Malignant is exactly the kind of movie you get to make if you’re responsible for the success of three hugely profitable horror franchises like Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring Universe. That’s James Wan and he’s also dabbled in other cinematic series by directing Furious 7 and Aquaman. Here he gets to return to his roots and clearly do whatever he pleases. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but I volleyed between wanting to commend and condemn him for it.
A prologue set in 1993 introduces us in dimly lit fashion with Gabriel. He’s a young psychiatric patient who can control electricity and speaks in a manner where he sounds like he’s on a bad Zoom conference call. There’s also some serious killing skills involved.
In the present day, he reappears in the visions of Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis). The Seattle native lives in a creepy home with her creepy abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She’s preggers and anxious after suffering previous miscarriages. A fight with Derek results in the appearance of Gabriel that leaves her a widow.
Turns out that Madison shares a connection with the murderer that’s stronger than his cell phone connection when he threatens victims. Writing a proper review would spoil the surprises of what’s to come, so I’ll be careful. Gabriel is exacting revenge on some medical professional who scarred his childhood. The adopted Madison must exorcise repressed memories from her own upbringing to solve the mystery. Helping our central figure is sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson). Searching for the bloody connection between Madison and Gabriel are two detectives – sympathetic Kekoa (George Young) and no nonsense Regina (Michole Briana White).
Much of the backstory is told via grainy videotapes. That seems appropriate as Wan is paying homage to 1980s slashers that would have went straight to the aisle for your VHS perusing. There’s cheesy dialogue, a reliance on splatter over scares, and I never had a doubt that Wan is having a ball getting away with making it. This might have gotten a lengthy writeup in Fangoria magazine and I bet its maker would’ve loved that. The magazine still exists but the article woulda been cooler in 1985.
Malignant is bound to be debated by genre fans for its WTF twist that occurs in the third act. I won’t lie – I grinned ear to ear when first revealed. Yet it was more of a reaction to the filmmaker getting a $40 million budget to put this out to unsuspecting viewers. Wan is a master craftsman and there are a few moments of technical bravura. Conversely there’s plenty of times where it looks like his cheapest pic since Saw and that’s not an accident.
I could never fully escape the thought that Wan is having more fun than I was. The first half of Malignant isn’t much different than your run-of-the-mill sound effects laden fright fest. Once it reaches the aforementioned nutty turning point, I admired the brazenness more than the execution.
**1/2 (out of four)