Malignant isn’t a start-to-finish success, but its final 30 minutes solidify it as one of the wildest, weirdest horror films in some time.
In interviews and in marketing materials, Malignant is pitched as James Wan’s take on the Giallo, but while the director borrows elements from the genre (like the killer’s gloved hand grasping an impossibly ornate weapon), his new film is detached from the rhythms and narrative specifics of the genre. The film’s primary mystery concern is found not so much the killer’s identity, but in the supernatural happenings around the murders. So while Giallo films (especially Argento’s and most especially Tenebre) clearly inform this film, they’re just one of the many influences from which the director cribs — another obvious hallmark is De Palma’s Sisters — in making this bizarre hodgepodge, a supernatural slasher movie with an absolutely wild twist that shares more in common with Wan’s Aquaman than it does The Conjuring. It’s a big swing from the director, one not likely to shift mainstream horror the way he first did with Saw, and one that’s already proven polarizing. At its best, Malignant is a blast that follows its gleefully dumb ideas to deliriously gory heights unmatched in contemporary studio horror, but it’s cluttered with long, inconsistent stretches that lean on the off-kilter tone like a crutch in between the moments that pop.
Annabelle Wallis stars as Maddie Mitchell, a woman with an unexplained link to a series of murders happening throughout Seattle. Whenever a murder is happening, Maddie sees it, mentally transported to the scene of the crime. For the most part, these slasher movie kills are competent little set pieces, the killer, who seems to be all gangly limbs in a black coat, stalking his victims in spaces splashed with bright red and blue lights. The cops called in to investigate have a dynamic akin to a parody of a network procedural, complete with a medical examiner comically horny for the lead detective. Through the cops and from dramatic music cues in otherwise innocuous moments, Malignant’s tone begins to emerge as knowingly silly, without the jokes that would make it a comedy or the winking self-awareness that might create distance. Eventually, the tone pays dividends, but it’s often difficult to get on its wavelength, especially in those scenes focused on the cops, which are garishly lit and clumsily written even as parody. Though its tone is consistent throughout, its varying effectiveness from scene to scene causes whiplash as if Wan is inviting you into the movie one second and pushing you away the next.
But then, with about thirty minutes left in the 2-hour movie, Wan slams his foot on the gas with giddy abandon, unleashing a series of increasingly weird twists and leading to a bloody third act push into action-horror that pays off not just in the movie’s own threads, but with notable influence from Wan’s time away from the horror genre making action blockbusters. The sequence, in which the killer goes on a rampage, looks like modern dance with compound fractures, recalling and topping what Wan’s old writing partner Leigh Whannell did in The Invisible Man last year. But these scenes also make the rest of Malignant look worse, as if Wan was dragging his feet waiting to get to this grand finale to finally inject a much needed dose of energy into what was becoming increasingly sedate. Still, in a sea of horror movies that either play it safe or waste too much time clarifying their themes, Malignant is a breath of fresh air, a wild swing made with studio money and one of the most genuinely weird horror movies in some time.