At some point in the future, horror fans will regard James Wan in the same way they do Wes Craven or John Carpenter. To date, Wan is responsible for not one, but three, major horror franchises. Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring – that’s an impressive track record. But it’s been five years since Wan helmed a horror movie. Over the last few years, the Australian filmmaker has been busy playing in DC Comics’ sandbox. In between Aquaman and its upcoming sequel, however, Wan found time to direct a completely original work – Malignant. It’s a completely untested intellectual property for horror. No zombies, no vampire, and no dystopian future. In fact, Malignant looks and feels like something from the 1970s or 1980s. Overall, critics have had pretty favourable reviews. Unfortunately, audiences stayed home on opening weekend.
Pregnant and trapped in an abusive relationship, Madison ‘Maddie’ Mitchell wakes up late one night to find her husband brutally murdered. In the following days, bizarre waking nightmares of a mysterious figure committing more murders leave Maddie paralyzed. But the murders in Maddie’s nightmares are happening in real life. As the police uncover connections between the victims and Maddie herself, she believes the murderer may be someone from a past she has long forgotten.
Malignant Mixes Giallo Sensibilities with Contemporary Horror
No synopsis could do Malignant justice. In fact, even spoilers probably wouldn’t completely ruin the ending. For lack of a better word, Malignant is a bonkers movie in all the right ways. Wan and writer Akela Cooper craft a modern homage to the Giallo in style and substance. With its opening Malignant hints at classic Gothic horror as it transitions from a massive seaside hospital to a looming old-style Seattle house. Wan dips into some of his old tricks as he plays with shadows and figures tucked away into corners of the screen. For at least a third of the movie, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching another supernatural haunting from Wan, albeit a very stylish one. Wan tightly paces Malignant from its intense opening, rarely slowing things down, and aptly balancing scares with exposition.
For lack of a better word, Malignant is a bonkers movie in all the right ways.
Eventually, Malignant shifts course before completely veering into what’s an absolutely indescribable final act. If the movie initially feels like Gothic horror, Wan’s introduction of neon red lighting alongside Joseph Bishara’s delirious score signals the shift to a contemporary Giallo homage. In terms of its visual aesthetics, Wan does a remarkable job of re-creating most Giallo calling cards including the shadowy killer and grisly death scenes. Though Malignant very much invests in its mystery there’s no shortage of shocking violence. No one is ever likely to forget the jail cell scene. In fact, Malignant’s final act fully embraces a Grand Guignol excess of carnage. Admittedly, Wan occasionally loses his grip on tone. Sometimes you’ll find yourself mixing laughs with screams as the movie veers toward the ridiculous. While it’s in keeping with the movie’s chosen style, it won’t appeal to everyone.
Malignant Boasts One of the Most Original – and Bizarre – Stories in Recent Memory
Like Giallo movies from the 1970s and 1980s, Cooper’s story is a mystery-heavy affair mixing police procedural, slasher, and supernatural elements. Few movies in recent memory have been so good at keepings audiences off balance. Malignant’s story twists and turns, making it difficult to figure out where it’s going. And as it twists and turns, Malignant teases different horror sub-genres. Not everyone will like the big reveal. Consistent with Wan’s tone, Malignant walks a thin line between absurd and clever. Don’t expect much in the way of scientific plausibility. And Malignant leaves more than a few questions unanswered. But it’s gonzo story is also very much in keeping with the Giallo. For those that can set aside any qualms they may have with the intentionally silly plot, Malignant is undoubtedly unpredictable. Besides you’re not going to see anything quite like that third act in any mainstream horror movie.
…Malignant walks a thin line between absurd and clever.
Everything in Malignant is held together by Annabelle Wallis’ (Peaky Blinders) performance. She makes for a compelling protagonist whose mix of vulnerability and increasing paranoia adds another layer of ambiguity to the story. In a far-out-there movie soaked in neon-coloured style and blood, Wallis tailors her performance to a high melodrama that is a perfect compliment. Though Maddie Hasson’s (We Summon the Darkness) role as Maddie’s sister, Sydney, initially looks like comic relief, Malignant’s story allows room for the character to grow. In addition to being quite likeable, Hasson’s character and performance lends a bit of an emotional anchor to the bizzaro movie. Both George Young and Michole Briana White, as Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss, are excellent, with Young particularly standing out.
Truthfully, Malignant’s disappointing box office debut isn’t all that surprising. Aside from the fact that Malignant is a completely original property, Wan’s Giallo tribute is probably one of the most off-the-wall horror movies to hit theatres in recent memory. This was never going to be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’. And that’s perfectly fine. Hopefully, low box office receipts don’t dissuade Hollywood studios from swearing off of untested ideas entirely. Because for audiences in the mood for something different, Malignant is a breath of fresh air. If there isn’t a sequel in the movie’s future, Malignant is a strong candidate for future cult status.