Director: James Wan
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, Michole Brianna White
Throughout an already significant tenure in popular horror cinema, James Wan has been most commonly creeped out by the idea of losing control. Be it succumbing to Jigsaw’s traps or getting possessed by whatever malevolent ills stalk the shadows of Insidious and The Conjuring, there’s a persistent threat of losing ownership of one’s destiny. Even his Twitter handle – inspired by Billy the spiral-cheeked marionette from Saw – is @creepypuppet. Who or what is pulling the strings?
After five years playing in the action sandboxes of Furious 7 and Aquaman, Wan returns to the genre that defined him to pursue this line of inquiry further. The way this manifests in Malignant may be new ground for Wan, but it’s as old as horror storytelling itself. That collision of old and new is all over this film.
Sporting a series of unconvincing brunette wigs, Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, a wife and mother-to-be living in an improbably gothic house on an otherwise regular Seattle street. When her wretch of a husband beats her up in their bedroom, Madison locks him downstairs. In the morning she discovers he’s been contorted to death by an unseen interloper. Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Brianna White) start working the case with Madison among the prime suspects. Madison’s ordeal is not over, however. Having miscarried thanks to the domestic abuse she was suffering at home, our erstwhile heroine starts having wild visions of the same killer stalking others. As her plucky younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) puts it, it’s like they’ve built a kind of psychic connection.
So far it all sounds rather by-the-numbers, but Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper present their story with a tingling edge of lunacy that is apparent from the get-go. It’s there in the barking mad cold open set nearly 30 years prior at a clifftop sanitarium, but it persists in little, flavoursome additions throughout, such as the offbeat moments shared between Shaw and forensic specialist Winnie (Ingrid Bisu – a bit-part player in The Nun who came up with this cracked story).
As it unfolds, Malignant embraces its inherent silliness, and characters are often moved to exclaim how incredulous the story is becoming. Thanks to the film’s knowing edge, this plays as gleefully camp rather than grating. Similar in tone to early Barrett/Wingard efforts You’re Next and The Guest, Malignant abuts dark, sobering material with a sense of counter-intuitive playfulness. It fully embraces tropes and traditions of pop horror. There’s even a second act sequence in which someone goes to a spooky old building (the aforementioned sanitarium) to dig around in the basement for records. Now that’s a pop horror staple. Said playfulness will be, for genre fans, oodles of fun.
Wan is also keen to bring some of his acquired action nous to the fore. Before his villain has been properly revealed, the director delights in technically complex tracking shots, including one particularly bravura overhead sequence that follows Madison around her eccentric home. A mid-film chase sequence is also masterfully handled. But it’s once the truth – and the villain – is revealed that Malignant kicks up into an entirely different gear and the influence of his superhero days becomes apparent.
These techniques are used to incredible effect, presenting Gabriel (the name of our lank-haired night stalker – kept deliberately obscure in the film’s marketing) as a fully formed new addition to the canon of iconic horror characters. We haven’t seen an entry this bold since Ghostface plagued Woodsboro or Sadako first crawled out of a television. And that’s the clear and ambitious intent here; to create a new menace to sit beside the genre’s staples. In that sense James Wan offers us this generation’s Freddy Krueger. Something gruesomely fun, immediately recognisable and – importantly – franchisable. Wan is no stranger to setting the ball rolling on a lucrative horror series. Malignant is no exception, and I say bring it on.
But Malignant isn’t a success solely for jaw-drop WTF moments or the ballsiness of it’s gruff-voiced antagonist. The human characters are an incredibly agreeable mix, with White’s incredulous cop Moss and Hasson’s dopey sister Sydney clear highlights. Like the Scooby Gang from Buffy or the central set from Scream, you enjoy spending time with them all. Thanks to this, there’s a genuine sense of threat when they’re endangered.
Malignant hinges on a late-film reveal that one can sense and even see coming moments before Wan pulls it off, but the execution is enormously enjoyable nonetheless. Fun as all of the carnage that follows may be, it does cast a shadow under the film if one examines the ramifications. For all the glee here, there’s a dark undercurrent. Intentionally or not, Malignant stigmatises rape trauma, it’s unearthed origin story revealing a bitter history in which evil is birthed anew out of such violence. It’s a minor point buried in a particularly busy story, but it adds a touch of the sour. But where would we be if horror didn’t reflect our darkest fears in the dead of night?
Tongue-in-cheek and wantonly bonkers, this is one to go into as cold as you can. I’ve hopefully been coy enough with details to save some of the film’s biggest surprises for the moments that their intended. They’re part of the fun, part of the thrill-ride. Chase the red herrings and enjoy the beginning of a new legacy.