Malignant is a film that came out of nowhere. I don’t stay up to date on movie news as I used to in years past, so I had no idea this was even in the works. I saw the trailer once a few short weeks ago, thought it looked decent, and then it never came to mind again until three days before its release. I was surprised to see it getting released in September and not in October. It’s a horror film, a James Wan horror film no less, so you’d think New Line Cinema would slate it for an October release. Perhaps they weren’t sure where to put it. If that’s the case, I don’t blame them.
The word to use to describe this movie is “bonkers”. It’s a film that revels in the insanity of its premise and execution. It’s an amalgamation of different tones, flairs, stylistic flavors, music cues, and the like. Imagine going to a nice restaurant and instead of picking out a standard three course meal, you order everything on the menu. That’s the kind of loaded burrito you’re getting with Malignant. Depending on your taste, it’s a burrito that’ll hit just the right spot or pinch the wrong nerve.
The premise is simple. Annabelle Wallis takes the lead as Madison Lake, distraught woman who, after a tragic loss, begins having horrific visions of murder. She quickly realizes that these visions are no figment of her disturbed imagination. They are very much real. In her attempt to uncover the truth behind them, she’s forced to rediscover the dark truth about her past, and confront a malevolent entity that threatens to reshape her future.
I haven’t read too many interviews and articles about the making of the film, but on paper, it seems like the product of a shared fever dream among friends. It’s as if they came to gather, combed through their creative minds, and came up with a unified concept. The problem, though, was that each had wildly different opinions on how to approach it. Rather than pick a style and roll with it, they chose the “all of the above” option. This is what was born from the “all of the above” option.
The move is both a pro and a con, and not in ways you would expect. The acting ranges from really good to merely okay. Annabelle Wallis is the best of the bunch, giving a firm, dedicated performance that works with every layer of the story. The supporting cast isn’t quite as strong, but they’re good enough to carry you through from scene to scene. Wan’s direction is great yet again. Whether you love or hate the guy as a filmmaker, there’s no denying that Wan knows how to utilize the camera to great effect. He’s able to create a tangible atmosphere and eerie mood. Similar to his other works, the film showcases Wan’s talent of building and maintaining suspense, at times giving the camera a ghostlike fluidity that antagonizes the protagonist as much as their enemies do. Case in point is a scene where a frightened Madison flees toward her upstairs bedroom. Wan puts us, the audience, in the position of an all-seeing eye of sorts, placing us overhead and allowing us to look down upon her as she rushes from one end of the house to the other. It’s as though we are both the watcher and the tormentor.
By far the most fascinating element of the film is its simultaneous predictability and unpredictability. If you’re familiar with Wan’s work- or horror movies in general- you’ll be able to figure out early on what might happen through the course of the narrative. As the first act was playing out, I made a mental A,B,C checklist of what I thought would wind up happening. Just when it looked like the narrative was about to prove theory A, it would steer off and start proving theory B. The list kept going until the climactic reveal, when I realized that the film had committed to the “all of the above ” option. This guessing game is the film’s way of keeping your hooks in you. For the most part, it firmly holds your attention. The downside is that because you can start figuring things out pretty soon, the middle portion feels slow, like you’re stuck trudging through molasses to get to another side you can clearly see from a mile away. Thankfully, once it reaches its chaotically campy third act, the film runs at a healthy momentum.While there’s plenty of fun to be had with
Malignant, it’s by no means one of Wan’s best. It’s tonal and stylistic choices never seamlessly mesh. I appreciate what the film is going for- the campy, late-night popcorn flick. But for me at least, it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Sometimes the tone was tongue-in-cheek, other times it played it straight. It borrows elements from different types of genres- the bleak cinematography of late-2010s cinema; the pulsing electronic score of a early-to-mid-2000s thriller; music cues of a low-budget ’80s slasher movie; the methodical buildup of suspense you’d see in a slow-burn mystery; and the flashy Matrix-style spectacle of an action movie. It’s a creative hodgepodge that shouldn’t work, but mostly does. So even though it’s not one of Wan’s best, it’s by no means a downgrade from what we usually expect from him. If you do decide to check it out, don’t expect big scares. What you can expect is an enjoyable ride.