Malignant (2021) – Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.
I firmly believe that there are two types of people in this world: There are those who will not enjoy the absolute insanity that Malignant has to offer, and then there are those who like to party.
Fortunately, I do enjoy a wild, nearly-nonsensical ride (as long as it is entertaining), so I had a lot of fun with this weird, gory little outing.
It’s certainly not perfect, far from it, but when the insanity kicked into overdrive and the blood started flying, I buckled in and had a blast!
As many of you know, I’m a fan of most of James Wan’s work. I love the Saw franchise, I enjoyed the first Conjuring film, and I think Insidious has one of the most memorable jump-scares in recent horror history (you know which one I’m talking about).
I even think Wan’s less-influential horror offerings, like Dead Silence, or Death Sentence (which it’s exactly a horror, but has plenty of gory, horrific moments) are worth throwing on if you can’t find anything else to watch.
And we don’t speak of Aquaman (Not to worry, there are still some Aquaman-aimed jabs to come).
The point being that I was very excited to check out Wan’s return to his horror roots, and if you are interested, you can check out Malignant in theaters or on HBO Max until October 10th!
(NOTE: This is a film review, since the script has not surfaced to my knowledge at the time of this writing. I will avoid spoilers in case you want to check the film out for yourself.)
Let’s first talk about that logline, since it paints a very different picture of the story than the trailers did. From the trailers, Malignant’s plot looked pretty straightforward: an evil imaginary friend returns to terrorize a traumatized adult who must then confront her past to rid herself, and the world, of this Malignant presence.
This idea has been explored before, in films like Daniel Isn’t Real (2019), Z (2019), Lights Out (2016), Hide and Seek (2005), and Drop Dead Fred (1991) – the last one is a deep cut, but still pretty horrifying.
That is not to say that exploring familiar territory in your script is a bad thing. In fact, some of the most effective horror films are those that take a basic premise and find a way to explore and exploit the abject terror of that simple concept in unique and compelling ways.
Take Lights Out, for example: The film’s premise is that there is a creature in the darkness who will get you if you do not stay in the light. Simple, sure, but writer Eric Heisserer and director David F. Sandberg found interesting ways to keep the game of “Stay In The Light” riveting for an hour and twenty-one minutes.
Full disclosure: I understand that Wan’s film is a homage to Giallo films, and so I tried to watch a few notable Giallo projects to better understand the genre and the influences Wan was drawing from. Specifically, I looked at What Have You Done to Solange? (1972), Tenebre (1982), and Deep Red (1975) before I watched Malignant, to give myself a crash-course on the Giallo artistic style.
And, I have to say that I don’t think Giallo films are for me. I do love the slasher genre, and I certainly understand and respect the influence that Giallo films had on what we now consider the modern slasher film. With that said, however, I think the emphasis on gratuitous violence, nudity, etc. above storytelling and character development in Giallo films is where I primarily take issue with the subgenre.
This same reason is why the newest season of the series Slasher on Shudder is not for me. Not only is the season full of irredeemable characters who I don’t care about in the slightest, but the gore and death scenes, while well-done technically, are over-the-top and extreme to the point of ridiculousness.
I know some people may love this subgenre, but it is not my cup of tea, and I thought that was important to note before we jumped into the main review.
Now, let’s talk about the story in Malignant and what worked and what didn’t work in the film.
Our story begins in 1993 at a medical research facility where a murderous young man named Gabriel tries to escape in a bloody rampage. He is captured, and the doctors decide that they need to “Cut out the cancer…” which, we are to assume, means putting Gabriel down.
This is such a silly opening scene that I laughed several times, thinking Wan was making a parody. And, after watching the full feature, I am still not totally convinced that Malignant was ever meant to be viewed in anything resembling a serious manner. Not that this is necessarily an insult, but it is important to calibrate your expectations for what kind of film this is going to be before you watch.
We then move to present day where we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who is pregnant. That is about her only defining character trait, because things like unique characterization and character development are for wimps.
Since she is pregnant and in pain due to her pregnancy, she leaves work and comes home early. Once at home, her crappy husband, Derek (Jake Abel), gets mad at her. During an argument, he slams her head against the wall, because nothing says true devotion like a fist to the face.
Later that night, her husband is attacked by some dark presence, which, at first, just seems to want to dick around with the electronics and be a minor annoyance.
But then it gets tired of playing pranks, and kills him. Hard.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
That isn’t really a spoiler, as this scene is featured heavily in the marketing and promotional material for the film.
Anyway, the presence then chases and attacks Madison as well, and knocks her out.
