James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ Review: The Best Hollywood Horror Movie Of 2021
There will be few spoilers beyond first-act plot and what’s revealed in the theatrical trailers.
James Wan isn’t trying to redefine the horror movie for the third time, following Saw in 2004 and Insidious in 2011. No, his latest original horror romp, Malignant, just wants to rock and/or roll and get the audience dancing to its specific beat. I’m not quite sure why Warner Bros. mostly hid this one from the press, but this is one of the better “hidden from critics” horror movies, I don’t know, ever? Its arch tone and macabre humor will throw off some folks, and the film certainly goes in some “take it or leave it” directions. But when your last two “big” movies (Furious 7 and Aquaman) essentially “saved” two different studios’ most valuable IP (while the middle one Conjuring 2 cemented a viable cinematic universe), you can afford to party with the boss’s credit card.
Annabelle Wallis’ Madison Mitchell is stuck in an abusive marriage, a situation compounded by a history of recent miscarriages. After a violent outburst results in a bloody head injury, she is doubly traumatized when a mysterious... something attacks the both of them with horrific consequences. Without going into details better left to the film itself, Madison’s recovery dovetails with a series of grisly murders seemingly carried out by her assailant, with the caveat that she has been cursed by real-time visions of these ghoulish crimes. The cops (a dynamic Mulder/Scully-like duo played by George Young and Michole Briana White) are sympathetic to a point, and there are some odd coincidences related to unrevealed or suppressed childhood traumas, but at some point our bereaved heroine starts to look less like a victim and more like a murderer.
First, you should know that the Seattle-set chiller has a much larger scale than what’s teased by the two (comparatively minimalist) trailers. Moreover, yes, there are plenty of unspoiled goodies in terms of plot turns, character beats and set-pieces. The movie hits the ground running with a 1993-set flashback set in a gothic “only in horror movies” mental hospital only to leap into an opening sequence which gets the trailers’ big horror pay-off beat (concerning Madison’s husband, played by Jake Abel, being attacked) out of the way. Just as we were thrilled when we realized that Tom Cruise’s “hang on to that airplane” stunt was merely the prologue of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, you’ll sit right up when you realize that what was sold as a big third-act turn is merely a curtain-raiser.
While Malignant, penned by Wan, Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper, would prefer you be surprised, it doesn’t play so close to the vest that you’re waiting for the movie to catch up with you. This is not a film rooted in subtly, and even if you guess some of the big picture details there’s still plenty of entertainment value in the journey. The picture slowly expands its scope beyond just a young woman being haunted in a mostly empty house, even if it sticks to that formula just long enough to give you a patented “camera floats through the house before the big scare” shot (this time from a bird’s eye view), while periodically playing like a big city police thriller. It may have the best foot chase in a “horror” movie since Se7en.
The many bloody killings give you just enough gore to be grossed out without reveling in the carnage. The overall template is a skewed riff on Giallo flicks, with a touch of 70’s DePalma and the grindhouse flavor of the mid-80’s/early 90’s Nightmare On Elm Street knock-offs. Not unlike Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, it’s a polished horror movie that might almost even play better on a mediocre VHS copy of a copy watched at 3:00 am in the morning. Although, yeah, you’ll get your money’s worth in a theater. The film’s onscreen menace, named Gabriel and presenting himself as a kind of childhood imaginary friend gone awry (think Drop Dead Fred but with folks very much dropping dead), is a unique and disturbing onscreen boogie man with a grotesque and otherworldly appearance.
The film has its share of intentional chuckles, with knowing non-verbal reactions (it’s all Wan can do to not have certain reveals punctuated by a thunder clap), Joseph Bishara’s over-the-top score and often over-the-top reveals. This movie knows it’s silly and dares you to take it too seriously. Young and White have amusing chemistry, and it’s frankly nice to see a major Asian character who seems to be a blissfully unaware chick magnet. Bisu has fun as a “too excited by the carnage” CST, while Maddie Hasson offers sturdy support as Maddie’s unconditionally supportive sister. Yes, a young woman escaping from an abusive relationship and reconciling with her sister may remind folks of Leigh Whannell’s Invisible Man, but the movies eventually go their own way and would make a pretty great double feature.
I wouldn’t dream of even hinting at where the journey heads as it rounds the final lap, but it’s a huge swing that mostly connects for a genuinely show stopping finale. Annabelle Wallis anchors this whole absurd enterprise in what’s a very challenging “in almost every frame of the damn movie” starring role. She is played as a child flashbacks by, as required by law, McKenna Grace, which (while she’s excellent per usual) also feels like a knowing nod. The whole film, warts and all, plays like a kid stuck overnight in a candy store eating as much as he can before the store opens in the morning. Save for some arguable “non-biological family is family too” themes, there isn’t a single vitamin or mineral to be found. This is a straight-up sugar rush.
Malignant is a spectacularly goofy and unapologetically over-the-top horror extravaganza from a guy who has the capital to get a major studio to finance a “big” original horror movie and the skill to make the most of it. While I won’t pretend to have seen every VOD indie horror gem released thus far, Malignant is my pick for the best major studio/wide release theatrical horror movie of 2021. I’m not sure why WB seemingly treated this film like a radioactive diaper, with buzz about Aquaman 2 and Matrix 4 taking up most of the PR coverage in the lead-up to its release, but the end result is a happy surprise. It really is one of the best “no critics allowed” horror flicks since Psycho. James Wan’s “one for me” turned out to be a treat for all of us as well.