Letting outside thoughts and reports affect a film critique is not something I like to do, but sometimes it’s inevitable. Based on a strict embargo and lots of silence from most involved, Malignant went from being a break for director James Wan from his big-budget flicks, allowing him a chance to return to horror, to some kind of real-life monster lacking in buzz. However, a funny thing happened – people were finally able to see and talk about the film, noting that it’s actually pretty nuts. Having seen it myself, I can see it being divisive in some ways, but I’d much rather praise this original horror film for combing a high level of gonzo energy with Wan’s flair for inventive imagery.
Following an opening curtain-raiser assuring audiences there is fun to be had in this film, the story sets its focus on Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis). She’s in an abusive relationship with her husband (Jake Abel), which makes her suddenly develop an ability to see shocking visions of grisly murders. As we quickly learn these killings are actually happening, Madison’s efforts to inform the authorities only add to the troubles she must face, after realizing she may have a deeper connection to what’s taking place than she realized.
Trust me when I say I’m being as vague as possible in this basic plot synopsis. It’s actually easy to see why the marketing has made this film feel far more conventional than it is. In actuality, there’s a lot of things going on in Malignant that a trailer simply can’t get into without either divulging too much information or making the film seem too ridiculous to handle. The thing is, it’s the tone that works in this film’s favor.
While becoming a successful genre filmmaker, perhaps we’re not giving enough credit to how much quirkiness there really is in Wan’s horror filmography. Honestly, despite taking different approaches to their storytelling, one could easily link Wan and M. Night Shyamalan together in how they handle their characters. A-list actor or not, Wan has a familiar way of letting his performers go big in their roles, deliver dialogue that can often feel stilted, and exist in a way that would feel alien in reality.
None of this is a bad thing when the film is compelling, and Malignant is the sort of feature that requires some arch touches, not unlike Wan’s earlier films. Fortunately, this is not the days of Dead Silence (which I liked), as Wan has only improved as a director. Think more along the lines of Drag Me To Hell, which Sam Raimi made as a way to dial down in scale following the Spider-Man trilogy. Malignant takes on several ideas that continually risk pushing the film far over the rails but instead manage to work together toward one wild reveal, with a lot of fun baked in throughout.
Sure, that means some of the actors don’t quite match up with others. For her part, Annabelle Wallis deserves plenty of credit for managing to put a straight face on all of this madness (and casting Mckenna Grace as the younger Madison almost feels like an in-joke at this point). Many of the others, particularly those who end up victims, add little beyond big scared faces. The most intriguing casting comes in the form of George Young and Michole Briana White as a pair of detectives. Young’s Shaw is more sympathetic, while White’s Moss is the skeptic.
Having cops in a film like this, to begin with, means Wan has a chance to explore things through another avenue. Seeing as how Malignant is Wan’s homage to giallo (Edgar Wright’s giallo tribute is coming next month – your move Mike Flanagan!), exploring things from the perspective of detectives and victims makes plenty of sense (let alone the imagery, score, and violence). The film can coast a bit on familiar plot mechanics as it unravels its mystery by adding a procedural element. However, it also allows for one of the most exciting horror movie foot chases I’ve seen since David Fincher’s Seven (though people should also seek out Trick for slick horror parkour-chases). Why would a movie like this have an action sequence of that nature? Who cares when it looks that great and relies on practical effects and actual performers?
Is Malignant trying to be style over substance? I guess, but it’s of little concern. So much of this film relishes finding ways to yell boo at the audience and making it feel earned that it’s a credit to the movie that it knows how to hold back its true surprises. At 110 minutes, it’s a little long, but there’s so much good to come out of understanding what’s really going on that I’m hardly crying foul. Also, the film has plenty of bloodletting to satisfy the horror hounds.
Given the reputation Wan’s Saw has for igniting the torture genre, despite holding back on what’s actually shown, it’s fun to see how much blood and gore Wan has flying around in this film (along with plenty of body horror). Whether or not the idea was to create the ultimate horror experience, this really does feel like the kind of film a director in between billion dollar-grossing Aquaman movies would be happy to put together, using all the studio money they can get their hands on.
Again, without digging any deeper into where the film ultimately goes, just know there’s a lot of inspired bits of craziness taking place here. Malignant starts on a high and then finds ways to build tension and deliver on horrific sights. It’s as inventive as it needs to be, with the camera gliding around rooms in skillful ways while the actors do what they can to hold it all together. As the details are filled in, it’s great to have various ideas of where it’s all heading. Fortunately, Wan’s choice to push things to the extreme is precisely how to best match up an audience member feeling as though they’ve seen it all.