Written by: Ingrid Bisu; Akela Cooper; James Wan
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Annabelle Wallis; Maddie Hasson; George Young; Michole Briana White; Jake Abel
Horror maestro James Wan returns to his stomping grounds with Malignant, an unabashedly strange film with a concept stretched like Playdoh to imaginatively icky extremes. Though featuring the gritty detective subplot of Saw, the creaky house tropes of The Conjuring and the mental trauma aspects of Insidious, the Australian has put together a delirious reel that feels different from the rest of his filmography (and more than a little David Cronenberg) with its spectacle of body horror.
The original story, a collaboration between Wan, his wife Ingrid Bisu and one-time American Horror Story writer Akela Cooper, opens with a creepy, adrenaline-pumping prologue at a Seattle medical facility before seemingly ditching it for the present day. Madison (Annabelle Wallis — Annabelle; Silent Night) lives in the suburbs with husband Derek (Jake Abel). They’re trying to have a child but Madison is struggling with the pregnancy. It takes no time to learn Derek is not a good support system. Returning home early from work after not feeling well, her concerns are met with resentment and eventually violence, leading to Madison experiencing a series of troubling dreams that turn out to be anything but dreams; they’re visions of murders happening in real time, one even involving her husband.
After surviving an attack from what she believes killed Derek she awakens in a hospital to even worse news. Wallis does not miss the opportunity to sell a mother’s anguish. Yet Wan and company have much more suffering on their minds as they put their fully committed lead through the wringer, scaling up her torment and ratcheting up the tension in steady increments. Braving a return to the same lonely house despite the gestures of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and insisting it’s “the one thing that won’t be taken” from her, she continues to experience harrowing scenes of people — those in the medical field, it seems — being hacked to death in their own homes. And rather than sweaty sheets she’s constantly “waking up” in a dried pool of blood on her pillow.
Meanwhile the authorities are rubbing their eyes red trying to make sense of the attack, which has been labeled a home invasion. The problem is the lack of evidence of breaking and entering, and weirder things like fingerprints with impossible orientations. Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) may not quite appreciate what they have signed up for as digging into Madison’s apparently troubled family history brings about more questions than closure.
As they search for links between the victims and Madison circumstances only become more bizarre, each twist of the directorial knife getting more personal and . . . well, more twisted. That applies on an aesthetic level as well, the filmmakers deploying a number of creative camera stunts to pull us not so much into a world but a head space that’s never less than uncomfortable. Joseph Bishara’s shrieking score amplifies the mood. Transformative VFX early on not only communicate this uniquely cinematic sensation of being “there” with Madison, the motif helps prepare us for the full-on assault of insanity Wan commits to in the final stretches.
Marking a return to horror for Wan who has spent the last several years making big budget, commercial movies, Malignant proves he is not afraid of a little experimentation. It is also proof of the amount of goodwill he has built up in Hollywood. Original stories aren’t sexy anymore. Studios and ticket buyers have an increasing lack of adventurousness in common. It is difficult to part with your hard-earned cash on an unknown entity, even one helmed by an established director, when Marvel hardly needs the word-of-mouth to convince you Loki will be fun. Warner Bros. have gambled on Wan’s concept, itself a gamble on a modern audience’s willingness to go with the flow and to become absorbed in a singular experience.
Malignant is certainly an experience, one with a knack for tattooing its bizarre imagery into the back of your brain. Though the denouement leaves something to be desired, Wan unable to tame the beast as effectively as he builds it up, the majority of the film offers a unique challenge to viewers. This is a movie that you don’t watch so much as let happen to you. Like a freakish corporeal spasm the whole thing feels a little bit out of (your) control in the way a good horror should, twisting and reconfiguring into a pretty unpredictable beast. Those looking for something that feels grounded in reality, the door is right over there.
Moral of the Story: The most divisive horror movie I can recall in some time, Malignant goes for broke and very nearly breaks. Or for some viewers, it might be broken fairly early on. Either way, and despite my three-star rating (which I feel is strong, but not quite a rave) I would describe James Wan’s “new vision of terror” as a must-see. It’s in theaters and on HBO Max. For something so visually intense I’d highly recommend the theater setting.
Running Time: 111 mins.
Quoted: “It’s time to cut out the cancer.”
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