James Wan is a special director, one that fully understands his appeal and his ability to work within it. In 2003 he launched Saw, in 2015 he helped Vin Diesel lay Paul Walker to rest in Furious 7 (which is a lovely, heartfelt blockbuster that wears every aorta of its heart on its sleeve), and he recently grossed $1.148bn with the DC/WB collaboration Aquaman. At this point in his career the guy can do whatever he wants, and he’s chosen to do the absolute wildest thing he could have possibly picked. Trading the glitz and glamour of hot rods and octopus drummers for blood and bone feels like a return to form for Wan, but it turned out to be a further inspection of his inspirations and what first brought the director to horror.
Malignant, named for the murderous tumor that kills, is a 2021 film that received the most abysmal marketing campaign of the year. While films like Free Guy and The Tomorrow War loomed over our heads (and never felt like films, just trailers that we would never be free of), Malignant was quietly marketed as a small supernatural thriller with a killer pedigree. The cast is virtually no one I’m familiar with (outside of its lead, Annabelle Wallis, who co-starred alongside Tom Cruise in The Mummy ), but Wan directing and a script by Akela Cooper (The 100, Luke Cage, American Horror Story) is enough to get anyone familiar with their work excited. All trailers and marketing looked generic, but the visual design promised more than anyone was letting on and it intrigued me.
I’m delighted to say that this bugnuts bag of bonkers is a hell of a time.
Madison Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is a pregnant nurse in an abusive marriage, one that turns violent when she comes home feeling sick one night. She cracks her skull on the wall and her husband winds up locked out of the bedroom, exiled to the couch for his actions. When a break-in results in the loss of both the baby and her husband, Madison begins experiencing visions of murders while they are occurring. Along with her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), and suspicious detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), she begins to hunt the mysterious “Gabriel” (Ray Chase) in order to stop the otherworldly killer.
All of this sounds insanely generic, and the film feels that way for the first act. Sure, there’s some solid scares and absolute batshit imagery, but most of it is people talking and freaking out while the most absolutely stunning camera movement occurs. Director of Photography Michael Burgess has partnered with Wan to build a horrifying doll house, rendering their subjects merely toys to be played with. It’s an interesting game, but one that takes a bit to get off of the ground. The real weirdness kicks in during act two, when Madison begins to have her visions of Gabriel’s crimes. This is where the crew begins to crank up the volume on both kills and crazy, with blood flying all over the walls and the game of cat and mouse closing in.
Wan’s film constantly borders on the giallo, but never quite crosses into that realm. Horror cinema from the 70s is often melded together with the collective memory, with most imagining stoned and horny teenagers getting killed by makeup-driven killers that pop up at most conventions across the continental US. The actual history of that era is closer to Wan’s previous work, with serial killers being part of an ongoing criminal investigation and supernatural films tied more to haunted houses and sometimes scientific fiddling than the families Voorhees and Krueger. Malignant plays in that same stadium, but for a different team. I got similar vibes to dirty hits Demon Seed  and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage  than any more modern films.
What bucks this idea is the final act. Wan offers audiences a malformed visage, with the major insanity occurring quickly and violently as the story comes to its delightfully twisted finale, with all of the glee of a grandmother presenting a prized (but deformed) quilt to a bewildered child. It’s sincere, ugly, awesome, and full of near-disastrously respect to its legacy. What saves the finale is the open love for what’s being portrayed, the blatant relish Wan has in his lewd gumbo that’s been stewing for 90 minutes.
What sends the film over the edge is the score of Joseph Bishara, a composer that has worked with Wan so many times that I assume they’re drinking buddies. It doesn’t even take a sharp ear to hear the homages and blatant references buried within the score, but when they all tie together (again, you’ve got to realize that this film depends on you watching it to completion) it all works. I’ve been aching to be surprised by something frightening for quite some time, and Bishara’s score gave me the beginnings of what I long for in horror music.
Malignant is an completely insane film that is going to please very few mainstream viewers. If, however, you enjoy the throwbacks to 70s horror and Italian giallo films…please try it. The ultimate revelations of the film are nothing without sincere follow-through, and I think Wan’s got it.
Malignant is currently in theatres and streaming on HBO Max.