When James Wan released his first feature film in 2004, a little horror film that you might have heard of called “Saw”. It pegged Wan as a director to watch and by his fourth film “Insidious”, he had established himself as this generations master of horror. After taking a break from the horror genre to direct DC’s “Aquaman”, Wan is back to his horror roots with his tenth feature “Malignant”. If he hasn’t already proven, then his new film “Malignant” will show that James Wan is a mastermind at this stuff and he should be the only one directing horror films.
Wan has a great track record with me, as I only really dislike two out of his ten films (“Aquaman” and “Dead Silence”). I still consider “Insidious 1 & 2”, “Saw” and “The Conjuring 2” to still remain as his best work within the horror genre. “Malignant” is being offered on both HBO Max and as a theatrical release on the same day, but it would be advisable to instead catch it on the biggest screen possible and hear it on the best audio system you can find.
One of those reasons is the films visual effects which has it’s moments of obvious computer used effects, but is mostly impressive. The sound design on the other hand is stellar, shouldn’t go unnoticed and deserves a nomination at this years Oscar race. But to get the best use out of the films audio, watch “Malignant” in theaters for a surround sound setting or pump up your home theater system. Because your in for a treat.
“Malignant” follows the pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis, of “The Mummy” and “Annabelle”), whose abusive husband (Jake Abel) repeatedly beats her, that at one point bashing her head against the wall so severely that she wakes up with her pillow covered in blood. Hubby soon enough pays dearly for his transgressions, when he’s killed by a home intruder who seems to be a demonic creature. Or as it’s sarcastically described in the film, think of it’s appearance as Sloth from “The Goonies” as a contortionist and in a bad need of a hair wash and haircut.
Upon her recovery from her injuries, Madison, begins experiencing horrific visions in which she sees the same creature brutally murdering victims from the films opening sequence (which I’ll remain hush about). The killing spree soon attracts the interest of a pair of homicide detectives (George Young, Michole Briana White), one of which becomes convinced that Madison herself is the murderer.
But Madison also starts receiving a series of communications from the professed killer, who calls himself Gabriel. Which also happens to be the name of Madison’s imaginary childhood friend of whom she had long repressed. As Madison’s connection to the killer begins to wear her down. Madison, her sister Sydney and the two police detectives all work to uncover the disturbing truth of her past and solve the ongoing murders.
From the start, Wan grips you by the arm and doesn’t let go. Wan, his wife actress Ingrid Bisu (“The Nun”) and screenwriter Akela Cooper keeps audiences guessing if it’s a ghost story? Serial killer? Possession? Or all of the above? They let the mystery unfold itself alongside the police investigation led by paper thin characterizations, campy dialogue and adequate performances.
More impressively is Wan’s elaborate set pieces, staged in an arresting fashion, with clean camerawork that is some of the best of his filmography. Wan stages an incredible chase sequence that calls back to David Fincher’s “Se7en”. The big climax in a police station is ridiculous, but a whole lot of fun. Choreographing a massacre in which Gabriel wreaks murderous havoc that has the feel of the church fight from “The Kingsman”, mixed with the lobby shootout from “The Matrix”. Wan doesn’t hold back the buckets of blood in his extremely gory fight sequences that showcase Gabriel’s physical agility and lethal skills. The first thirty minutes feels repetitive and feels like it’s James Wan’s most uneven horror outing. But I can’t stress it enough that just hold out and keep watching, because “Malignant” has the goods waiting for audiences in its second and third acts.
“Malignant” has all the ingredients and style of past horror films from the likes of Dario Argento, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma. Wan creates some of his best cinematography as he utilizes the genres of a home invasion terror to a gory slasher to a supernatural demonic possession. I like that James Wan didn’t make “Aquaman 2” right away as his follow-up to the first film and instead before starting production on the DC sequel, he decided to go back to his love of the horror genre first. “Malignant” is an experience that only James Wan could present us and gives us one of the best horror films of the year.
What’s so interesting about Wan’s career is his desire to not be typecast into making the same kind of movies over and over. “Malignant” certainly has problems, but it is also frightening, thrilling, fun, ridiculous, over the top, gory and most importantly a bit messed up. It’s also a great reminder of his sensibilities as a filmmaker and provides his fans with further proof that he still knows how to make one hell of a horror thriller.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)