4 out of 5 stars

James Wan helped create three big horror franchises — Saw (2004), Insidious (2010), and The Conjuring (2013) —which enabled him to make a successful leap to big-budget filmmaking with Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018). One might imagine the Australian director would now turn his back on the horror genre, only keeping his hand in with producing duties (on the many Saw sequels and Conjuring spin-offs), in much the same way Sam Raimi decided post-Army of Darkness (1992) until a brief return with Drag Me to Hell (2009). But no, after Aquaman grossed a colossal $1.4BN, Wan’s back with a $40M-budgeted supernatural slasher designed to give horror fans fresh thrills and perhaps launch his fourth franchise.

After an intentionally campy prologue set in a psychiatric hospital in 1993, we meet pregnant Madison “Maddie” Lake (Annabelle Wallis), who’s living in Seattle 28 years later with her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). After suffering many miscarriages and being continually tormented by her slacker spouse, Derek’s latest act of violence against his wife is seemingly avenged by a lanky, long-haired phantom —who promptly murders despicable Derek, but then goes after Maddie herself. Surviving the attack in her home, Maddie loses her unborn child and finds herself embroiled in a police investigation by Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), supported by her adopted sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) once she starts having crazy visions of the killer’s latest murders that makes her a suspect.

If that sounds a little spoiler-y, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Malignant. The story has at least three layers that are slowly unpeeled. Wan takes clear inspiration from Italian giallo films for Malignant, particularly the lurid colours seen in most Dario Argento classics, and the work of Lucio Fulci. The physical appearance of the killer “Gabriel” even evokes giallo slashers , thanks to his flapping black coat and ridiculously long-bladed weapon (fashioned from a golden trophy). It also has a pervasive sense of B Movie silliness, particularly once the truth about what’s happening becomes clear, calling to mind such oddball ’80s delights such as… well, even mentioning the cult movies it evokes might give the game away!

Fans of low-budget retro horror will recognise what Wan’s drawing from, to deliver a slick and expensive visual update with his Aquaman cachet. Wan’s gift with horror lies in his ability to move the camera in precisely the best way to unnerve audiences; making us search the frame with worried eyes, or simply jump when we least expect it. There’s also a carnivalesque joy in everything happening during the scares, helped by a quirky score from Joseph Bishara, including Safari Riot’s creepy cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” This all helps it to avoid becoming grim, procedural, and therefore joyless—which The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) fell prey to without Wan orchestrating the frights.

There are downsides and issues with Malignant, which prevent it from achieving true excellence. I didn’t find Annabelle Wallis (who starred in Conjuring spin-off Annabelle) a particularly strong leading presence, mainly because Maddie’s written so poorly and the script doesn’t hook you into her predicament that well. Wallis does what she can with a thinly-drawn character, and it certainly helps that she goes all-out with the OTT emotional moments. But, on the page, there isn’t enough going on with Maddie to make her feel like a victim of domestic abuse stuck in a waking nightmare. I wasn’t with her every step of the way as things got progressively weirder and scarier, but rather on the outside trying to fathom where the story is going as events unfold around her.

Malignant is also too long at 111-minutes, which gives audiences more time to guess the big twist —which I, fortunately, didn’t manage to, but I know others will if they’re especially fond of certain ’80s gonzo horrors. There are also plenty of scenes that are stretched out too long in the middle, which is a shame because once Malignant switches into high gear I was grinning over its sheer ballsiness right to the end. Wan has particular fun with the ghoulish visuals, wincing fight scenes, and body horror SFX that become possible in the last half-hour. It just made me wish those delight were a full third of the movie and not just a quarter.

It’s also not as frightening or tense as one might expect from the man who gave us The Conjuring, which is down to some of the stilted performances (which I hope were homaging the bad acting of trashy 1970s and ’80s horror films), and downright silly tone before things transition into a more enjoyable ludicrousness by the end.

However, Malignant is huge fun, even if audience reactions will be split down the middle— ironically. The premise is a hybrid of things touched on in older movies that weren’t in the mainstream, but it works brilliantly in transforming what appears to be another “haunted house” or “vengeful ghost” story into something more innovative and memorable. A sequel is possible, but with an opening weekend gross of $2.2M that doesn’t look likely—not helped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max in the US. But given how so much of the story thrives on its one big revelation, I’m not sure Malignant 2 is a wise idea unless writer Akela Cooper can develop the lore and push the outrageousness even further. But even then, my gut says Malignant should remain a solo slice of creative madness from a talented horror director we haven’t totally lost to the $200M blockbuster machine.

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USA CHINA | 2021 | 111 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: James Wan.
writer: Akela Cooper (story by James Wan, Ingrid Bisu & Akela Cooper).
starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young & Michole Briana White.