Director, writer and producer James Wan is perhaps the most commercially successful and influential voice in horror filmmaking in the 21st century. His relatively small output of moderately priced yet undeniably effective movies, such as Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, have launched or reinvigorated subgenres of their own, with the latter even spawning an entire cinematic universe. So fans can be excused for bemoaning his absence from the genre (even though he continued to produce films) for the past few years while he toiled on the Fast and Furious and Aquaman franchises.
Now Wan has returned to his roots with Malignant, not just the first horror movie he’s directed since 2016’s The Conjuring 2 but his first all-new, original outing in the genre since the first Conjuring back in 2013. And while the film does contain a number of Wan trademarks—incredible sound design and music, the suffocating use of negative space giving way to sudden shocks—Malignant is also a different beast again from the torture-driven procedural he initiated with Saw, the dark fantasia of Insidious, and the spiritual hauntings of the Conjuring series. Malignant is, of all things, a monster movie.
That’s not to say it’s entirely successful at what Wan sets out to do, but Malignant is different and, up to a point, fast-moving enough to ride roughshod over some increasingly dumb script developments. It’s only when the inevitable twist is fully revealed and all the cards are on the table that Malignant really falters. The film is also not helped by a bland turn from star Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy), who simply does not have the screen presence necessary to carry this story and its bizarre turns on her own.
Malignant opens in a lab, which in a movie like this means a medical chamber of horrors. A team of doctors is working feverishly to prevent the awakening of someone or something called Gabriel, which even unseen generates the kind of sounds that instantly fill one with dread. As the scene progresses and the blood and mayhem begin to flow, the head doctor defiantly proclaims to the camera, “It’s time to cut out the cancer.”
What does this all mean? We don’t know, but we jump ahead years later to meet Madison (Wallis), a pregnant young woman whose abusive husband is killed in a bizarre home invasion that also costs Madison the life of her baby and leaves her extremely traumatized. As Madison tries to recover with the help of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), while the detectives on the case (George Young and Michole Briana White) come up with nothing but dead ends, Madison experiences a psychic link to the murderer as the latter kills again and again — with all the victims sharing a long-buried connection.
This is the point at which we can go no further into the plot without delving deeply into spoiler territory, and whether you end up liking Malignant or not, we’re not about to spoil the truly insane revelation at the center of the movie for you. While we had our suspicions, the twist is still bold and shocking enough that it should be savored on its own terms.
The combination of this gruesome turn of events, in a movie that’s already quite grisly, and with the wild energy that Wan brings to the first half of the movie, makes Malignant a B-movie shock show with a unique menace at its heart, and a distinctly 1980s vibe. Elements of that era’s body horror and giallo strains (when filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Dario Argento were hitting their strides) are also evident in the narrative structure and outlandish concepts Wan deploys.
Once the secret is out, however, Malignant doesn’t really go anywhere else for its last half hour or so. Wan uses all his skills to wring suspense, terror, and dread out of the film and largely succeeds for most of its length, but it feels like nobody really gave a lot of thought to what happens after the big shock.
The best performances in the film come from Hasson, who generates warmth and loyalty toward her sister even under increasingly frightening circumstances (although her big solo scene is cliché), and Young, whose journey from skepticism to belief as Det. Shaw is both logical and well-portrayed. We wish we could say the same for White as Shaw’s partner, Regina Moss, whose refusal to believe her own eyes ultimately becomes silly.
Despite its uneven cast and shaky narrative structure, Malignant is fun for quite a while. We called it a monster movie and that’s what it is, and there’s something refreshingly straightforward about that. It may not end up among Wan’s best efforts, but the movie does make it clear that he still loves the genre, even as he plays around with different tropes than before.
Malignant opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, Sept. 10.