James Wan has officially ran out of fucks to give. The Australian genre maestro has made a return to the genre that started his career after just a five year hiatus. A film that could only exist on a studio level because the filmmaker’s previous film, Aquaman, became a billion dollar hit, Malignant, represents a new foray for Wan, in that he’s taking a risk in making a lower budget, bonkers-ass horror thriller that’s likely to piss many off, and have others grinning with demented glee.
Madison (Annabelle Wallis) lives a sheltered life with her abusive husband. After a home invasion leaves her with yet another miscarriage — her fourth — and her abusive husband dead, Madison begins having nightmarish visions of grisly murders at the hands of a mysterious figure named Gabriel. As the visions turn out to be reality and the murders continuing, Madison realizes there’s a deeper connection between her and the mysterious killer.
Steeped within the Giallo influences he took from his very first cinematic outing, Saw, director James Wan leans head-first into the classic stylings of the genre, but with his signature, masterful touch. Wan’s most idiosyncratic work to date, Malignant finds Wan clearly having fun reveling in total carte blanche. Having helmed billion-dollar blockbuster juggernauts Furious 7 and Aquaman, and currently prepping the latter’s sequel, Wan is making his first original film in almost a decade. The filmmaker is pushing the genre limits yet again in a cross between classic Giallo of the 70’s and 80’s with the kind of 90’s Eurohorror that you would find at 2am on Cinemax or in the back corner of the horror section at your local video store.
The basis for Malignant is firmly set within the Giallo subgenre featuring all the notable traits; a hip, thumping score, snap zooms, a memorable weapon (this one being a modified awards trophy), the gorgeous neon lighting, nightmare logic, if you can think of it, Wan’s included it. These aren’t empty theatrics, either. Wan uses the genre parameters to craft something much more unique and outrageous than a typical Giallo riff. There are notable nods to masters such as Argento and Bava, with some Cronenberg and De Palma thrown in for good measure, but Wan continues to advance his own singular vision.
Once Wan unfurls the mystery, its with a twist so brazenly ludicrous, yet completely imaginative. To say things get weird is an understatement. The big reveal is so absurd, you can’t help but admire how Wan absolutely goes for it. Wan’s give-no-fucks attitude is infectious throughout the film, particularly in the gonzo climax. It’s always a thrill to feel a filmmaker giving their all and having fun doing it, and such is the case here. Not only is Wan’s signature visual eye operating on full blast, but the sheer creativity behind many of the film’s ruthless set pieces is another indicator of how gifted Wan is as a visualist.
The carnage in Malignant is often stunning. The gnarly effects work paired with the embodiment of Gabriel by contortionist Marina Mazepa is responsible for some chilling images. Wan’s sensibilities as both an action and horror director is paired nicely in the films many brutal sequences. The fluid camerawork that moves around the frame with a graceful touch further adds to the slick viscera Wan is going for. This is far-and-away the most twisted film Wan has made to date, even down to the nasty — albeit brilliant — opening credits.
The script — written by Akela Cooper, based off an original idea between Wan and his wife, actress Ingrid Bisu (Toni Erdmann) who also makes an appearance here — contains moments of intentional camp, but unfortunately the tone struggles to find a proper balance with the more absurd aspects of the plot sometimes taken deadly serious, while some are not. The results create an occasionally muddled tone that’s thrown off by some limp dialogue and uneven plotting. Annabelle Wallis also does fine work as the tortured protagonist, but she never quite commands the frame like the role requires.
Only a filmmaker like James Wan could make something like Malignant work. Malignant is audacious genre filmmaking on a studio level that we rarely ever see nowadays. While not without its faults, this is the kind of big swing we want from Hollywood’s reigning filmmakers, and it’s rather amazing to see something this insane actually get made and put out for a mass audience. It’s a film some will reject with a flaring passion, while others will absolutely love.