When James Wan’s Saw was released in 2004, it sparked a whole new era for horror filmmaking, as hardcore, visceral, and gore-heavy became the big new flavors. As popular as the style became in the industry, however, it wasn’t something that Wan ultimately let define him as a director. Looking at the last 10 years, his work has been noticeably very un-Saw-like, as he’s been drawn to the mostly bloodless hauntings subgenre when going for scares (i.e. The Conjuring and Insidious movies), and otherwise gaining experience making massive blockbusters (i.e. Furious 7 and Aquaman).
Wan’s desire to not be locked into making the same kind of movies over and over has been one of the most impressive aspects of his career, and clearly it has led to immense success – but all that in mind, Malignant is a fantastic reminder of his sensibilities. With his 10th feature, the filmmaker has provided audiences with the message that he still knows how to let it rip when he has a narrative means by which to do so, as the new releases is as frightening as it is fun as it is fucked up.
Scripted by Akela Cooper and based on an original story imagined by James Wan and his wife Ingrid Bisu, Malignant grips you from the start with a flashback prologue featuring varieties of bloody chaos at a research hospital, and from there it unfurls with a stack of big surprises and impressive ingenuity that has your mouth gaping widely as the action steers into wild third act. Given the way it moves, it’s a challenging film to talk about without giving too much away (something I am obsessively aiming at with this review), but it can’t be stressed enough that it has the goods waiting for audiences in its finale.
At the center of the supernatural horror story is Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a young woman who we meet as she is expecting her first child following multiple miscarriages. The pregnancy has unfortunately become a source of tension between the protagonist and her husband Derek (Jake Abel), and certainly helping absolutely nothing is that he is the kind of asshole who isn’t above slamming her into a wall. Scary as the circumstances are, though, they are nothing compared to what happens when a mysterious friend from Madison’s childhood named Gabriel comes back into her life and begins wreaking all kinds of havoc.
Beyond a second act lull, Malignant keeps you on your toes with terrific pacing and its engaging characters.
What I’ve described thus far are all events that transpire in Malignant’s first 30 minutes, and developments in the plot only get nuttier from there, save for a plateau that the movie hits in the middle. There are perpetually multiple mysteries unwinding – questioning the origins of Gabriel, what his motivations are, and his connection to Madison –and each one keeps you guessing right up until the film is ready to reveal the answer. You may figure out bits and pieces of what’s going on as you watch, but all movie-goers are in for a surprise when it all coalesces.
Only helping to keep viewers hooked and invested are the characters and cast, with Annabelle Wallis being the ensemble’s greatest strength. Madison is a weird role embedded at the center of a weird movie, but she finds the right blend of properly scared and emotional fortitude.
James Wan’s tribute to Giallo horror invites some of the most impressive cinematography we’ve seen in his canon, and a wonderful tone.
In addition to being a “going back to my roots” film for James Wan, Malignant is also the director’s own stylistic take on the Italian Giallo subgenre (popularized by filmmakers like Dario Argento and Mario Bava), and while the movie does bend more towards Wan than Giallo, the approach also inherently invites big swings with the cinematography, and it’s amazing to see Wan lean in. We still get his amazing swooping jib shots that can make any space haunting, but he goes far grander than normal (you’ll be dazzled as a sprinting character is tracked inside a two-story house from an aerial perspective), and there is some excellent punchy ending that lends the feature a unique feel.
One of the best side effects of the aesthetic is that it creates a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality, and James Wan is smart not to shy away from it. It not only knows you’re having fun watching the herky-jerky Gabriel slay his victims with his custom dagger, but it has a kind of meta appreciation of its own insanity, provided primarily through detective character Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White). It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it knows how to be humorous without disrupting the tension.
Malignant’s Gabriel is an inventive and horrifying monster who must be seen to be believed.
Without giving away too much, appropriate praise must also be delivered for the wicked and brilliant invention that is Gabriel. The monster is brought to life by contortionist dancer Marina Mazepa, and he is just hypnotizing to watch in his startling physicality. Gabriel is really at the heart of everything that is great about the film, and it’s exceptionally easy to see him quickly become a fan favorite among the lost list of James Wan’s horrific visions.
Looked at in blunt terms, Malignant is not a movie that James Wan had to make. In 2018 he made what remains (at the time of this review’s publication) the biggest DC Comics adaptation of all time, and all signs pointed to him all but immediately turning around and making Aquaman 2 as his follow-up. Instead, he decided to go the passion project route – and that’s just one more reason to love the new horror film. It’s an extreme experience that only Wan could provide, and easily one of the best scary movies of 2021.