Director James Wan is the most notable horror master to emerge in the 2000s era of filmmaking. Wan got his big break with his filmmaking partner Leigh Whannell in 2004 with Saw. While it received mixed reviews, it was a massive success, spawning a film franchise, which was one of the most prominent and dominant horror series in the 2000s. It also had the unfortunate side effect of popularizing the infamous “torture porn” subgenre. But one thing that it proved was that Wan was a filmmaker that knew how to make a lot out of a little. Since then, Wan has gone to create more horror franchises such as Insidious and The Conjuring by directing both the first films of the respective series and their sequels. He’s even stretched his wings beyond the horror genre by directing action films such as Furious 7 and superhero films such as Aquaman. And now Wan brings us another horror work, his first original one since 2013’s The Conjuring, with Malignant, one of the most surprising horror films of the year.
The film follows Madison “Maddie” Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), a nurse who, following the brutal murder of her abusive ex and the loss of her unborn child in a miscarriage, is plagued by visions of brutal, grisly murders. But the murders she witnesses are also happening in reality, being committed by a being name Gabriel, who she shares a connection to. Working with her sister Sydney Lake (Maddie Hasson) and Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), Maddie works to stop Gabriel’s brutal murders while uncovering the connection she has to him in her past.
A spooky horror film supported by all around solid acting.
Overall, the acting in the film is good, especially coming from actors who have mostly done one off parts or television roles. Especially good is lead Annabelle Wallis, who does a great job at capturing how frightened and horrified Madison is by the murders she’s witness to. A real stand scene comes early on in the film, where Madison talks to Sydney about so desperately wanted a child, so she could finally have a blood connection with somebody, before telling Sydney that she was adopted into the family, not even knowing who her birth mother was. Likewise, Maddie Hasson is really great as Sydney. She’s portrayed as really supportive of her sister, helping her out through a tough time in her life, as well as taking the intuition and performing her own investigation. She also has plenty of funny moments, like climbing up through a bedroom window to deliver a casserole to Maddie.
Also engaging are George Young and Michole Briana White as Detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss. They do feel like characters you’d see on a network police procedural, but on a particularly good one. George Young in particular has a certain charisma to him as Shaw. Michole Briana White, on the other hand, adds a bit of humor with her character’s snark and sarcasm, be it referring to Sydney as “Wikipedia Brown” or remarking that they’re “putting a BOLO on Sloth from The Goonies” upon looking at a police sketch artist’s rendition of Maddie’s description of what Gabriel looks what.
What stands out the most is the killer Gabriel, namely his design. He’s very tall and lanky, with long, pitch black hair, out fitted in a black trenchcoat and black gloves. His distinct, creepy appearance lets him blend into the shadows and darkness of the scenes. His dark, menacing appearance is contrasted with his weapon of choice, a gold medical trophy in the shape of a caduceus that has been reforged and repurposed as a blade. Add in his creepy, raspy voice done by voice actor Ray Chase, and you have one scary, memorable villain. I can easily see Gabriel becoming a horror icon in the years to come.
A unique, giallo-esque horror in the style of James Wan.
A unique thing to Wan’s movies is that some of them feel like modernizations of older movies from the past. For example, The Conjuring feels like a modernization of 70s haunted house movies like The Amityville Horror while Wan’s Aquaman is akin to an 80s adventure film like Flash Gordon. With Malignant, it feels like Wan is doing his own take off of a giallo, particularly the ones done by Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. In an interview, Wan claims to take influence not from Argento’s classics like Suspiria or Deep Red, but from his lesser-known works such as Phenomena, Tenebrae, and Trauma. He also stated that Malignant was akin to a horror movie you’d find deep in the back section at a video store, ones that you didn’t know what they were about yet had a cool cover. And both of these elements are on display prominently throughout the movie.
The giallo inspiration is very apparent through the movies’ visuals, in particular in its set design. Madison’s house is incredibly designed, looking like normal house from the outside but having a gothic mansion look to it in the inside. The police station also stands out being very spacious and looking like it was made from an old library. The movie also makes heavy use of very dark and moody lighting, with plenty of use of red in its visual palette, both which are hallmarks of giallo movies. The movie also some very interesting camera work, such as of an overhead shot of Maddie running through the house of or an Evil Dead style POV shot of Gabriel following Maddie up the stairs.
While from the influences from Argento are apparent, I would not be surprised if Wan took inspiration from two giallos by another Italian horror maestro, Lucio Fulci: A Lizard in Woman’s Skin and The Psychic. Both of them feature women having visions of brutal murders that happen in reality, which is what happens to Maddie. The other inspiration I see Wan taking from is Frank Henenlotter’s 1981 horror comedy Basket Case. But the influence of Basket Case on Malignant only deserves a mention, as further discussion would go into spoiler territory.
Asides from the giallo influences, Wan has successfully making Malignant like one of those lesser-known video store horror movies, as its one of the most wildly original mainstream horror films I’ve seen this year. The first two acts feel in line with Wan’s work on Insidious and The Conjuring, yet the third act of the film is wild and insane, with a particular twist that’ll make or break the movie for most audiences. In hindsight, it makes the way the trailer structured make sense, since making it look similar to Wan’s previous works would hide the huge twist and reveal. The twist makes the movie go from 0 to 100 and was quite an experience to see in the theaters.
Malignant is one of the most uniquely original horror movies I’ve seen this year, as well as another hit from James Wan. The film gets solid performances from its cast, who do a great job of carrying. The direction is phenomenal, with Wan crafting a movie that’s spooky and scary as well as being fun and entertaining. His film is a homage to giallos and obscure 80s-90s horror movies, with a visual palette and set design that’s fantastic. It has a unique twist that makes the third act go off the rails and has to be seen to be witnessed. I highly recommend seeing it in theaters, as well as doing a double feature of it with Wan’s other underrated horror movie, Dead Silence.
Malignant is currently in theaters can be streamed on HBO Max.