Directed by James Wan
Written by Ingrid Bisu, Akela Cooper, and James Wan
Spoiler alert: the determination of a spoiler warning is a subjective exercise, of course, but I will assert "moderate"
Gosh, Aquaman was swell. But now James Wan's come back to horror, and, in truth, I found myself getting pretty excited about that; by and large, Wan's been good at the genre in which he made his name, and this time he was finally going to get the resources he needed to make the SFX-heavy horror epic that his Insidiouses and Conjurings (and, hell, his Aquaman!) had kept hinting at. Yet, at the same time, Wan has made it known that for this project he intended to revisit his roots; and even just hearing his film's name hearkens back to all those classic Blumhouse films* branded under that studio's insistence upon vague and adjectival one-word titles. Yet Malignant—this being his new movie's title—is not half so vague as that, which is the cleverest thing about it. It turns out that Wan has made a film that could be readily described as his own deranged mix of Paranormal Activity, Poltergeist, The X-Files, Cronenberg, his own haunted house movies, and (of all things) The Matrix—along with, uh, a few other major works—and if it had been described to me thus, I think I might've been cautiously stoked.
But I've seen Malignant, so, obviously, I'm not stoked at all. The film it really reminds me of you could argue I shouldn't even name, because it would almost be a spoiler. (Oopsie-daisy!) But if I'm to criticize the stupid thing, it's hard not to mention the film that Malignant rips right the fuck off.
Maybe even actionably: it's extremely close to actual plagiarism, and while knock-off artistry has carved out a noble legacy in Hollywood, Malignant isn't the noblest possible example of it, considering that Wan is a big-time studio filmmaker with few restraints upon his vision whilst the independent cheapie that he's remaking (with, literally, one hundred times the budget) also managed to not just be more efficient, but a straight-up better movie, and better in every respect that matters for the purposes of horror. Scarier, sleazier, and shorter, the gimmicky 80s exploitation film that Wan's stealing from is also—believe it or not, but it's true—more emotionally coherent and, somehow, more sensitive to its subject. (For example, its version of its monster was shaped by torments, and completes a tragic character arc; Malignant's is merely born evil, and even "evil" remains something of an assumption the film makes makes on our behalf, rather than the conclusion we'd inevitably come to on our own.) Likewise, in those respects in which Malignant's predecessor is clearly not better, because Malignant can throw money around like Wan throws around a camera, are still part of its DIY charm. Hell, I might argue it actually does have better acting, for despite their uniform amateurism, in the other movie the performers don't appear to be dozing off in the middle of scenes. Maybe it's only disagreeable because its filmmaker has obviously not had the career he might have once dreamed of having, while, you know, Wan has had that career. You know, the kind where you give your C-list actor fiancée a screen credit and pay her somebody else's money to "help" you "write" a "story." (That would be Ingrid Bisu, I should probably clarify; actual screenwriter Akela Cooper earns the same blame, for the very bad screenplay she wrote, but, as a professional doing her job, not the same ire.)
Now, listen: I wasn't raised in a barn, so obviously when I suggest obliquely and subtly, "GOLLY, MALIGNANT SURE IS AN AWFUL LOT LIKE THAT 1982 CULT HORROR CLASSIC ABOUT CONJOINED TWINS, BASKET CASE," I am meaningfully spoiling nothing. (If I wanted to spoil Malignant, I would tell you that it strips High Tension and Fight Club of their thematic elements and leaves only the nonsensical stupidity of their twists. It rips off the latter with such irritating self-awareness that the score by Joseph Bishara includes at least two—but I didn't count them, so it could be more like eight—cues taken directly from the most iconic song on the latter's soundtrack. To Bishara's credit, at least his arrangement is pretty cool.) And this is a minor, dumb, nitpicky-asshole point, but I guess the film's villain, Gabriel, is trans? Because conjoined twins are identical twins. Teratomas are also... oh, hell, nevermind.
Anyway, Malignant more-or-less makes it plain what it's going to be about upfront, as it spools up a flashback prologue to the part of Washington state that overlooks the Black Sea from the high cliffs, upon which has been built an imposing fastness that is sort-of an asylum, sort-of an orphanage, and sort-of an evil castle. It is given the title "Simion Research Hospital," though it appears to be dedicated principally to just one patient, or, ahem, two, though the only one who's named as yet is Gabriel. This is the night that Gabriel's wardens finally lose their patience with him, and for good reason, considering that Malignant has already developed a healthy body count even before the two minute mark's passed, thanks to Gabriel's ambiguous set of supernatural powers, manifesting as an unearthly strength and a command over the electrical devices through which he speaks. Thus does Dr. Weaver (Jacqueline Mackenzie) authorize his termination, with the portentous words, "It's time to cut the cancer out." So you really have no excuse not to "get" what Malignant is driving at in general terms, though a significant amount of the movie is gunked up with Wan's seemingly-belated recognition that his first twist was real obvious (the second rather less so, but only because it's not been set up well), so it's littered with red herrings in the form of references to "the devil," and extremely shallow concerns about its heroine's reproductive system. Meanwhile, the overt supernatural aspects of it simply go unexplained entirely, which is just as well, since hardly anybody reacts to them as if they're particularly unusual.
