James Wan has become a golden boy when it comes to making modest, yet highly entertaining films. Everyone already knows him for directing the first Saw (2004) and how he would create several other major horror tentpoles with Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) which would spawn multiple spin-offs that got sequels with The Nun (2018), Annabelle (2014), and The Curse of La Llorona (2019).
Aquaman (2018) would be his major directorial blockbuster that broke records and made Warner Bros. very happy- so much so that the studio would greenlight anything he wanted. Malignant would be the James Wansiest film he would ever make and would combine Giallo influences with Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982), along with Wans’ signature style.
With a staggering 40 million dollar budget, Malignant promises to be a very lavishly produced horror film. Or at least, you’d think it would be. It is an expensive and polished-looking movie, but it is not scary. What is this movie? Find out in this Malignant review!
Production Company: Newline Cinema, Atomic Monster Productions, Starlight Media Inc.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: James Wan
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Malignant is the kind of movie where the longer it goes on, the stupider it gets. The established tone begins grounded. Madison is a woman in a bad relationship with her abusive husband, Derek, and after several miscarriages, things are as rough as ever.
During an especially heated argument over the miscarriages, Derek smashes Madison’s head into their bedroom wall, causing her head to bleed and thus leading to another baby being lost. For a while, it feels like Malignant is like some kind of Lifetime movie-of-the-week, but this is where the story finally begins.
As the story unfolds, it presents itself as a very surreal mystery. Madison has visions of a killer and she loses track of time. The killings are of some people she knows and are people she never met… or so she thinks.
There is not much of a mystery to what is happening in Malignant. The surprise is that Madison had a conjoined psychotic and monstrously deformed twin named Gabriel (voiced by Ray Chase, of Final Fantasy XV fame). The procedure to remove him did not get rid of him entirely and his brain is still a part of Madison’s.
Gabriel is fascinating as a concept. When he takes control of Madison, her body contorts, and she walks backward because Gabriel’s face emerges from the back of her skull. The effects used to realize this character relies on a contortionist/dancer, practical effects, and some instances of CGI.
The marriage of all these cinematic techniques to realize Gabriel is commendable. The illusion is never broken and the character attains a real presence in the film. The contortionist who acts for Gabriel has otherworldly and inhuman movements. The image of Gabriel stabbing the sleeping doctor in a backward position is especially impactful and memorable.
The scenes where Gabriel is out on the kill are usually shot very stylishly. This is where the Italian Giallo influences are at their strongest. These sequences are luridly lit with insanely intense colors and also bathed in black contrast.
Other moments use long shadows or contrasting rim lighting. A chase scene that happens halfway through the film combines strong atmospheric lighting and elaborate set design where a policeman and Gabriel have a game of cat and mouse in an underground, abandoned city.
Malignant takes on a “fantasy” style to its aesthetics around this point in the movie. There is a massive, gothic, spooky hospital that looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie. The underground town is full of cobblestone streets, dusty and abandoned carriages, and it’s got flooding too. The cinematography gets very playful with foreground elements, which makes scenes look like illustrations out of a comic book.
The underground city is like a metaphor for Madison and Gabriel. It is a side that is deeply buried beneath the surface, forgotten, and a bit twisted too. There are several shots in the movie that symbolize the dark side of Madison, like a terrible shadow that follows her around.
Malignant has a great theme that is mostly realized until the movie continues its insane rollercoaster ride and loses all sense of realism. When Gabriel takes over Madison, he is not just a creepy slasher that murders people in awesomely lit and expensive sets- he becomes John Wick with a knife.
Malignant can be divisive and it is largely due to how absurd it becomes. What began as a compelling and stylish slasher with a bizarre killer, becomes an outrageous action movie with violent and gory deaths from something out of a Terrifier movie.
Some of the kills are too cartoony and nonsensical. During the police station bloodbath, Gabriel crushes a prostitute’s head by stomping on it once. Another hooker gets Gabriel’s arm through her as if she was made out of tissue paper.
The outrageous acrobatics and choreography pulled off while savagely killing a dozen cops are utterly out of place in any other horror movie. By the time Malignant gets to this point, all bets were already off and the film was already out of control.
These action scenes would not be out of place in an R-rated superhero movie. Given that James Wan directed Aquaman, some of the scenes begin to make some sense. The elaborate way the camera steadily spins around Gabriel as he battles an entire precinct is something Wan developed in the action scenes of Aquaman and in Malignant he takes it further with hardcore violence.
The more out of control the film becomes, it is hard to not be entertained by the absurdity. Do not expect to remain emotionally invested in Madison’s story. By the time the third act rolls around, the film has become more interested in spectacle than logic.
Several plot points are never explained, like Gabriel’s apparent psychic abilities and super strength. There is also a character who is built up throughout the film but is unceremoniously killed and quickly forgotten. Malignant needed to be longer, it is about one hour and fifty minutes but moves very quickly as if it is rushing to pack in a lot of stories. This could have used fifteen or twenty more minutes to further flesh out the details.
A lot of the stupid aspects of Malignant could have been forgivable if it didn’t have such a lame ending. After an epic showdown, the movie tries to make Gabriel somewhat sympathetic but it is ultimately pointless. Worse yet is that there is a major elephant in the room over the killings that Madison did technically commit.
Malignant ends abruptly and has some cheesy lines, while also having the audacity to leave a potential sequel hook in the most cliche way imaginable. The ending feels like it was a reshoot considering how epic and grand everything else was prior. The elaborate underground city set barely gets used and the story climaxes in a single hospital room.
Malignant is a flawed but enjoyable watch. James Wan’s panache for stylish sequences and visuals is why you watch his films. The script could have used some finesse and the ending is kinda pathetic, but the creativity with all the other aspects of the film is enjoyable enough to carry the viewer to the end.
Malignant was reviewed on Blu-ray using a copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Malignant is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.