You will know within five minutes whether or not Malignant is the movie for you.
Saw/Insidious/Conjuring/Aquaman maestro James Wan’s demented new horror movie opens with in 1993 at a psychiatric hospital where a group of doctors confront what appears to be a monstrous young patient. Seems like a pretty boilerplate prologue for a horror picture, right? Well, except for the fact that this particular psychiatric hospital is a towering Gothic cathedral with massive spires stabbing into the sky, set on the very edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
Why? Screw you, that’s why.
As the prologue plays out with crashing camera zooms, geysers of gore, snapping bones, and every line of dialogue delivered with pointedly stilted sincerity, Wan is setting the temperature for how the next two hours are going to play out. You’re either on board for the fever dream he’s cooked up, or the entire thing is going to hit with a thud.
Malignant is not ‘over the top’. That would suggest that there is even a ‘top’ perceptible from the stratospherically deranged vantage point from which Malignant operates. It enters a canon of cinema occupied primarily by Brian de Palma at his most split diopter indulgent, that Dario Argento movie where Jennifer Connelly controls bugs telepathically and a monkey murders someone with a straight razor, and any movie where Nicholas Cage and/or one of his loved ones is set on fire.
Malignant occupies a totally separate dimension of human life then the one we all live in and where movies are generally set. It’s a horror movie specific hellworld where no human being ever makes a single rational choice, where the colors have been almost completely desaturated unless someone is about to get murdered in which case bold fluorescent reds and blues soak the frame, where every night hosts either a raging storm or huge fogbanks. Sometimes the fog is indoors. OFTEN the fog is indoors.
Joel Schumacher would look at this movie’s dry ice budget and go, “Jesus, guys, tone it down.”
It’s not that you can’t find other movies operating at this level of lunatic abandon, especially if you have an appetite for international genre cinema. But to see a movie this unhinged from a major studio, from an A-list director, at this budget level, and delivered with such technical precision in perfect step with shameless, gonzo invention, that is something special. There’s nothing that you can even really compare Malignant to in the current horror landscape, since so much of American horror is still picking through the sloppy seconds left by Wan’s work on the The Conjuring movies. And here is, vaulting past his own franchise(s) and delivering a movie that gleefully refuses to play by the rules of any conventional classification.
After that prologue, Malignant jumps ahead to the present day and the seemingly unrelated story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis, returning to Wan’s circle after starring in Annabelle). Madison returns home after a long day at work and gets into an altercation with her abusive husband. The ugliness of that encounter is a jarring tonal shift after the loopy opening, but we’re only pausing briefly in this realm of realism and discomfort. That night, a mysterious figure breaks into Madison’s home and gruesomely murders her husband before attacking her.
Madison survives, largely unscathed, but she soon finds herself the recipient of terrifying visions in which the same assailant, known as ‘Gabriel’, begins stalking and killing the doctors from the hospital in the prologue.
Madison’s seeming connection to the murder spree earns her the unwanted attentions of hardboiled detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White). As more and more people meet gloriously gorgeously gruesome ends, Madison’s only ally is her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and together they try to get to the bottom of Madison’s connection to Gabriel.
Everyone here seems to fully understand the assignment and dutifully play this material as straight-down-the-middle as possible. While humor is baked into the very DNA of this project, Wan never makes the mistake of having his cast tip their hands to the absurdity of this material. Young’s all stoic handsome decency, while White snarls every line of dialogue given to her, playing her hardboiled detective to the absolute nth degree.
Wallis meanwhile is ferociously committed, treating every fit of terror as if each one is going to be her Oscar clip this year. No matter how cartoonish things get, Wallis is bringing everything she has to the role. And as the one character here who even vaguely resembles an actual human being, Hasson is extremely likable grounding force. The sisterly bond between Madison and Sydney is the movie’s beating heart, and both Wallis and Hasson work overtime to make that thread sincerely register in the midst of all the mayhem.
And oh, there is such mayhem.
For as much as I appreciate how hard the cast is working, the real star here is Wan, his camera, and his palpable, cackling delight at each fresh bit of monstrosity he gets to fling at the audience.
Wan knows how to shoot and cut a scare scene like nobody’s business, but he’s also canny enough to know that after multiple Conjurings and Insidiouses, audiences know the rhythms of how he shoots and cuts a scare scene, and so he plays with his own formula, milking setups for all their worth before finally winding Gabriel up and letting him go. Wan weaponizes negative space and huge, seemingly infinite pools of darkness, while his cameras soar through cavernous dollhouse sets as if he’s trying to out-Raimi Sam Raimi.
Malignant probably overstays its welcome at just shy of two full hours, but even so the movie is operating at a full sprint for pretty much that entire runtime. And all that mounting energy is building up to the truly phenomenal third act, a final half hour of ecstatic mania that sees Wan combine his schlock soul with all kinds of new tricks he learned in the blockbuster trenches of Furious 7 and Aquaman.
We’re at a very interesting moment in American horror, with terrific stuff being put out near constantly (including on TV/streaming) even as the conversation around horror continues to stall out in the most familiar, boring of places (did you guys know that horror movies can also be, like, social commentary? WHO KNEW?!?). But one thing that can sometimes seem a little scarce in the modern output is, you know, fun.
And lookit, I can appreciate the hell out of horror movies that are using genre tropes as a means to explore weighty issues, that are plumbing the depths of the human experience to better articulate cycles of trauma, systems of oppression, all that fun stuff.
But there’s something nice about having a movie like Malignant that reminds you of just how fucking fun horror can be. This is the horror movie as rollercoaster, with a modern master operating the switches with nothing else on his mind but making you scream, laugh, cheer, and maybe throw up a little bit.
I’m so happy that this is how Wan opted to cash in on his Aquaman goodwill, and I do hope even more folks will take the plunge and take a ride into all the delirious extremes that Malignant has to offer up.
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