Released: 10 September 2021
Director: James Wan
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $40 million
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Marina Mazepa/Ray Chase, and Jacqueline McKenzie
After her and her abusive husband are attacked in their home, Madison Lake-Mitchell (Wallis) is paralysed by terrifying visions of gruesome murders that she soon realises are of actual murders. Tormented by the visions, her plight worsens when the killer reveals a link to her mysterious past and she is forced to confront a horrifying secret about herself that has laid dormant for decades.
The gritty, disturbed horror/thriller Saw (Wan, 2004) not only ushered in a new sub-genre of horror and spawned a long-running and influential series of gory films, it also put director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell on the map. Since then, the duo have seen even more horror success with their Conjuring universe (Various, 2013 to present) that has enabled them to venture into other genres and produce more experimental horror films. An original idea with no connection to Wan’s similarly-titled graphic novel, Malignant was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic but finally released to mostly mixed reviews and is currently on track to be a box office bomb with its $14.7 million worldwide gross.
Malignant opens in the good old days of the early nineties at the Simion Research Hospital, where Doctor Florence Weaver (McKenzie) works to help children with mental and physical reconstruction after severe trauma. One look at the exterior of the hospital, however, should tell you that the facility is hardly the most benign and there’s a strong implication that Weaver and her associates have been experimenting on the children in their care in bizarre ways. The most destructive and promising of their charges is the mysterious and dangerous Gabriel (Mazepa/Chase), a monstrous young boy who is somehow only able to communicate by broadcasting his thoughts through speakers and radios and who can control electricity. One night, he flies into a violent rage, killing several staff, and Weaver has no choice but to “cut out [his] cancer” since he refuses to respond to their treatments.
The story then jumps ahead twenty-eight years to find pregnant Madison in an abusive relationship with her husband, Derek (Jake Abel); this is her third pregnancy and she is desperately hoping for the baby to survive this time as she has tragically suffered miscarriages previously. Although it’s said that Derek has beat on her before, this particular incident is caused specifically because of his heartbreak at having to continuously see his children die before they’re born, something he blames Madison for and, during an argument, he violently smashes her head into the bedroom wall and leaves her with a nasty head wound. That night, though, a shadowy supernatural entity toys with Derek before brutally twisting his head around and then attacking Madison; although she survives the assault, her baby doesn’t, and she’s left devastated and paranoid that the entity is still haunting her.
On the plus side, this allows her to reconnect with her cute younger sister, Sydney (Hasson); thanks to Derek’s toxic influence, they haven’t been able to see each other for some time but Sydney stays by her sister’s side during her recovery and supports her even after she begins to suffer gruesome visions of murders. While sleeping or performing menial tasks, Madison is seemingly haunted by visions of a gangly, trenchcoat-wearing killer that leave her paralysed with fear and terrified out of her mind; her fear only grows when she realises that the killings are actually taking place and Sydney goes with her to inform the police in the hopes of catching the man responsible. Even when Madison reveals to Sydney that she (as in Madison) was adopted into Sydney’s family at eight years old, Sydney continues to support her and even conducts her own investigation into Madison’s mysterious past after she undergoes hypnotherapy to try and uncover her strange link to the killer.
The brutal killings are investigated by Detectives Kekoa Shaw (Young) and Regina Moss (White); while Regina is more of a stern pragmatist, Kekoa is something of a workaholic and is so focused on his cases and crime scenes that he misses obvious flirtatious advances form the likes of Sydney and the equally cute crime scene investigator Winnie (Ingrid Bisu). While investigating Derek’s death, Regina immediately pegs Madison as the prime suspect due to her abusive nature and but Kekoa is more sympathetic to her plight; Regina is equally unconvinced (and even somewhat insulted) at Sydney’s claims that Madison is having visions of the murders but, while chasing up one of Madison’s visions, Kekoa comes face-to-face with their vicious killer, a seemingly supernatural and superhuman man who claims to be Gabriel. When their traditional methods hit a wall, Kekoa and Regina arrange to have Madison sit with a hypnotherapist and soon their investigation leads them down a dark path that forces Madison to go to her mother, Jeanne (Susanna Thompson), for answers to help fill in the gaps in her memory.
