Review: James Wan's 'Malignant' a bizarre, but disappointing horror excursion
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Having gifted the world three solid horror franchises: “Saw,” “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” all of which have yielded exceptional outings, expectations were mighty for James Wan’s “Malignant.” How could they not? It’s an original horror flick from the brainchild of one the best scary movies of the 21st century. Sadly for as bonkers, creative and inspired as “Malignant” is, the thrills and chills are scarce and the bizarre premise slowly wears thin long before the shocking twist reveals itself. It’s most assuredly a James Wan film and I applaud the effort, but it never connected for me.
Pieced together like a stylized video game oozing with flair but hardly any substance, “Malignant” keeps its cards close to the vest (hence why the studio opted to withhold press screenings until the last second), because general audiences might struggle to wrap their brains around the insanity Wan cooks up. It’s crazy and part of the allure is that secrecy, but the first two thirds of “Malignant” unspool with the energy of a first time filmmaker making sloopy creative decisions. Examples include, spotty transitions, overhead tracking shots, and a confusing narrative piling on layers in the hopes of connecting dots. Some giddy, and admittedly, thrilling slayings aside, by the time we reach the conclusion, you’re left wondering what the hell just happened. A valiant effort I’m sure will reward patient moviegoers, but the pacing and approach to Akela Cooper’s screenplay gave me serious spouts of whiplash.
As for the story, we follow Maidson (Annabelle Wallis), a young woman who’s suffered a miscarrage after a domestic violence incident and is seeing vivid dreams of a supernatural entity clawing and stabbing its way through victims. Madison was adopted, and often talks about finding a blood connection, something she tries to force with her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson). This entity, which we later find out is named Gabriel, is more than a dream, seems to know Madison, and is now responsible for several murders in the downtown Seattle suburb where she lives. This unknown beast lurks in the shadows and communicates with people by broadcasting its voice through PA systems and cell phones. Soon, Gabriel is slashing through a group of doctors we saw in the opening scene, and all Madison can do is watch the mayhem unfold.
The blurriness between reality and dreaming is a fun motif Wan bends as he parkours from scene to scene, building towards a thrilling, operatic final battle. Wan can write a solid script and loves toying with conventions (he practically rewrote the haunted house troupe for “The Conjuring ') so it’s frustrating how lazy “Malignant” spends its first hour. Yes, Breadcrumbs are slowly being laid for the audience and some, let’s just say, otherworldly revelations are necessary for Maidson’s journey, but the dialogue reeks of staleness and the central performance, while commendable, can’t salvage muddy execution.
I’m glad “Malignant,” in all its freak flag glory, exists and I’ll be first in line for Wan’s next outing, but his latest is a blemish on a rather pristine filmography.
MALIGNANT is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO MAX.