Film Review – Malignant
Malignant (2021) is the kind of horror flick tailor made for the midnight-movie crowds. With its campy tone, over the top body horror, and ridiculous story, it exudes the kind of “no holding back” attitude that many fans of the genre will gleefully embrace. There are influences at play that range from Lucio Fulci, Hammer Horror, Re-Animator (1985), The Evil Dead (1981), Basket Case (1982), and a plethora of others. It all coalesces into a frantic tale that doesn’t aim for cohesion but for sheer entertainment. Just when we think it can’t get any more gonzo, it goes up another notch just to see what it can get away with.
Director James Wan has become somewhat of the go-to filmmaker regarding big budget genre filmmaking. Not only has he conquered mainstream horror with no less than three established franchises (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious), he has also contributed to arguably the biggest action series of the 21st century with Furious 7 (2015). He spearheaded the most fun entry into the DC superhero line up in Aquaman (2018). Wan clearly has a knack for handling large scale productions. However, with Malignant, he goes in a completely different direction. It’s as though he is at play, doing whatever he wants without being tied down to an established property or having to wedge into an already existing storyline.
Working off Akela Cooper’s screenplay, Wan and his team free float through the narrative, experimenting with how they want things to unfold. Michael Burgess’ cinematography has the camera flying through sets like a kid hopped up on too much sugar. Shots are composed with a deliberately artificial approach. In one scene, a character runs through a house, going up and down the stairs. The camera is fastened from above looking straight down, following them like a scientist watching a rat in a maze. When a startling discovery is made, the camera zooms around as Joseph Bishara’s music hilariously thumps in overdramatic fashion. Fog blankets nighttime Seattle as though we were in Transylvania. It all adds up to a spooky, dream like atmosphere. The only thing missing is a random wolf howling at the moon.
In terms of plot, we go from weird, to wacky, to straight up bonkers. When we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), she is in a dark place. She’s in a relationship with an abusive husband (Jake Abel) who resents her for their pregnancy issues. To make matters worse, Madison suffers from hellish visions of a killer named Gabriel (Ray Chase) who was once locked up in an institution but is now going on a murder spree. Madison confides this to her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) who wants to help but doesn’t know how to. Somehow, Madison’s visions have bled into reality, leaving a trail of bodies. Eventually, detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) knock on Madison’s door looking for answers.
What I just described barely scratches the surface of what Malignant has to offer. The ways in which Madison’s nightmares and Gabriel’s murders are connected act as the central point of tension, but there is a lot more going on. As things progress, more secrets are uncovered that changes the entire dynamic of the story. Plot twists are always tricky to navigate, but what the writing and direction make them so abundant and preposterous that it turns out to be good thing. Things are constantly shifting to the point that the unexpected becomes the expected. It’s a game of numbers – if one surprise doesn’t work, then the following five or six might. The third act is so heavy with twists and turns that one can’t help but to let go and just enjoy the experience.
This is certainly not for everyone. The synthetic construction, extreme violence, and absurd story will not fit everyone’s tastes. Wan makes his presence felt early and often. Horror scenes will dramatically change lighting to a deep red for no logical reason other than style. The incessant camera movement – tracking through rooms with no consideration for walls or ceilings – calls attention to itself simply for its bravado. And when we give a few seconds of thought to the story, things fall apart quickly. But all that takes a backseat to how entertaining this is. For those that are willing to go along with the mayhem and meet it on its own terms, they will come away fully satisfied. This is the kind of movie that can have audiences laughing along with it, not at it.
It’s not often that a big studio like Warner Brothers will release a horror film based on an original idea and let it be this quirky and strange. That goes to show the kind of influence Wan has earned with his career. This feels like one of those “one for them, one for me” type of situations, and Wan capitalized on it in his own unique way. Malignant is a rollercoaster ride of blood, guts, and laughs, and it will reward anybody willing to give it a spin.