Recently during a roundtable discussion with director James Wan, Wan went on the record to say he thought Malignant would be polarizing. And if you were to take into account the films Wan has done post-Insidious, as well as the marketing campaigns that have been released for the film, it’s clear to see why he’d think that. Based on trailers and the past 10 years of Wan’s filmography, you’d think you were walking into a creepy jump-scare fueled haunted house film. But that’s not the film Wan wanted to create, nor is it the one he created.
And not knowing that upfront could disappoint some folks expecting the next Conjuring. However, from the very first frame of Malignant, Wan is completely transparent with the audience about what this movie is: a campy, schlocky, ridiculous B-movie romp with buckets of blood. So if you’re not sure which “Wan” you’re getting, I’ll say this: literally as soon as a character turns to the camera in the opening scene and says “It’s time to cut out the cancer!” you know you’re getting “Dead Silence Wan.”
That’s why Malignant works. Every campy line delivered, silly or otherwise, is completely self aware about its own ridiculousness, as well as the ridiculousness of the film’s premise. Wan said himself that he wanted to create a “back-shelf” horror film. And that’s what this movie plays like. It’s equal parts slasher, body horror, and literal psychological thriller (you’ll get what I mean if you see it). The result ends up yielding one of the goofier, but more unique villains to ever come out of a horror film — Gabriel. And when I say goofier, I don’t mean Gabriel is silly character. In fact, there are times where Wan’s trickery for sound and voice editing make Gabriel effectively scary. But conceptually the idea of Gabriel is definitely a silly one.
It’s actually incredibly hard to summarize the film without giving a lot of it away, and I’d prefer not to given it’s one of those things where the surprises (predictable as they might be on the onset of the film) do enhance the experience of watching it. But for the sake of informing you what it’s about on a high level, I’ll do my best.
A woman named Madison (played by Wallis) is being attacked and tormented by an unseen force that calls itself Gabriel. Not long after Gabriel’s arrival, a series of grisly murders occurs; all connected to an incident at a mysterious hospital that Gabriel was confined to back in the ’90s. It’s up to Madison and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) to solve the mystery that connects her, Gabriel, and the victims together before Gabriel comes for her as well.
Let’s be frank, this is not Shakespeare. But at its best, Malignant evokes shades of Craven, Raimi, and Cronenberg. The slasher scenes are very reminiscent of Scream, and, intentional or not, supporting player Hasson even somewhat has Drew Barrymore’s look from the opening scene of Craven’s classic (even her name is Sydney which may or may not be a reference). The at times fluid, and sometimes jarring camera work along with the over-the-top lighting cues evoke Raimi’s style. And there are really gory body-horror elements that harken back to Cronenberg. And it combines together to give you a pretty fun throwback time. There’s blood and viscera everywhere. And for as silly a concept as it evolves into, I can’t deny how unique it is. And how boldly Wan marches to the beat of his own drum. It’s especially fun for those who loved those throwback ’80s B- or D-grade movies, because you understand what he’s going for. Sometimes when you’re simpatico with the director, and you know what he’s getting at, it just makes the film more fun and enjoyable. I do wish some of the kills were a bit more brutal if Wan was going for just straight up schlock, but a lot of the action is pretty good and fairly well choreographed for a B-movie nightmare (there’s a prison scene I’ll discuss further down).
The performances aren’t great. But Wallis is actually quite a standout, really giving you a tormented and haunted performance. But overall across the board the line delivery is silly, though it doesn’t help that the lines themselves are also intentionally silly. The characters are passable in terms of likability. Certainly George Young’s character Kekoa Shaw, the detective in charge of Madison’s case, and Hasson’s character Sydney are both characters you don’t want to see dead. But that’s the most one should expect from any horror movie. That said, again, Wan is blissfully aware this isn’t a Best Picture contender. He just wants to make something that pays homage to the campy gorefests he spent nights watching back in the ’80s and ’90s. And the movie succeeds at this.
At the end of the day though, it is a pretty silly movie. I can’t deny that. Sometimes the camp doesn’t always work for me. In general I don’t like camp. But I’ve made multiple exceptions in past years, being a self-proclaimed huge fan of Army of Darkness and Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. When Malignant goes goofy it’s hit and miss. The premise itself is enough to make folks go “that’s stupid.” But most of the time it works. Just sometimes when it’s too over the top, it doesn’t. At least not for me. But that’s mostly about 20% of the time versus the enjoyable 80% of the time.
An example of this? There’s a really amazing and brutal fight scene in a jail cell in the middle of the movie. That scene is excellent and the most horrific, schlocky, violently camp scene in the movie. And it is awesome. But, for example, some of the scenes with Sydney investigating hospital records and making silly, unfunny comments, or Detective Shaw making really dumb horror-cliché mistakes no human would feasibly do throughout the movie don’t work.
It’s also a tad predictable. Unfortunately I guessed the film’s big twist about towards the end of the first third. It’s unique, yet it’s sort of obvious? Did it ruin the movie? Not necessarily. You can still have fun watching a slasher movie with crazy effects. But it does kill the mystery vibe of it.
But that said, again, most of this is not to be taken seriously. At the end of the day Malignant is a silly movie, with a silly premise. But it knows this, and is asking you to be on board with that. And if you are, I promise you’ll have the best time ever. There’s lots of blood, and some creepy moments, and that’s good enough if you’re looking for a good time at a “scary” movie. This is the type of movie that’s so outrageously out there and ridiculous that I anticipate it to be a standing part of a Beyond Fest line up for many years to come.
Overall Score: B-
Malignant is hitting theaters and HBO Max tomorrow, Friday, September 10!