If there’s one thing James Wan has become really good at over the years, it’s building a sense of tension and dread; the sporadic and effective use of music definitely helps with this as scenes are either completely silent save for a character’s panicked breathing, punctuated by a chilly melody that rises to a crescendo, or startlingly flip from the mundane to the terrifying with a sharp pull of strings. While such jump scares aren’t for many, I always felt like Wan used them really well in Insidious (Wan, 2010) and his use of them (and music and silence) to help build a foreboding atmosphere is just as good here. it’s a pity, then, that Malignant suffers a bit from uneven pacing; building tension is one thing but the film definitely slows down a bit in the second act and the performances and deliveries don’t exactly make the middle section all that interesting either. The film meanders for some time as though it’s forgotten what it was doing and, when it does get back on track, it does so with a jarringly brutal shift that, while thoroughly bloody and entertaining, end sup feeling a bit rushed.
As a core aspect of Malignant is the question of the killer’s identity, Madison’s mysterious past, and the strange connection they seem to share, it’s difficult to talk about the film without spoiling too much. I will say, though, that anyone who’s had even a passing knowledge of horror films of this kind will probably see the twist coming, however Wan puts an absolutely ghastly spin on this twist that completely turns the film on its head and changes the way you view it. Indeed, much of the film is drawing from horror clichés that have been done before (it’s not the first time a character has had visions of a killer’s actions, for example, or dreamt of/been haunted by a serial killer) but Wan repackages these tropes with his own unique twist and presentation to keep things interesting. Wan further mixes things up with some unique and creative camera angles; when Madison has her visions, her surroundings bleed away into the killer’s location and the camera spins around her dramatically, which is very effective at putting us in her shoes and sharing her dread, and there’s a section where she’s being pursued by an invisible force that’s short entirely from a bird’s-eye view inside her house that is very Sam Raimi.
Quite soon into the film, the killer identifies himself as Gabriel; he exhibits the same croaking, cackling voice as Gabriel and also the same control over electricity and lights. The killer is presented as both supernatural and tangible, appearing as an ominous and genuinely frightening black shadow when in Madison’s dreams and visions and as a lanky figure in a trenchcoat with long hair and wielding a trophy fashioned into a deadly knife. His movements are erratic and inhuman and remind me more than a little of the unsettling Onryō from film series like Ringu/The Ring (Various, 1998 to 2017) and Ju-On/The Grudge (Various, 2001 to 2020); the few times we do see his face, he’s a scarred monster of a man and he exhibits an unnatural control over his limbs and incredible superhuman strength, to say nothing of exerting a seemingly supernatural influence upon Madison. His design is extremely effective and makes for some effective scares; scenes are often framed in a way to keep areas of shadow in the background, meaning you’re constantly on edge waiting to catch a glimpse of the killer, and his tendency to bleed out of the darkness or appear out of nowhere makes for some effective jump scares. The film also benefits from his uncanny and superhuman prowess during one particular scene that sees him effortlessly slaughter almost an entire police precinct and the startling reveal of his true nature and connection to Madison completely changes the context of the film and asks for a repeat viewing.
I was intrigued by the trailers for Malignant; obviously, because of the way the world’s been, I wasn’t aware of this film at all until cinema’s opened up again and I found it to be an interesting premise with some creepy visuals. This is reflected in the film; the premise, while nothing groundbreaking, is executed in a unique and interesting way by mixing and matching other horror clichés into a new context and putting a terrifying twist on them. I’ve always said that it’s perfectly fine to go back to the well in movies, especially horror (how many haunted house films have there been, for example?), as long as the filmmakers put an interesting twist on the cliché and Malignant definitely does that. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to guess what the main twist is going to be, meaning that you’re just waiting for the film and the characters to catch up. When they do, there’s a horrifying spin on the reveal that helps to get the film back on track but that doesn’t completely make up for a middling middle half of the film and some odd performances and deliveries. Overall, it was an entertaining and chilling horror thriller; I can’t deny that I was expecting a little more from it but I stuck with it and was entertaining by the presentation and the foreboding ambiance being built up throughout the film, though I suspect that it might do better and possibly garner a cult following once it comes to home media.
Have you seen Malignant? If so, what did you think to it? Did you see the initial twist coming and what did you think to the twisted follow-up to that? What did you think to the film’s use of horror tropes and jump scares? Did you enjoy the film’s performances and the brutal kills? Would you like to see a follow-up to this concept and are you a fan of James Wan’s horror films? Whatever you thought of Malignant, sign up to leave a comment or leave your thoughts on my social media.