Those apparently rare individuals who are lukewarm to the Conjuring-verse are naturally wary when approaching Malignant, James Wan‘s return to the genre that made him famous. He has provided two franchises built on effective yet safe scares — the other of course being the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ Insidious series where spoon-feeding answers is always on the menu — on top of his more lurid and decadent Saw series. Rather than raise another tentpole though, Wan opts for something disconnected from previous material and not based on an existing IP. Malignant is a big risk these days in commercial horror.
Malignant begins on a familiar note; Wan is not riffing on himself so much as he’s borrowing from a buffet of stereotypic ideas. The immoderately creepy and remote hospital at the film’s start is an ode to all those cheesy horrors of yesteryear. Then comes the stockpile of nonspecific doctors scrambling to stop a vague yet violent threat — one that Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) declares a “cancer” needing to be “cut out.” Fast-forward to the present where the film’s main character, a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis), suffers one giant heartbreak after another before a chain of terrifying events is set off by her loss.
In the meantime, the body count of a local murderer swells; the doctors from the cold open are viciously picked off by a bizarre killer whose face is monstrous and their movements wildly unnatural. Madison figures into the crimes by sharing an involuntary psychic connection with the culprit. A pair of detectives — George Young‘s Detective Shaw and Michole Briana White‘s Detective Moss — of course dismisses the supernatural notion and thinks Madison is responsible. To what end, though? How does Madison play a part in the scenes from the film’s outset?
The first two acts of Malignant are a chore to get through. The characters are one-dimensional, and the story is hardly compelling. The production values — particularly the impressive CGI work for the surreal scene transformations — are at the very least eye-catching. Where everything changes for the better is around the third act; Wan and spouse Ingrid Bisu, along with screenwriter Akela Cooper, pull the rug out from audience’s feet. A whopping reveal is sure to elicit laughter, and the cartoonish violence that follows will have everyone screeching or cringing depending on their tolerance for spectacle.
After a vague and seemingly old-hat trailer ahead of the film’s release, audiences were delivered the year’s biggest horror surprise. Wan took that Aquaman money and made what is easily his battiest film to date. The road getting to that final, 30-minute pageant of excess and folly is bumpy and boring, but the destination is a sight to behold. Wan inhaled the production values of Dark Castle’s 2000s era of horror, the aesthetic and logical design of gialli, and the action panoply of The Matrix and its imitators. The end result can only be best described as a cinematic fiasco.
Go into Malignant knowing it’s a travesty of delights; it slowly builds into its own unhinging chaos. And just because the characters take their dilemma seriously does not mean audiences have to.