So: in "the present day," which is to say a day where smartphones exist but women in their late 20s still listen to terrestrial radio on boom boxes that will later be used "creepily," we find Madison Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis, a Wan repertory player, having been in Annabelle, albeit not as the titular doll). Madison's a pregnant nurse with an unemployed scumbag husband, and rather than starting off with some kind of baseline normality, we begin immediately with a hearty helping of spousal abuse, so that for, well, pretty much the whole film all we know about Madison as a person is that she miscarries easily and is frequently punched. Fear not, for her husband gets his when a shadowy silhouette nearly twists his head clean off. Madison is attacked, too, but survives. Unfortunately, her child does not. This makes Madison the prime suspect in her husband's slaying—though the cops, Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) never forward any plausible theories about how a birdlike woman with a nasty head injury and presently undergoing a miscarriage managed this. Madison is attended by her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hanson), and in the aftermath of this trauma, Madison decides, apropos of very little except to inform the audience, to tell Sydney that they're not really blood kin, for Madison was adopted. Free, but under suspicion, Madison's mystery only deepens as she's confronted with psychic, out-of-body visions of murder—corresponding, it turns out, with the dead bodies stacking up throughout Seattle. Det. Shaw sees no option but to take her seriously, for it looks increasingly like Madison, the Simion Research Hospital, these dead bodies, some lady who runs a tour group, and this shadowy assassin are all part of the same diabolical web.
It comes off like it was written in a single afternoon and never revised: almost everything is rendered as a collection of plot beats done with very little flourish, all placeholder scenes with placeholder dialogue that feel like actors were handed a treatment rather than anything approaching a fully fleshed-out script. The only indication it was ever polished at all are those attempts to confuse you by pointing to its potential to twist out as a Rosemary's Baby/Paranormal Activity kind of thing, and even these are perfunctory. Everything else exists solely to either baldly exposit facts or else to showily conceal them; for every "by the way, I'm adopted," there's a "random" victim whose identity is so easily-guessed you don't understand why Wan's bothering hiding it. Malignant, in truth, does not care about anything except its ending, and only begrudgingly accepts that it needs 90 minutes of "movie" to put out in front of it (the film runs 115). And so we wind up with an hour and a half of personality-free marionettes dancing awkwardly under Wan's control, at best providing excuses to witness murders that have that giallo-esque quality that everyone's raving about. This is thanks to some gaudy lighting, if, more fundamentally, to just the fact that killer wears a black coat with black gloves.
These murders are at least reasonably gory for a movie made in 2021, though they're not spectacular or lingering enough to impress anybody who's seen any good 80s slashers. Otherwise, Malignant is "ambitious" in a sort of aimless way: Wan's embrace of cinematography so restlessly fleet-footed and remorselessly digital that the actors already look like CGI ghosts is, at least, an aesthetic; and his tendency to reduce his setpieces to playsets "works," in baldly functional terms, in conjunction with his showman's desire to doom his characters for our entertainment. Yet for all that, I'm not sure Malignant is scary, or even trying to be. It's so ill-modulated and inhuman, it's not like you could ever be scared for its characters. Outside of one effective jump scare in a laundry room, and another late-coming horrifying reveal that, I'll happily admit, got me, it doesn't even generate good startles, either. (Even that last jump scare is annoyingly and idiotically meta, arriving in mediated form and set up, in onscreen dialogue, with an injunction to the in-universe cameraperson to hold off a second until it can align a piercing scream with its gross-out visual.)
Mostly, then, Malignant is just goofy, though you haven't seen goofy till you've seen the last twenty minutes, which is like Insidious, but going for silly. It's where the aforementioned Matrix influence is felt, albeit if The Matrix had been disinterested in evoking the slightest convincing reality in its set design and stunts, and also if it had been some kind of blenderized parody of its influences (this film involves a prison brawl that includes characters to whom I shall refer as "Black Thunder" and "White Lightning," which gestures towards touchstones that fit even less snugly next to Malignant's overriding genres of "possession horror" and "giallo-inflected slasher" than "late 90s gunkata movie" already does).
At least that supercharged climax is so bad it's enjoyable. But it's one very long slog to get there, through logy screenwriting and the flattest possible acting. That's where it completely breaks down, anyway: every actor appears to have been assigned one single emotional state—damn near just one single affect—for the entire film, which they and Wan resolutely refuse to vary, so that Wallis spends the film frozen with her mouth half-open in an expression of embrittling trauma (it often looks more like she has gas), Hasson is frozen with her mouth fully-open in an expression of confused concern, Young is frozen with, well, also confused concern, and White is frozen in a sarcastic eyeroll, coming part-and-parcel with the Wanda Sykes impression she's doing that's so on-point that Det. Moss rises above the crowd as the sole personality amongst robots, even if that personality is secondhand and also somewhat frustrating, given the utter antagonism that Sykesian line-reads would naturally pose to any horror film's atmosphere. Even Ray Chase's angry threats as the voice of Gabriel, mediated through phone calls and other devices, wind up amounting to underwhelming and boilerplate stuff—surprisingly, considering how un-boilerplate Gabriel is, which is not to just outright suggest, "hey, shouldn't Gabriel have been voiced by a child?", though I would have suggested that. I do get that Malignant is, ultimately, just a lazy Sunday lark—practically an intentional comedy—but leaving aside expectations, even larks should manage some level of fun and engagement before a final act that, itself, is only engaging or fun because it's so fearlessly awful.
*Surely there is no phrase in the whole English language that could possibly make one feel older than "classic Blumhouse films."