James Wan is responsible for creating some of modern horror’s most commercially successful franchises – Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring – and in his return to the genre after five years, Wan gives us something more bold, bonkers, and B-movie than, arguably, anything we’ve seen from him before.
The film opens with a dramatic thunderclap in 1993 in the neon red-lit corridors of a spooky, cliffside psychiatric institution where one of the patients, Gabriel, is on a murderous rampage. Gabriel is not your regular homicidal, escaped, asylum inmate, however – he has special powers; he can control electricity and broadcast his thoughts via radio. Naturally, this means there’s a lot of light-flickering and creepy-but-atmospheric radio static going on while the institution’s doctors are getting picked off one by one.
It’s definitely a fun opening which quickly establishes the film as a horror that’s imbued with a brilliantly campy self-awareness. For instance, there’s a great moment where one of the doctors sticks his arm off-screen into the room where Gabriel is hiding and, predictably, pulls it back a bloody, flesh-torn mess. It’s an opening which also establishes the film’s retro but simultaneously contemporary-feeling aesthetic; Malignant loves VHS tapes, old cars and houses, and female characters with Zooey Deschanel fringes. This affinity for nostalgia is very fitting for a film that balances older cinematic influences, like Giallo, with James Wan’s more modern, mainstream style.
The opening credits are reminiscent of something you would see in a mid-00s blockbuster horror sequel – think Final Destination 4 – with aggressive guitar riffs playing out over a series of rapidly-cut, overexposed, 90s psych ward B-roll. And we cut to present day, where pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) and her dirtbag husband Derek (Jake Abel) don’t seem to be the only habitants of their Seattle suburb home. The couple get into an argument and Derek becomes physically abusive, slamming Madison’s head into the wall so hard that it leaves a dent. He’s – rightly – consigned to the living room for the night, but is disturbed from his sleep by an unseen entity, which taunts him by turning on different household appliances. It’s entertaining to watch a scummy character get their comeuppance, and Derek certainly meets a satisfyingly sickening end.
One of the great things about Malignant is how it fits three different films into one, with each act having its own unique tone as it crosses into another subgenre of horror. Malignant feels like a showcase of Wan’s range as a horror director and writer. The first act feels like a haunted house, supernatural, entity movie, redolent of Wan’s work in The Conjuring universe. The film then morphs into more of a slasher flick as it turns into the second act, with Madison experiencing visions of murders which evoke the dream-infused gore of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The final act is where things take a turn for the truly unexpected. Malignant mutates into batshit crazy body horror that’s like Basket Case (1982) but with a budget. There’s some genuinely jaw-dropping sequences, the details of which I’ll keep to a minimum, but I will say there is some impressive reverse stunt choreography that rivals Tenet.
It is a shame that Malignant has had a less than desirable performance at the box office because it’s a real breath of fresh air for modern horror cinema. It’s rare to see a newer horror movie containing truly innovative ideas that doesn’t belong in the newly-coined category of “elevated” horror. With that being said, Malignant has all the makings of a future cult classic. It’s original but nostalgic, and most importantly it’s fun. It’s the kind of film that would make for perfect group-watching, and I can definitely see it getting a second life when it hits streaming services. Here’s hoping we can see more offbeat horrors like Malignant from Wan in the future.
Malignant is out now in cinemas.