James Wan has not made a horror film since 2016’s The Conjuring 2. The director kept busy dabbling in franchise fare like Furious 7 and Aquaman, and he did very well, but for those who loved The Conjuring and Insidious, the wait has seemed eternal. But the semi-hiatus also gave the director a chance to try something new within the horror genre. Not content to step back into an existing series, Wan is shedding the trademarks of his work: no haunted houses or creepy dolls.
The ghostly jump scares that populated much of the Conjuring/Insidious entries are gone, replaced with more traditional thriller elements. Also gone are the reliable stable of actors like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Lin Shaye. If it seems like Wan is deliberately trying to shake off his previous hits, he is. While promoting Malignant, Wan has shared his fear of feeling repetitive. “I’m very aware of the reputation that I have built for myself in the horror genre in recent years, and I’m always trying to find new ways to reinvent myself so that I don’t get stale, so to speak.” The opening scene of Malignant announces Wan’s bold attempt to reinvent himself.
A splattery homage to Dario Argento’s Giallo films, the film reveals its brutality early. Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is stuck in an abusive relationship—well, was stuck—until a figure breaks into her home at night and murders her husband. Graphically. She calls the police reluctantly, knowing that, as the spouse, she’ll be the first suspect. Further complicating issues are the visions of gruesome murders Madison keeps having on nights since the attack. The dreams are steadily getting worse, yet the real horror begins once Madison realizes the dreams are actually visions of new victims.
The figure that plagues Madison’s visions is Gabriel, a killer that strikes in grisly ways. Gabriel, decked out in black leather gloves and a golden murder weapon, is sure to likewise invade the imaginations of horror fans. From his creepy visage to his unnerving movements, Gabriel’s appearance sparks Malignant into action. Except for the Nun and Annabelle, few horror antagonists have made fans sit up and take notice recently. Even for characters who launched spin-offs, there were no Freddy Kruegers or Michael Myers’. Gabriel hopefully enters the mainstream in a way that recent boogiemen (and women) have not.
Assured from his experiences making massive films like Furious 7 and Aquaman, Wan’s direction is precise, engaging and terrifying depending on what is called for. Stepping away from ghostly frights and into slasher territory means there’s much more blood to be seen, which he provides gleefully. Though some scares rely too heavily on CGI, Wan captures things from unique angles to keep the choreography fresh. It’s clear that Wan loves this sub-genre, and he leans hard into those Giallo archetypes. The over-the-top acting, extravagant gore, and the blue/red cinematography—an Argento favourite—are all represented here. But playing with tropes has a cost, and the script by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper needed another draft to smooth things out.
Plot development hinges on the two detectives working Madison’s case. The choice is successful when it works, but hazardous when the audience finds themselves ahead of the police. Trim these portions and the film’s pacing improves significantly. The plotline takes too long to go anywhere and its conventionality clashes with Wan’s intended tone. Malignant works as long as it zips along, but when it focuses on procedural copshop, viewers have too much time to ponder flaws.
The biggest issue with Malignant is the wild divergence of quality. What Wan and company invest in comes out wonderfully. Then there are several scenes where the film seems to run on autopilot. Take the score, by Wan regular Joseph Bishara. It serves the atmosphere quite well, then Bishara launches into dubstep and covers The Pixies, which proves distracting. Then there’s the acting. Madison and Gabriel are the standouts of the film, but the film drags to a halt when they are offscreen. Annabelle Wallis plays Madison well, drawing comparisons to characters with broken psyches from Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill. Wallis was made into window dressing in her Hollywood breakthrough (The Mummy), yet this might be the spotlight to advance her profile. It’s exciting to see her bite into this more developed role—a role that isn’t just a damsel in distress.
Malignant is a showcase of Wan’s talents as a director. He pulls out all the stops, wowing everyone in the process. One highlight sees Wan tear the roof off of a house to watch Gabriel’s victims run from room to room. The director doesn’t rely on loud jump scares either, with the biggest reactions from the audience coming with total silence onscreen. The test for audiences will be the ending. Depending on how much you enjoy cult-film sensibilities, your mileage here will vary. A take this bizarre will be divisive, but count me as one who enjoyed it.
Malignant opens September 10.