Directed by James Wan
Written by Akela Cooper
Story By James Wan, Akela Cooper and Ingrid Bisu
Starring Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Micole Briana White and Marina Mazepa as Gabriel/Ray Chase as the voice of Gabriel
Reviewed by D. S Ullery
Director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring) returns to the genre in which he made his name with the new feature Malignant, a modern-day Giallo aiming to capture the spirit of 70’s and 80’s horror thrillers. The film succeeds in doing that, but unfortunately carries over some of the worst tendencies of those films in the process, undermining what works with some major screenplay problems. Much is already being made about the third act twist that sends this film hurtling off the rails into complete batshit insanity, but I’ll get to my take on that on a bit (without spoiling it).
First a brief synopsis: The film opens in 1993 with a team of doctors performing an experiment on a patient they refer to as “Gabriel”, who demonstrates the capacity to control electricity and broadcast his thoughts via radio waves. The experiment goes violently awry, forcing the head researcher Dr. Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) to ominously remark “the cancer must be removed”.
The story then jumps to the present day, where we’re introduced to Maddie Lake-Mitchell, a pregnant wife trapped in an abusive marriage. There’s an altercation in which her husband punches her and he ends up spending the night sleeping on the couch downstairs.
During the night a series of unsettling events wake the husband, revealing a mysterious, shadowy figure has invaded their home. The husband is murdered, which prompts Maddie to awaken in her bedroom upstairs, revealing the death to have been a nightmare she was having. She makes the ghastly discovery she’s bleeding from her head and, after wandering downstairs, she discovers her husband really has been killed and the murderer is still in the house. The figure attacks her, knocking her unconscious in the process.
Maddie wakes up in a hospital, where her younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) informs her she has lost the child. The women are later visited by Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young), who is investigating the murder.
It quickly comes to light Maddie was abused for years, placing her as a prime suspect in her husband’s death. As suspicion falls upon her, she begins to receive strange, malicious phone calls from the killer, identifying himself as Gabriel. Concurrent with this development, Maddie begins to experience waking dreams wherein members of the research team from the opening sequence are slaughtered one by one. It is soon revealed these murders are also all too real.
As the horrifying events unfold, it falls to Sydney, Detective Shaw, his partner Detective Moss (Micole Briana White) and Maddie herself to unlock the secrets from her past that connect her to the ghoulish killer.
End of synopsis.
There’s a lot to love in Malignant. The aforementioned opening sequence involving the murder of the abusive husband is an absolute master class in suspense/terror, a dazzling and deeply unsettling scene establishing right out of the gate James Wan is still very much in his element when he’s directing a horror film. The same can be said for several scenes peppering the first half of the film, most notably an equally creepy sequence involving an abduction that’s set in a subterranean tunnel.
The move is very entertaining (for the most part) and moves at a clip. One thing I wasn’t during Malignant was bored. It kept me on my toes and I enjoyed the majority of the performances.
That being established, there are some definite MVP’s here, specifically the trio of James Wan, cinematographer Michael Burgess and actress Micole Briana White.
Behind the camera, Wan’s direction keeps the action flowing and the audience engaged. He’s given astonishing support by way of jaw-dropping photography courtesy of Burgess. Among sets frequently saturated in primary hues of red and blue in the tradition of giants such as Argento, Burgess allows his camera to sweep through scenes in an exhilarating fashion, including one spectacular shot filmed from an aerial perspective following Maddie as she flees down the stairs in her house in an effort to make sure the doors and windows are all secure.
In front of the camera, everyone does a respectable enough job (with one exception I’ll touch on shortly). But the standout is Micole Briana White, as Detective Regina Moss. With a lightning-fast wit, she steals the show every time her character is onscreen. It’s Moss who from the outset has the most plausible response to the increasingly bizarre story Maddie and Sydney are telling the detectives. Indeed, Briana White scores the single best moment in the film with a quip she tosses out referencing the film after looking at a police sketch of the killer.
