Malignant Review: James Wan Goes Wild With His Bloody, Bonkers Return To Horror

A movie that takes big swings is always worth celebrating, and "Malignant," James Wan's out-of-control return to horror, takes some of the biggest swings you'll ever see on film. Wan hasn't helmed a horror movie since 2016, and returning to the genre has seemingly unhinged him, or at the very least made him dizzy with glee. He's a blockbuster filmmaker now, and here he uses his blockbuster skills and clout to conjure up a movie best described as "operatic." There's nothing subtle about "Malignant." It's not a slow burn. It's not a horror movie full of ever-mounting dread. It's not quiet. Instead, it is an in-your-face bit of tomfoolery that will knock you on your ass. I spent half the film grinning like an idiot, and the other half utterly befuddled at what I was seeing. So much here doesn't work, and yet, it's hard to not love something this outrageous. 

We open at a gothic-looking hospital in 1993. It's a dark and stormy night (get used to that), and a bunch of staff members — nurses and doctors — are all at a fever-pitch over a mysterious patient named Gabriel. A character runs into frame, panicked and shouting, re: someone named Gabriel, "It was like he was drinking the electricity and controlling the machines!" That line comes less than five minutes into "Malignant," and it gives you only a tiny hint of how bonkers this thing is going to get. Gabriel's doctor, Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie), is on the scene, and Wan cuts to an angle where she's practically looking straight into the camera as she scolds, "You've been a bad, bad boy Gabriel!" All of this happens in a flurry of action — lights flash, sparks fly, and Joseph Bishara's wacko film score blasts in your ears. If you think "Malignant" is going to take a chill pill after this bombastic intro, think again. 

Jump to the present. Madison (Annabelle Wallis) lives with her abusive husband in Seattle. The Seattle setting allows Wan to have it be almost constantly raining, setting the perfect mood (there's lots of fog, too; there are even scenes where there is fog indoors; James Wan loves fog, people). After a fight between Madison and her husband, someone breaks into the house and promptly — and violently — dispatches the abusive hubby (please don't scream "Spoiler!" at me; the husband character is in the movie for approximately six minutes, and once he's violently dispatched, he's almost never mentioned again). Madison is injured in the attack as well, and her troubles are just starting. Soon she's having terrifying visions in which she witnesses a killer — clad in a black leather coat and gloves  — violently killing people using a modified trophy as his weapon. And wouldn't ya know it, the victims are members of the medical staff we saw in that weird intro. The killer is, of course, the mysterious Gabriel. But just what the heck is Gabriel's deal? And what is he up to? Does he even have a plan? 

Needless to say, with Madison's connection to the killings — she makes the mistake of telling the cops about her visions — she becomes the prime suspect. But young, handsome Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) is sympathetic to Madison, probably because he's got the hots for Madison's sister (Maddie Hasson). All of this is leading somewhere, but whether or not you buy into that destination is going to depend on how much nonsense you can put up with. Let me be clear: when I call "Malignant" nonsense, I'm not doing so in a negative manner. No, no, no. I commend this movie for being so wild, so crazy, so unapologetically weird. But it's also nonsense — the type of nonsense you can cherish. 

The Type of Nonsense You Can Cherish

The list of problems with "Malignant" could fill up a few notebook pages. The story often makes absolutely zero sense. The characters make incredibly stupid decisions, even for horror movie characters (why does everyone just blindly walk into dark rooms in this movie??). Joseph Bishara's score is distracting to the point of disaster. And the overall tone is truly wonky — this is the type of movie where characters burst into the frame to deliver a melodramatic line with wide eyes, all as the camera swoops in on their face and the soundtrack blares BUM BUM BUM. It's borderline soap opera territory. 

And yet, Wan has such a firm grip on his direction. His camera never sits still; never goes for the easy shot. It's always spinning, and swooping, and crouching, and twisting. There's a particularly great scene where Maddie runs through her house and the camera tracks her overhead, pointing down, showing us the different floors and rooms she passes through, just like the robot spider scene in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." Some might call "Malignant" all style and no substance, but I think the substance is the style, almost as if Wan is channeling the trashy, lurid, wonderful thrillers of Brian De Palma. Wan himself has cited De Palma's "Raising Cain" as an influence, and that fits. That, too, was a wildly over-the-top showcase of skill, style, and nonsense. 

The stumbles are plentiful, and sometimes, they hurt. There are multiple scenes here where characters watch videotapes that provide extensive exposition. One of those tapes is from some home movies, filmed during a birthday party. As the video camera keeps rolling and we keep watching characters on the tape expose on plot points, it grows ludicrous. Why would anyone filming a birthday party keep filming all this exposition? And then, why would they hang on to said exposition tape for decades? Is it because they hoped someone would show up at their door and shout, "Help us! We need to watch a VHS tape that explains what the hell is going on!" Then there's Wallis, who is unfortunately miscast here — she's way too stiff, and spends most of the movie screaming "NO!!" with wide eyes, and the screaming is never convincing. 

But gosh. That stuff isn't enough to sabotage the gaudy, gore-soaked lunacy at work here. The production design, where police stations are made to resemble cavernous haunted mansions, is gorgeous. It's almost always raining, complete with thunder and lightning. The blood and gore both flow freely. And then there's the killer. Gabriel is almost always bathed in shadow, but when we see him, he makes for a wonderful boogeyman, complete with a ghoulish visage and limbs that bend and twist the wrong way. He doesn't so much run as he scurries about like a gigantic spider. 

Is "Malignant" scary? It's certainly gruesome. But the grandiose tone keeps the movie from ever being truly scary. It goes to some spooky places, though, and Wan also manages to throw in a few action sequences, showcasing the skills he picked up helming "F9" and "Aquaman." The lack of true scares may be a deal-breaker for some. And indeed, the overall outlandishness at work on the screen is going to flat-out annoy certain viewers. But then there will be those who revel in the audacity of "Malignant," and boy oh boy are those folks in for a treat. This isn't even close to being James Wan's best horror movie, but cripes, it sure is a lot of fun. 

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10