’s a lot of suspenseful teasing as we’re pulled into what feels like a jump scare, only to be led astray or given a creepy visual or voice atmospheric as opposed to a jumpy shock. Wan does utilize some jump scares, but favors the lingering, unsettling shots or fantastical sequences. He steers clear of torturous activity, save for a few short scenes in an attic where the creature holds a woman captive. What Wan does evidence is a real love for chiling, raspy voices coming through archaic means of communication. I, for one, appreciate a threatening voice speaking to a little girl through a toy phone in my scary movies. There’s no denying Malignant covers a lot of horror ground.
The effects work on display is impressive, and honestly I’m an old school film fan who prefers visual effects to be practical. Action and visuals here are anything but. Rooms transform around characters. Wounds pulsate. People are thrown by an unseen force. The creature somersaults off balconies, for God’s sake. The action hits nutty levels through some of the chases and fights, and Malignant does become ludicrous visually. At times you feel like you’re watching a comic book adaptation, but it’s cool to witness and exciting to follow regardless.
I described the acting as “hammy” multiple times, and it does come off that way, although the teetering on ironic performance style pairs well with the film’s undecided mood and overall outrageousness. On the other hand, Annabelle Wallis is a standout actress in the lead. She’s believable but never pathetic and pitiful as a victimized leading lady. Wallis is compelling and beautifully expressive, with a telling set of eyes. She runs the range of emotions which I found to be palpable. Honestly I nearly shed a tear during the hospital bed scene when Madison finds out she lost her baby.
Having just praised Malignant‘s leading actress for her dramatic performance, I realize even further how hard this film is to pinpoint, and that may just be the idea. Some of the acting is raw and riveting. Other characters perform like they’re on a sketch show. A clear, stylistic through line isn’t evident. As the tale unwinds it’s as though the moods and visions of multiple filmmakers collided for an intentional tonal mismash. The film’s score is orchestral and heavy. Subject matter ranges from grave and unsettling to pure craziness. Scares are shocking and memorable. Action and chase sequences are showy and spectacular.
Obviously Malignant doesn’t have a set mood or plain intention. It’s a crazed and sporadic shocker with wild visuals. Its’ horror is inspired, gimmicky and modern, while also playing tribute to the brazen creature features of schlocky horror history. The shock of Malignant does come as a shock, though this twist arrives early before the wrap-up and what follows can’t aptly conclude all of the nuttiness we just witnessed.
I didn’t love Malignant‘s conclusion, but I was nothing short of entertained through its runtime, leaning into the effective frights, laughing at twists, and staring appalled at the gross out bits of body horror. It’s a showy, scary, riveting mess – beautifully crafted but tonally incoherent, successfully confusing and funny, and no doubt shocking. James Wans’ Malignant is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. The horror fans and true freaks out there owe themselves this.