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Malignant (15)

Director: James Wan
Screenplay: James Wan, Ingrid Bisu, Akela Cooper

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young

Review: Dave Stephens

Solely concentrating on his role as a director and not his prolific work as a producer, James Wan has "been about a bit". Dealing with colossal franchise bait such as Aquaman, Fast and Furious, and … err … MacGyver, he remains best known to horror fans for his Saw, The Conjuring, and the Insidious films. And despite occasional statements to the contrary, he periodically returns to the genre with one-word title movies. We're still waiting for the instant classics "Belligerent" and "Nervous" (note: this is just an admittedly poor joke… at the moment), but here we have Malignant. Another high-concept horror with its heart on its title, starring UK actress Annabelle Wallis from Peaky Blinders, the Wan-inspired Annabelle and (*gulp*) the failed The Mummy reboot. Opening in the UK at cinemas only, and simultaneously screening and streaming in the States, we take a look at Wan more horror movie.


Starting in the 90s, in the most gothic medical institution ever committed to film (towering blocks, cliff-side location, crashing ocean waves, etc.), we're witness to a scene of chaos. A barely glimpsed patient called "Gabriel" slaughters several security staff and has a screaming tantrum before meeting an uncertain fate. Flash forward to modern days, and the perennially put-upon Madison "Maddie" Mitchell (Wallis) is having a tough time. Aside from having a scumbag husband, she suffers a sudden tragedy that (literally) knocks her out for the count. Recovering from the mysterious incident, she is menaced by a dark apparition that seems to grow more tangible with time. Not only that, but bloody murders are taking place, and Maddie has visions about them, suggesting she has a connection with the killer …


Blimey! Where to start with this hot mess? You might think you know what to expect from the plot and even correctly guess some of the twists, but nothing can prepare you for the preposterousness of the final act! But we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. It starts strongly (despite some awful lines and some campy delivery of them) and shifts into high gear with plenty of blood and a great soundtrack from Wan-regular Joseph Bishara. The music veers from Saw -type themes to compelling "Goblin"-Esque prog-rock throughout the film. It's excellent. (Fun fact: Bishara also plays the "Lipstick Demon" in the Insidious films). Wallis also has a good presence as the lead, running the full gauntlet of high-drama emotions, from vulnerable and screamy to strong and controlled. The rest of the cast is a little lacking in comparison, apart from Maddie Hasson (We Summon the Darkness) as the genuinely sweet-natured sister.


Whilst Wan intentionally avoids big "boo" scares for the most part; there are some effective and visually inspired sequences. A frantic one-take sequence sees Maddie run around the rooms and floors of a house in blind terror, whilst the camera observes her progress from directly above. There's also a superbly mounted action sequence where a hero-cop doggedly pursues the long-coated villain as they descend into the Seattle underground. It's these visually intense scenes that indicate Wan's inspiration and intention for the film. It is essentially a modern American take on the Italian Giallo genre. The killer has a distinctive look and movement, and they use a bizarre, tailored weapon (a sharpened medical trophy, presumably a Rod of Asclepius or the Caduceus). The plot is typically complex, contains multiple (and usually nonsensical) twists, and is played entirely straight. To further clutter the proceedings, Wan also adds a plethora of familiar US horror tropes; electrical lights flickering in the presence of the killer, the villain speaking through radio signals (shades of The Abominable Dr Phibes), and scenery dissolving as Maddie experiences a murder-scene vision.


And now we come to the elephant in the cinematic room. The final act. If you thought that Dario Argento's later films were wild, you ain't seen what Wan has in store! We obviously won't spoil it, but the plot goes full-on wacko at the end, with scenes that are likely to leave many genre fans slack-jawed… and not necessarily in a good way. Sure it's ridiculously entertaining (with the emphasis on "ridiculous"), but it's hard to describe, let alone watch without guffawing at some moments. It makes for an odd tonal flip that might work on paper but just seems loopy as you're watching and lessens the impact of some of the previous cool sequences. You leave the cinema wondering what the hell it is that you've just seen. It just feels disjointed and doesn't hang together well. Especially when compared with modern genre-thrillers, like The Invisible Man.


Don't get us wrong. The time passes quickly (it's nearly two hours), and it is enjoyable. It just doesn't feel cohesive in the same way that Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring was. It's like someone mushed up an Argento compilation, a b-movie concept from the 50s, and a modern haunted house story. It's worth watching for a fun genre experience but be warned… it's probably nothing like you're expecting. We're anticipating mixed reviews and a severe lack of sequels. A failed experiment, but still a helluva ride if you're up for it.

When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad… it's just bonkers! A fruity mash-up of horror tropes and the daftest "Giallo" thriller you can conceive of. Wallis shines, the score is superb, and there are some great slasher sequences. However, just because it's very entertaining, that doesn't mean it's good. Not Wan of the best but a fun ride.
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