Malignant, 2021, directed by James Wan — 4/5 stars
James Wan’s filmmaking, like it or not, has been hugely impactful on the horror genre as it stands today. Setting into motion three of the most profitable horror franchises of all time in Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring respectively, Wan has created a veritable empire of contemporary horror films, each with their own distinct style and target audience. Following these successes, Wan was given what was essentially a blank check from film distributor Warner Bros. Pictures, and with that check sought to create something “bold, new and different.” While Malignant certainly isn’t for everyone, prompting widely varied opinions even from fans of the genre, it certainly succeeds at being a fresh, unexpected idea. Wan wears his influences on his sleeve, combining elements from Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento, more modern horror-comedy directors like Sam Raimi and the deeply disturbing body horror of David Cronenberg. Using these ideas, and combining them with a distinctly outlandish premise, he constructs a silly, gross and endlessly entertaining movie.
Malignant makes it clear what kind of movie it wants to be. The opening shot orients the audience in 1993, at Simion Research Hospital, a gothic, excessively spooky building perched on a cliff and shrouded in fog. There, Dr. Florence Weaver, played by Jacqueline McKenzie, explains to a video camera that one of their patients, Gabriel, has become increasingly violent and dangerous. This video recording is interrupted by a fellow doctor entering the room to alert Weaver that Gabriel has escaped. The audience is quickly pulled out of the ‘90s video tape aesthetic and into a faster-paced, tension-filled sequence. A crane-mounted camera follows the characters down a narrow hallway, in what has now become part of Wan’s high-budget, claustrophobic style. Within these first moments, audiences know what they’re in for. The plot, writing and performances from the cast are stilted and trope-filled, but it feels intentional due to a few dialogue moments that poke casual fun at the genre. The film’s lighting often draws attention to itself with bright reds and blues that immediately conjure comparisons to movies like Suspiria, and the excessive gore will likely remind viewers of Evil Dead 2, or the so-called “schlocky” B-horror of the 1980s.
After the first five minutes, the narrative flashes forward to the present day, centering the story on Madison Lake, played by Annabelle Wallis. Wallis, as well as the rest of the cast, is only adequate in the leading role, but that’s all the script requires of her. The story is relatively straightforward, until a shockingly exciting twist, and Lake acts as a terrified vehicle for the audience for the large part of the runtime. After her husband is murdered by Gabriel, Lake begins being tormented by visions of his other victims as they’re killed. The story smoothly segues into these visions with excellently polished visual effects, the world melting and morphing around Wallis as the camera circles her. These sequences certainly have their scary moments, too, with Wan relying less on jump scares and more on subtle lighting that allows the audience to notice startling imagery on their own. The intensity of these scenes is also accentuated by Joseph Bishara’s booming, electronic score, something that stands out against the usual symphonic soundtracking of today’s horror movies.
It can’t be overstated just how fun and truly crazy the film becomes in the third act, when all of elements in the mixing pot that is Malignant are turned up to full throttle. If viewers allow themselves to buy into the out-of-the-box concept, Wan’s new project will be a fantastic roller coaster ride, and is well-worth a return to the movie theater.