Synopsis – 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.
My Take – By marking his feature directorial debut with Saw (2004), a nasty cultural phenomenon that has since spawned eight sequels, as a filmmaker James Wan quickly rose to become the face of modern horror. A status he further asserted with the release of the criminally under seen Dead Silence (2007), the terrifying Insidious films and the creation of the still expanding The Conjuring Universe.
Though Wan has continued to remain attached to horror via his production company, over the years, as a director, understandably, his focus shifted into blockbuster territory, which saw him helm two billion dollar franchise installments in the form of Furious 7 (2015) and the DC film, Aquaman (2018).
Now five years later, in a surprise turn of events, Wan marks his directorial return to the genre, both with an original concept and an absurd concoction of all the best and cheesiest ingredients of 80’s slasher goodness. Complete with a unique, signature murder weapon and a soon to be iconic killer.
Yes, while the film may go down as Wan‘s least favorite among his fans (like myself), but that doesn’t discount the fact that he once again reaffirms his grasp on the genre as his latest is without a doubt also his most deranged and visionary horror flick yet.
Told in a scale much smaller than his action blockbusters, the film weirdly takes nearly half the run time to get going, but when it does, it goes completely off the rails, devolving into a goofy, nonsensical, bloody entertainer that it feels like it was yanked out of a completely different film.
Sure, the film is rarely scary, but it seemed like Wan knew this and preferred to just concentrate on ensuring that his bonkers material just hit all the right spots of carnival freak-show showmanship.
Opening with a violent prologue set in a mental hospital in the early 1990s, the story then moves to the present time and follows Maddie (Annabelle Wallis), who lives with an abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) and is plagued by three miscarriages. But after Derek pushes Maddie forcefully against a wall causing blood to gush from the back of her head, a dark creature visits upon Derek at night to inflict the kind of bodily damage usually reserved for car crashes.
Considered to be home invasion initially, Maddie begins to find herself in deeper turmoil as she begins seeing clear visions of the ghoulish figure murdering people, seemingly at random all over the city.
While the detectives investigating the case, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) suspect that Madison is most likely their killer, she confides in her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), that she believes Gabriel (Marina Manzepa), her imaginary friend from childhood, an aggressive creature who has previously manipulated her, is somehow behind all this.
What begins as a home invasion terror halfway morphs into something else, as director Wan bounces gleefully from a demonic possession tale to a gory slasher. Gone are the director’s signature trademarks. No CGI demons or ghosts, everything from the tone, to the over dramatic performances and the gory bone-crunching practical effects, the film turns into something that presumably meant as homage to the body horrors of directors like Dario Argento.
Admittedly, the film has a bit of a slow start. In fact, in the first half, I was wondering if I was going to end up hating it purely on pace alone. Drawing upon themes as wide-ranging as lucid dreaming, childhood trauma and malevolent spirits that lurk in the dark, the film often seems to flounder in its execution, fumbling desperately for that all-important hook to reel audiences in.
But around the 40-minute mark, thankfully, the film delivers a third act that is both ridiculous and wholly reassuring to horror fans, confirming that director Wan retains his position as one of the most consistently entertaining showmen in horror films today. The film goes places you don’t exactly expect, which highlights one small aspect of how a muddled opening can work to your advantage.
Though it can be argued that director Wan waits too long before showing his hand, and the film could certainly benefit from losing 15 minutes or so from its overly laborious build-up. And then there is the matter of the unfortunate lack of scares or tension, despite director Wan dazzling us with dreamy imagery and gruesome kills. However, any such fears can be set aside, when the curtain is eventually lifted to reveal the delightfully ghoulish truth.
What follows is a frantic, blood-spattered climax of outrageous action and violence, propelled by a jaw-dropping revelation so ridiculously audacious it must be seen to be believed. A horror film is only as good as its monster, and Gabriel is an incredible one. His movements shown as twisted and stilted. However, that doesn’t stop him from executing his victims with ferocity.
The trailers in particular play up Madison’s childhood insistence that Gabriel is an imaginary friend, but in the film itself, his physicality makes him more monster than ghost. The mystery binding him and Madison is as solid and the finale especially is so defiantly demented and executed with such confidence and commitment that any pain and suffering from what comes before is swiftly forgotten.
Performance wise, honestly, given the insanity of the plot it is hard to see how the actors had no choice but deeply insert themselves into the theatrics of the proceedings. Annabelle Wallis continues to be an effective lead, once again being the victim of a James Wan production following Annabelle (2014). Wallis also gets effective support from Maddie Hasson, George Young and Michole Briana White.
In smaller roles, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Ingrid Bisu, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson and Jake Abel are alright. On the whole, ‘Malignant’ is a deranged and visionary horror flick that uses its ridiculousness to deliver some of the most effective blood soaked and wrathful sequences in recent years.
Directed – James Wan
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes