Equal parts an ode to the gloriously pulpy horror films of decades past and a bone-chilling demonstration of James Wan’s own modern-day horror mastery, the very first scene of Malignant lets you know exactly the type of rollercoaster ride you’re in for.
We open outside a research hospital in Seattle one dark and stormy night in 1993, and are swiftly introduced (albeit indirectly) to a patient called Gabriel. As of yet, we do not know what he looks like, but given his seemingly super-powered nature, chilling ability to speak through the radio, and track record of murdering numerous hospital employees, it is safe to assume he is not quite the angel his title suggests.
The sequence starts immediately following his attempted escape and concludes right as the doctors begin to sedate him, but in those brief few moments the tone, purpose and uncontrollable fun of the film become crystal clear: the dialogue in this sequence is, at best, impressively melodramatic (“Time to cut out the cancer,” one doctor bellows with the dramatic gusto of an 80s action one-liner). The setting, in all its dark and gloomy glory, could be lifted near-verbatim from an Edgar Allan Poe story, and Joseph Bishara’s gleefully dramatic score revels in its schlocky, atmospheric zest.
Every aesthetic choice is dialled up to eleven and Wan truly seems to understand the crowd-pleasing mania of horror
This is a film fundamentally built upon foundations of goofiness, exaggeration, and schlocky horror fun; every aesthetic choice is dialled up to eleven and Wan truly seems to understand the crowd-pleasing mania of horror that so many overtly gritty jump scare fests frustratingly ignore. As the utterly bananas plot will testify, Malignant’s own mania doesn’t stop there.
Shortly thereafter, we jump to the present day and meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman trapped in an abusive marriage with her husband Derek (Jake Abel), who slams her head into a wall less than ten minutes in, making himself public enemy number one.
Unfortunately for Madison, however, this head trauma comes with unruly side effects – chiefly, she begins to have visions of a demonic, twisting entity (physically performed, rather marvellously, by contortionist Marina Mazepa) murdering a slew of seemingly random people. Madison is spiritually transported to the scene of the crime as it happens, while physically paralysed and unable to do anything but scream.
These sequences exhibit Wan’s talents at their best and most gnarly. Through a mix of well-paced tension building, dynamic cinematography, and one truly terrifying, believable creature design, Malignant also succeeds as a genuinely distressing horror movie. Wan revels in his ability to play with expectations and manages to create a constant atmosphere of dread without resorting to cheap jump-scare tactics or loud noises.
Likewise, his visual flair and dramatic style have evolved a lot since the grotty bathrooms of Saw, and while not an ounce of the unpleasantness has faded since then, he somehow manages to depict the brutality in oddly entrancing, spectacular ways – this time, he is the one “playing a game.”
The mystery is as audacious as it is wickedly sadistic
The bulk of the story from thence forth is an exploration of what this entity actually is, and how Madison is directly tied to it. The mystery is as audacious as it is wickedly sadistic but to divulge any further, truly, would do Malignant a monumental disservice. I’ve only covered the opening twenty minutes thus far, but even outright watching the opening ninety wouldn’t do the complete picture justice.
It is grounded by a centrally compelling performance courtesy of Wallis (she often teeters into melodrama but crucially never seems out of place), and while the emotional potential of the film is far from its greatest asset, the tragedy and trauma at its centre are nonetheless compelling and psychologically rich.
One of the sub-plots involves Madison’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), doing her own mini-sleuthing: this is not the most compelling storyline, but also features perhaps the single most audacious attempt at parking a car in history and deserves respect for that. Another sees the police department doing their own part to help the investigation come to life, including a random action chase somewhere in the middle (it’s good, but does seem a little out of place).
Narratively, therefore, Malignant can come across as a little scattershot, and certain revelations later on certainly push the boundary of “out there” for those uninitiated with bonkers horror. However, with far too many horror films today hiding in the shadows and waiting to jump out at you in a blurry “BOO!,” it’s refreshing to see one so unabashedly self-aware about what it is, what its influences are, and what horror films, fundamentally, are supposed to do.
They needn’t necessarily be scary (although this one is), but they should always be an exhilarating, unforgettable experience when watched with friends. And frankly, once the absolutely ludicrous finale rears its ugly head and the curtain inevitably falls, “forgettable” will be the last phrase on your mind.