The next day, the police begin an investigation into the murder, suspecting Madison of the crime. This prompts Madison to begin her own investigation into what is really going on, and to say anything more would be to spoil one of the greatest shock-reveals in recent memory, so I leave it to you to discover Malignant’s messy, crazy story on your own.
The Scares – While not a scary film, James Wan is a master at building tension, and here he does a good job at playing with expectations for when a scare is coming. He knows what we expect, and, to the extent that he can while still providing the gory goodness we want in our horror, he uses our expectations as viewers against us.
The Gore – Wan knows how to make a kill look as gory and blood-soaked as possible, and this film is no exception.
Especially towards the end, there is a super-disturbing body-horror moment followed by the goriest fight scene we’ve had this year. The scene is ultra-violent, gross, silly, and I loved the heck out of it!
The Third Act – There are some cool third act reveals that I enjoyed, but I won’t go into too much detail here to avoid spoilers.
One moment in particular that I thought was effective was the call in the interrogation room (if you see the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about).
And, to be fair, I loved just about everything that happened in the prison at the end, so take that as you will.
The Influences – I won’t spoil anything, but, while Wan and Cooper may have been influenced by famous Giallo films, I personally think they were drawing a lot of influence from a very different film.
SPOILER WARNING BEYOND THIS POINT
The film Malignant owes a heavy debt to is none other than Fight Club. Yes, the one with Meat Loaf.
First, the fact that Wan included the song Where Is My Mind on the soundtrack was a dead giveaway that he was very aware of the style and tone of his film.
Secondly, the split-personality twist in Fight Club and Tyler Durden being a “Malignant” presence in the Narrator’s life is similar to Gabriel and Madison’s relationship.
Finally, the last shot in Malignant also reminded me of the final shot of Fight Club – in that it is not in any way, shape, or form a happy ending, despite the hero’s apparent victory.
This is because, in both instances, the lead character is still going to have to answer for all of the crimes committed by this “Evil” entity when our hero was not in control of his / her own body.
What Needed Work
The Characters – The Main One. The Sister One. The Cop One.
All of the characters in this film are pretty much just cardboard cutouts who don’t talk like real people, don’t act like real people, and who I didn’t really care about at all.
For example, the Sister One works at Disney World (actually she works at a legally distinct theme park for children that is in no way meant to be Disney World) and so has to dress like a fairy princess. This is mentioned once, and then never revisited again.
The Main One has had several miscarriages. This does factor into the story later, but we know very little else about her as a person, and the film doesn’t go out of its way to make her feel like anything other than a character who only exists to tell this story and does things because the plot needs her to.
The Pacing – For the first half of the movie, there is a very basic, painfully slow plot progression that had me zoning out.
However, once Wan kicks things into overdrive late in the film, things get interesting and I was glued to my seat.
Now, this is not something we, as writers looking to break into the industry can afford to do, as we need to catch attention early and maintain it throughout our stories, but here the third act was so wild that it earned a lot of forgiveness on the underwhelming introduction.
The Exposition Dumps – You know the screenwriting saying: Say, Don’t Show? Yeah, I know it’s the other way around, but it seems like the writer of this film didn’t get the memo.
Information is vomited out of characters mouths in waves in-between scares, as if Wan is saying: The plot doesn’t matter, let’s get to the good stuff! In fact, for a majority of the runtime the film switches between a scare, then an exposition dump, and back to a scare.
Cops Going At It Alone – This is a pet-peeve of mine. When cops are chasing a dangerous suspect, they call it in, and they bring backup.
Not so in a James Wan film.
In Malignant, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) goes in alone to investigate a report of a possible murder, and runs into the killer. This scene is reminiscent of the scene in Saw 1 where Detective Tapp and Detective Sing chase Jigsaw alone, with no backup. Similarly, because of his stupidity, Detective Shaw very nearly suffers the same fate that befell Detective Sing in Saw 1.
This seems to happen frequently in Wan’s movies, and it is a trope that I’m tired of.
Having seen the film, I can confidently say that James Wan took a huge, ultra-violent, crazy swing with this one, and, for me, he mainly hit the mark.
I think this film will be enjoyed much more if watched with friends, as you will all be laughing, cheering, and cringing, especially at the end.
This is also a tough one to place in our standard SKIP, RENT, SEE, rating system, since it is on HBO Max and available to all subscribers.
That said, this will not be for everyone, and it starts very slow. However, if you can make it through the first act, I think you will find something to like if you are a horror fan, a gore-hound, or a James Wan fan.
So my rating is a RENT IT, but be aware this is not your typical horror film, nor is it your typical James Wan film and it gets pretty nuts plot-wise, especially towards the end.
But, if Malignant isn’t really your speed and you still want to watch a horrific James Wan picture this Halloween season, might I suggest checking out Aquaman?
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