2021, R, 111 min. Directed by James Wan. Starring Annabelle Wallis, Ingrid Bisu, Jake Abel, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jacqueline McKenzie.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Sept. 17, 2021
James Wan’s Malignant is a love letter, and not just in his obvious homage to giallo horror, but to his wife, Ingrid Bisu. Conceived together, the film is an opportunity for Bisu, who is credited as a writer and producer, and is even given the brightest supporting role in the film. Malignant is a film made in celebration of their marriage, one birthed out of love, and Wan’s biggest swing for the fences in years. But is it good?
It opens with the antithesis of love: abuse. Madison Mitchell (Wallis) is expecting a child with her husband, Derek (Abel), after years of miscarriages have plagued their family. This angers Derek, triggering his brute strength, and he slams Madison up against a wall at the very idea of her putting their baby in danger by going to work. She kicks him out of the bedroom, and he sleeps on the couch for the night.
Later that night, a creature enters their home, its presence triggering electronics – an old-fashioned blender whirs, the light of the fridge flickers, all tricks from the Wan book of spooky tension. Suddenly, the television flickers on, flipping through channels until it finds static, and a woman with long, matted hair sits on the couch. The monster moves like Sadako, jagged, twisted body movements that are jarring to the eye. Derek is killed, Madison is attacked and survives, but her baby is lost.
The theme of family and the yearn for a blood relative permeates the film in an uncomfortable way. Horror movies love to explore a woman who has lost, and according to quite a few of them, there is no greater loss than a child. Madison, who was adopted, desperately desires to know what it’s like to be connected through blood, but her body keeps yanking it away from her. Her tragic loss is what opens up her third eye and fuses her to the monster, Gabriel, a psychic connection that places her at the forefront of his murder spree across Seattle.
The bones of Malignant aren’t what turns the film around. Rather, it’s Gabriel: the limb-wielding serial-killing monster hellbent on murdering a group of doctors that tried to “cut the cancer” from him decades ago. Brandishing a flamboyant gold weapon fashioned from a prestigious doctoral award, Gabriel whips his arms frantically, leaving a macabre mess of skin and bone tissue behind. Gabriel speaks through radios, drinks energy from electricity, and vaults his body like a malicious Gumby. He is the essence of Wan’s giallo homage, the wacky core that livens up the film’s tone and frees it from the cage of its faulty script (penned by Akela Cooper).
If only Wan’s film was shot in the way Dario Argento’s Opera was, a film that holds a similar tone and style, drowned in brackish grays, blues, and blacks so the crimson blood glitters onscreen. Wan’s biggest mistake with Malignant was hiring The Curse of La Llorona and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It cinematographer Michael Burgess, whose lens is dull and flat, colors drained of all life so that they murkily blend together, leaving no texture. Characters blend into the scenery at moments when they shouldn’t. The film looks like it belongs in the 2000s, when cheap, “grisly” looking digital horror was on the uptick.
Malignant isn’t a good movie, but the bones of its giallo salute are just outlandish enough to make one wonder if the obtuse moments are purposeful. Wan’s films bleed with humor, from his wise-cracking ghost hunters in Insidious to his “Ocean Master” in Aquaman. In true spirit of giallo, sometimes they are absurd like Argento’s Deep Red (a film named as a specific influence of Wan’s for Malignant). The camp in Malignant is fun, but if only the camp was all the film needed to be as monumental as Wan’s previous horror entries.