First off, throw your expectations out the window if you watched the trailer for Malignant. While it looks like director James Wan’s intense horror classics like Insidious and The Conjuring, Malignant is more in line with Wan’s earlier movies like Dead Silence or those of his frequent collaborator, writer/director Leigh Whannell. Malignant is a midnight viewing, USA Up All Night, 13 years old-and-renting-it-with-your-friends-during-a-sleepover instant cult classic.
Wan sets the tone immediately with a bold, disorienting pre-credits scene in a secluded institute on a dark and stormy night. Panicking doctors try to subdue a deformed and violent creature that has escaped into the halls and left a path of destruction and death. The halls and rooms are littered with bloody and mangled corpses, the camera swoops and zooms through the scene as the surviving doctors finally capture the creature they call Gabriel. The whole sequence is dizzying and highly reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s action scenes in the Evil Dead movies, ending with the head surgeon sinisterly intoning: “It’s time we cut out the cancer!”
Then we smash cut to the opening titles featuring gory surgery footage and mysterious patient files with important points highlighted. At this point, I said, “Ah, that’s what kind of movie this is.” It is a clever move on Wan’s part as it immediately makes it clear Malignant is not in the same serious company as The Conjuring. It recalls the difference between 1996’s The Mummy’s marketing, which positioned the movie as horror when it was really an Indiana Jones-style supernatural adventure. Shifting expectations accordingly is key to getting on the wavelength of the movie. And if you are not on board this train from the start you are going to hate where it goes.
After the prologue, the action jumps to the present and we meet Madison (Anabelle Wallis) in her beautiful Seattle house. Her husband is a lout who abuses her. One night after locking him out of the bedroom after he hit smashed her head into a wall, the husband is killed violently by an intruder. Madison investigates and is chased by the assailant and knocked unconscious. Soon after, Madison starts having waking visions of the killer targeting doctors and violently murdering them. With the help of her sister and a pair of incredulous cops, Madison searches for the truth as the killer gets closer.
While this all sounds serious and terrifying it is really not. I would not recommend Malignant to your Blue Bloods loving grandmother, but if you are a horror fan you will take this as the silly romp it is intended to be. Wan stages the gory murder scenes effectively and for the first half of the movie keeps ramping up the tension even while characters do stupid things like investigating scary noises without turning on lights. This is part of the fun though, and the scream-at-the-screen aspect strangely makes the movie more enjoyable.
The effects are overall good, although the CGI is a bit dodgy at times, and the movie looks amazing. The score from Wan’s longtime collaborator Joseph Bishara is absolutely banging, and brings to mind the rock scores of John Carpenter. The script from Akela Cooper (with story credited to James Wan and Ingrid Bisu, hits all the expected beats and keeps the action moving. The exposition is largely delivered via flashbacks so the action never flags for long.
If you like gory/silly horror like Evil Dead, Night of the Demons, or countless other B grade movies from the 80’s you will be right at home here. The influence of Italian giallos is apparent here as well. The truth is, we just do not get movies like this much any more. And we really don’t get them from billion dollar box office directors like James Wan. Malignant is one to treasure in all its bonkers glory.
Beyond the trailer, I am going to get into spoilers.
Malignant is a high gloss pastiche of Frank Henenlotter’s grade Z shocker, 1982’s Basket Case, with a dash of Fight Club, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Leigh Whannell’s own recent cult classic, Upgrade, thrown in. Wan tips his hand early on by including The Pixies song Where is My Mind interwoven into the score, making it clear he is in on the joke. That song is forever tied to Fight Club now so the astute viewer will immediately start making connections between the two movies. Early on I knew this was an evil twin movie and correctly guessed Gabriel had been cut away from Madison and somehow gained psychic powers of possession. The truth is so much more audacious and crazy, requiring a leap of faith over a chasm of improbability.
The fact is Madison is the killer, or at least her body is. It seems when the doctors cut away the parasitic twin, called Gabriel, they could not separate his brain safely from Madison’s. So that piece they just tucked away inside her head, sewed her up, and I guess called it a day. Somehow Madison just forgot about this part of her life and Gabriel has been asleep. At the start of the movie, Madison’s husband hits her into a wall, bashing her head. We are told this likely woke up Gabriel, who somehow can control electricity, speak through telephones, and was growing stronger by absorbing the fetuses that Madison would then miscarry. Yes, Malignant goes there.
Not only can Gabriel control Madison’s body, but he also has a face (of sorts) that can come out of the back of her head, where he then twists her limbs around so that he is facing forward resulting in a weird jerking movement. How he became an awesome martial artist, gain the ability to control electricity, and be bulletproof with superhuman strength is never explained. Maybe he likes to watch John Wick and kung fu movies at Planet Fitness while Madison is asleep. Even more confusing is he can seemingly vanish and reappear. However, this can be explained sort of since we are seeing all of the murders through Madison’s eyes and she is only seeing what Gabriel wants her to see. We are told Gabriel “imprisons” Madison in her mind while he takes over, immediately making us question a lot of what we have watched over the last two hours.
The finale in which we see the full powers of Gabriel is gloriously over the top as he cuts a bloody path of carnage first through a holding cell full of women (but they were all bad) before assaulting a squad room full of police, and somehow getting away without a scratch. These scenes are jaw-dropping as any remaining fragments of restraint are thrown out the window and Wan just lets it rip. They are also hilarious looking and possess a Loony Toons energy to them.
If it were not for the finale, Malignant would be a forgettable pastiche of Wan’s greatest hits and his influences. The fact that Wan commits fully to this bonkers idea and follows it to its conclusion elevates Malignant into cult movie status. It really has to be seen to be believed and even if you are reading this spoiler, I still urge you to see how it all unfolds. The ending hints at a sequel, of course, but I really don’t know how, or why, you would. The fun in Malignant is thinking you have it figured out ahead of time, and then finding out its so much stranger than you expected.