I also applaud the character of Gabriel, brought to life through a brilliant physical performance by Marina Mazepa and wonderfully voiced with an eerie, taunting rasp provided by Ray Chase. I give Wan and his team credit- Gabriel is one of the most original and effective horror villains I’ve seen on the big screen in years. His appearances throughout are the stuff of nightmares.
Unfortunately, Malignant also suffers a number of issues I’m going to discuss now, and that starts with the central performance by Annabelle Wallis. I just didn’t connect with her. It may have been a combination of the writing and the particular manner in which the actress approached the role, but I never felt that necessary emotional investment with Maddie that elevates the very best horror movies. Think back to films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street (which this movie definitely pays homage to. Whether intentional or not, this has a strong Wes Craven vibe to it. I offer that as a compliment) or – more appropriately- classic Giallo such as Suspiria. One characteristic all of those films share is we come to truly empathize with the protagonist. That never happened here and while I was assuredly horrified by what was transpiring on screen, I didn’t really care about her.
And that leads me to the major issue working against this film: The writing. Where to begin? Red flags are raised almost immediately when a series of major revelations concerning Maddie’s past are clumsily introduced in the first half-hour or so which illustrate Sydney doesn’t really know her sister at all, despite the film presenting them as being inseparable. The character development for Maddie in this flick is handled with all the grace and subtlety of hitting someone upside the head with a sledgehammer.
There are also inconsistencies regarding how powerful Gabriel is. One scene has a detective holding his own with the killer in one-on-one combat while another has the monster effortlessly laying waste to an entire police force. Additionally, nothing is ever really done with his apparent ability to manipulate electricity. Lights flicker and explode and he speaks through the radio, but that’s about it.
Malignant also makes the mistake of adopting a terrible trait common to many of the classic Giallo films it emulates: The disjointed, at times incoherent narrative. Events unfold without explanation and the plot continuously jumps back and forth between the various story threads in a disorienting manner. Even watching the film at rapt attention and with no distractions, I found it at times difficult to follow why things were happening. To his credit, Wan does weave all of these elements together and, eventually, everything makes sense within its own bizarre context. But it can be a chore staying on top of the plot on the way to the third act and that’s not a good thing. Most directors elevate a screenplay with their skills. In Malignant, Wan has to overcome it.
Then there’s the tonal shift and the third act twist. About two-thirds of the way into the film the focus of Malignant shifts, abandoning the atmospheric and terrifying set pieces of the first half in favor of more action-oriented sequences. Not that it isn’t fun -there’s a scene that begins in a holding cell and ends in the middle of a police station that is one of the most brilliantly executed cinematic bloodbaths I’ve ever witnessed – but I confess to being mildly disappointed the film didn’t stay with the more suspenseful and chilling direction it had boasted earlier.
As to that already much-discussed twist, I liked it. I thought it was exactly the brand of crazy the film needed to slide into its conclusion. Within the world established in Malignant, it felt one hundred percent appropriate.
This has been an interesting year for horror. It’s ironic that I found the recently released The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It a better film overall than Malignant, considering James Wan handed the directorial reins on that one to someone else so he could make this new film.
So, would I recommend this film? Yes. For all of the issues I mentioned here, Malignant is a good film. It’s just not a great one. It gets a lot more right than wrong and functions, I think, as a triumph of style and directorial skill over substance. There’s no denying that, as an original horror thriller, it is at times remarkably effective. Horror fans willing to put aside any expectations of a tightly written, focused narrative and just enjoy the experience of the film will likely have a very good time with it.
Malignant earns a healthy ***1/2 out of ***** stars
D. S. Ullery is a cartoonist and an author of short Horror fiction. He’s published two single-author collections and his ongoing comic panel Goulash can be found on Webtoons Canvas. An Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association, D.S. resides in South Florida, where he shares an apartment with a reasonably unstable feline named Jason, a black cat born on Friday the 13th.
You can read D.S’s ongoing comedy/horror comic series Goulash HERE
You can buy Highway 181, Duane’s most recent horror collection HERE