Malignant review – lurid Argento-influenced horror is hit-and-miss

The Conjuring and Saw director James Wan’s latest is a curious combination of plodding thriller and spectacular body horror

What’s scarier: bearing witness to a murder through the killer’s point of view or the victim’s? There’s no wrong answer, the point of the question being that the creepy complicity of spectatorship can be just as chilling as the terror of immediate danger. The first half of Malignant, James Wan’s latest bid at spawning another horror franchise of unholy profitability, enacts an exercise seemingly designed to test both sides of that equation. For hopeful mother Madison (Annabelle Wallis, a familiar face in the Wan-verse for her role in 2014’s Annabelle, no relation), the latest in a discouraging series of miscarriages has come with an unsettling side-effect. She’s been plagued by vivid dreams in which she stands by as a rangy-looking figure massacres strangers, visions which soon reveal themselves to be glimpses of actual events. Though our protagonist isn’t the one meeting her maker, she’s nonetheless disturbed by her unwilling part in the process, and we’re supposed to feel the same.

For a goodly chunk of the film, that rudimentary game of perspective is the most compelling dimension of scenes that prove more interesting to think about than watch. That all changes around the midway point, as the script shifts gears into an agreeable register of B-movie lunacy, but it takes too much of the nearly two-hour run time to get there. Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper have a sturdy, memorable hook on their hands, good enough to be left unspoken here – let’s just say that medical oddities have proven a reliable source of bizarre grotesquerie for many before them. If only they’d put fuller faith in the true nature of their premise, and leaned all the way into the kookier side of body horror. Instead of trying for the sophistication of Cronenberg and coming up short, they’d be better off embracing the near-absurdity of lower-rent cult objects like Basket Case from the start. Like one of its key characters, this movie only comes alive when it mutates into the thing it’s been concealing.

A prologue sets the heightened tone that Wan then puts on hold for about an hour, starting with an exterior establishing shot of a Gothic-designed mental institute unafraid to look like an old-school miniature model. There, a patient’s escape coincides with all hell breaking loose stylistically; canted camera angles keep us off balance, splashes of crimson embellish the frame, and actors read their lines with the theatrical exaggeration endemic to late-night Elvira selections. It’s good fun, and as the somewhat more grounded scenes to follow illustrate, it’s the only way to make Wan and Cooper’s gummy dialogue work. Madison and those in her orbit speak with a dull sense of bald purpose, their words hustling the plot along without conveying much in the way of character. “I’m her sister,” is how Sydney (Maddie Hasson) announces herself, and though her bond with Madison solidifies into the film’s load-bearing emotional column, their closeness is generally stated rather than shown.

Sydney and the detectives (George Young and Michole Briana White) working her sibling’s case follow the string of corpses right back to Madison, whose claim that her girlhood imaginary friend Gabriel the Devil did it doesn’t hold water with the cops. Up to this point, Wan’s just reconfiguring his filmography’s favored narrative devices – Saw’s patient madman taking revenge years in the making, the hysterical possessions of Insidious and the Conjuring – without too much fresh innovation. A handful of set pieces toy with space using flashing light bulbs to underwhelming effect, but it’s only once Madison’s getting the snot kicked out of her in a jail cell by the great stuntwoman Zoe Bell that all hell starts to break loose. The lurid aesthetic returns in full force, the blocking grows frantic and restlessly mobile, even the writing sharpens up. Following a massacre of local police, a woman calling 911 takes a beat and realizes the people she’d be calling are already dead all around her.

In an interview with IGN, Wan expressed a desire to work at a more intimate scale between blockbuster studio gigs, something in line with “the kind of films that excited me when I was much younger, when I was a teen growing up, idolizing film-makers like De Palma, Argento, and all that”. Those influences, De Palma’s twisted Sisters in particular, make themselves known in this winningly demented second-act stretch up to the acrobatic finale. (The Argento name-check boils down to the copious closeups of black-gloved hands wielding a medical award modified to serve as a dagger, a splendid and original signature weapon.) Maybe there’s something to be said for the surprise factor of such a sudden, palpable change in the film’s atmosphere. In practice, however, it feels like Wan’s being stingy with the livelier mayhem he’s evidently capable of unleashing. He can access a spectacular cinematic evil lying dormant inside him, so he ought to take a cue from his own story and let it be free before it can eat through the back of his skull.

  • Malignant is out in US and UK cinemas and available on HBO Max

Contributor

Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Blood Quantum review – grimy zombie horror offers intriguing twist
A visually distinctive, semi-effective Canadian thriller pits a First Nation community against a zombie invasion

Benjamin Lee

29, Apr, 2020 @7:10 AM

Article image
The Perfection review – gory Netflix horror offers imperfect intrigue
Get Out’s Allison Williams plays a mysterious cellist in an intermittently alluring yet flatly directed B-movie that tries too hard to shock

Benjamin Lee

23, May, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
47 Meters Down: Uncaged review – shark horror sequel has teeth
A follow-up to 2017’s surprise hit removes the cage and finds surprising suspense as four teens try to survive an underwater onslaught

Benjamin Lee

14, Aug, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
The Night House review – Rebecca Hall anchors spooky horror
An electrifying performance lifts an often effective yet often muddled film about a woman investigating her husband’s suicide

Benjamin Lee

16, Aug, 2021 @7:46 PM

Article image
Sea Fever review – sturdy, slimy sci-fi horror trawls for cliches
A parasitic infection plagues a fishing boat in a low-budget Irish B-movie that provides modest entertainment before a damp ending

Benjamin Lee

08, Apr, 2020 @10:55 AM

Article image
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions review – fun puzzle horror sequel
A briskly entertaining follow-up to the 2019 sleeper hit provides more nifty death traps and disbelief-suspending suspense

Benjamin Lee

15, Jul, 2021 @2:43 PM

Article image
Crawl review – brutal alligator horror is a snappy summer surprise
Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja returns to the water for a lean, suspenseful tale of a father and daughter trapped in a flooding, predator-filled house

Benjamin Lee

12, Jul, 2019 @6:04 PM

Article image
Night Teeth review – stylish Netflix vampire horror needs more bite
There’s a certain flair to director Adam Randall’s Collateral-with-blood-sucking caper but not enough to disguise a reheated script

Benjamin Lee

20, Oct, 2021 @5:45 PM

Article image
Body Cam review – Mary J Blige cop horror is halfway haunting
A curious mashup of ripped-from-the-headlines cop drama and gory horror just about finds its footing thanks to director Malik Vitthal’s confident hand

Benjamin Lee

22, May, 2020 @6:05 AM

Article image
Don’t Breathe 2 review – dull and dingy home invasion horror sequel
A follow-up to 2016’s sleeper smash reunites us with the murderous blind antihero yet fails to recapture even the slightest bit of tension

Benjamin Lee

12, Aug, 2021 @4:00 PM