Whatever credit James Wan is receiving for being the standard bearer of modern horror, I can safely say it is not enough. Wan, like Wes Craven before him, is a champion of horror movie franchises, creating the “Saw” series in the 2000s and spending the last decade shepherding the “Conjuring Universe,” including the “Annabelle” films, “The Nun” and the “Curse of La Llorona.” Add on his role in the “Insidious” films and it’s not an overstatement to say mainstream modern horror belongs to him. Are Wan’s films always great? No, a significant portion of them barely graze the surface of good, but they are popular and they are numerous and in years to come critics will be looking back and analyzing his oeuvre and influence Wan has had on the genre he has planted his flag of conquest in. But of course, if you flip and serve enough hamburgers, eventually your diners will begin to tire of their taste. With a horror filmography as extensive as Wan’s, it’s no wonder his solidified style has begun to feel stale; a heap of greyscale shallowly somber straightforward flicks about demons, ghosts and possession by either. James Wan himself must feel the same way about his catalogue of movies, because his newest picture “Malignant” shrugs off the dour mold of the “Conjuring” universe and happily decides to be something audiences haven’t experienced in quite some time: silly gory fun.
To say as little of the story as possible, “Malignant” revolves around the depressive and tired Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis), who, after a miscarriage and the sudden death of her abusive husband, begins to be stalked by a mysterious figure known as Gabriel (Marina Mazepa, voiced by Ray Chase). When Madison starts having visions of Gabriel murdering people, she and her adopted sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) decide to investigate her connection to him, uncovering deep and troubling truths about Madison’s forgotten childhood in the process. The plot itself is very straightforward, with minimal shocks or turns, carried out by a main character who is manifestly unengaging and who for the most part lets the plot of the film wash her all the way to the climax of the movie. However, I cannot hold this against the film as it is all just set up for the movie’s central plot twist, an amazing reveal that the rest of the plot dances tantalizingly around for the preceding hour and a half. It’s not a particularly shocking twist, and if you are paying attention you can basically guess the gist of “Malignant’s” climatic reveal by the opening credits. But what the terror of this movie lacks in surprise it makes up for in gloriously corny ridiculousness. The horror at the center of “Malignant” is the sort of smarmy creepypasta telltale that middle schoolers would tell at a sleepover, hamming it up with their face over a flashlight in order to unnerve the most gullible kid in their friend group. It is an unabashedly silly twist, one most modern horror movies would shy away from, preferring respectable demons and ghosts to the over the top weirdness “Malignant” tightly embraces. The goofy gory madness that is “Malignant” is a breath of fresh air, surfacing from the grey and dreary serious waters of the rest of mainstream horror, allowing audiences to shamelessly indulge in the joyously unbelievable and deliciously disgusting scares we didn’t know we were so hungry for.
You’ll never find yourself watching the screen from behind the safety of your fingers or gasping at the sudden death of a character you wanted to survive until sunrise, but thrills and chills aren’t exactly what “Malignant” is fishing for. It’s fun. From the opening montage of creepy medical diagrams and documents over hard rock like the credits of a Resident Evil game, to the full-on ultra gruesome climactic fight scene, complete with flips and kicks and compound bone fractures, “Malignant” plays like it was written by a try-hard teenager who may not be the best storyteller but is really fun to hang out with. “Malignant” never asks you to take it seriously; in fact, with its frequent jokes, Scooby Doo-esque settings, and nigh comical use of a dark remix of The Pixies “Where Is My Mind,” it balks at the very notion. James Wan had a ball making this film and it seeps through the screen and infects the audience, turning this movie into an extravagantly overblown buffet of corn, cheese and ham.
The only thing stopping this movie from jumping the border into horror comedy is, unfortunately, the main character herself, Madison. Compared to everyone else’s exaggerated humorous performances, Annabelle Wallis seems confused as to what movie she’s in, maintaining a mopey low energy and overly serious demeanor the entire run time. In addition, her character’s backstory of having had multiple miscarriages and being in an abusive relationship is such a tonal shift that it actually feels like a page from another script got shuffled into “Malignant.” Aside from a surface level theme of wanting a blood relation to another person which is barely explored and feels airbrushed onto the plot, Madison’s backstory is almost parasitic to the film, draining color and energy from a movie that would otherwise be fully able to wink to the audience. As it is, the film is good enough. Is it scary? Is it compelling? No and no. Do all its jokes land? No. Is it fun as all get-out? Yes, and that’s all it really needs to be. It’s a much needed break from dreary grey business-serious horror and a return to the heights of absurdity and viscera that the genre has been scared to reach for for quite some time. I get the sense that “Malignant” was James Wan’s vacation from his usual horror schtick. I’m just glad he decided to take us along with him.