Malignant is now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
After five years away from directing in the genre that put him on the map, James Wan returns to horror with Malignant. Wan has long-since established his technical skill as a filmmaker, a key factor of how he’s been able to stretch low budgets into focused, effective scarefests like The Conjuring, Insidious, and Saw. That’s why it’s surprising that, despite Wan working in a format he usually excels in, Malignant is an overstuffed mess more concerned with sound and fury than tension and dread.
Malignant follows Maddie Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), a mother-to-be who begins to experience in real time the murders of a supernatural shade named Gabriel as he tears his way through enemies who wronged him early in life. Maddie soon realizes that Gabriel is a figure from her own mysterious past and that their connection may be the only thing that can stop his killing spree. Gabriel is a frustratingly inconsistent antagonist, whose physical and supernatural abilities shift from scene to scene, such that you never quite know what he’s capable of. He does, however, cut an imposing figure. The rage-filled murderer is brought to life with a nice blend of different practical effects (with subtle CG touches) which become more prevalent as the movie progresses and result in some great body horror during the climax.
James Wan’s Malignant
But Malignant is at its best early on, when the unclear nature of Gabriel’s existence and abilities make each attack an opportunity to learn something new about him. An early success in that department comes when Maddie’s abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel), encounters Gabriel, first noticing signs of his presence through electrical malfunctions throughout the house. Gabriel’s command of (or effect on) electricity is passingly mentioned here and there, but its utility is almost exclusively reserved for turning the lights off when it’s time to get spooky or giving him an excuse to make threats and laugh maniacally through nearby speakers.
After a first act which functions well enough as straight horror, Malignant morphs into more of a supernatural action flick, becoming preoccupied with Gabriel’s brutal acumen for snappin’ arms and doin’ harm. Wan knows how to stage action beats and fight scenes, but here, they tend to feel excessive and out of place. By the end, Malignant feels more like a supervillain origin story, with Gabriel balletically flipping and spin-slashing his way through armed opponent after armed opponent. Lost in all of this chaos is Maddie, whose journey to overcome her trauma reads like an afterthought. Aside from the numerous tragedies in her life presented to generate sympathy for her, there’s very little about the milquetoast Maddie that makes her a hero worth rooting for. That makes the increasing presence of Maddie’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), an aloof actress, a welcome change of pace as the film goes on, bringing much-needed energy and levity to Malignant’s frequent exposition dumps.
For a movie that’s built around Maddie being psychically linked to the killer, the majority of Malignant’s revelations about Gabriel come from diving through old boxes, research files, and archival tapes which build out the pair’s history in uninteresting fashion. Wan further muddies Malignant’s sense of self by spending an outsized stretch of time with the detectives investigating Gabriel’s crimes. Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) are a boilerplate, “been there, done that” pair and incidents of them pushing the plot forward with new information feel like wasted opportunities to give Wallis more of an active role.
While Malignant suffers from numerous problems on a script level, the movie works much better on the visual front. Whether it’s a dusty old house, an apartment awash in red neon, or a derelict tunnel beneath Seattle, Wan is an expert of establishing space, orienting us to all the nooks and crannies that they’re going to have to watch out for when the lights go out. For as many supernatural stories he’s set in a big, airy house, Wan still finds new ways to move the camera through halls, up and down stairs, even into appliances in ways that draw us in. Did that long shot of Maddie contemplating her situation need to be shot from the inside of the open dryer she’s unloading? No, but it’s a more interesting shot, and that’s an ethos Wan carries through all of his compositions. Wan even finds novel ways to illustrate Maddie’s experiential view of Gabriel’s killings, with her reality melting around her and reconstituting as the crime scenes.
Malignant’s score, by longtime Wan collaborator Joseph Bishara, doesn’t fare as well, often undercutting dramatic moments with discordant electronic strings. One crucial revelation about Maddie’s past is transitioned out of with a pulsing orchestration of Nada Surf’s “Where Is My Mind?,” which distractingly recurs numerous times throughout the movie.