Malignant Spoiler Review: This Wan's For The Splatter Fans

After taking some time out at sea to direct the wildly fun DC film "Aquaman," director James Wan made a big splash with his return to horror. "Malignant" debuted in theaters and on HBO Max this weekend, and it's a completely bonkers throwback with one of the most gonzo third acts in years. 

Wan is best known in the horror world for co-creating the gore-heavy "Saw" franchise and helming the "Insidious" and "Conjuring" supernatural-horror franchises. "Malignant" doesn't really harken back to any of those, instead opting to be a wholly original throwback to splatter horror and a time when silly was a perfectly fine thing for a horror movie to be.

"Malignant" works best the less you know about it, so if you haven't seen the movie yet and just want a bit more understanding, check out our spoiler-free review. The movie is a wild ride that starts a little slow but builds into a magnificent explosion of blood, guts, and gore. This is the kind of original horror we don't get very often, and it's a pure joy to see. 

Major spoilers follow for "Malignant." 

Deep Themes with Ridiculous Dressing

"Malignant" starts with some found footage of a doctor recording notes about one of her patients. It's great stuff, reminiscent of slashers from the '70s and '80s. We learn about a powerful male entity, one that has some kind of control over electricity. We see the doctors trying to restrain a child, the lights flickering wildly, and then the opening credits roll.

The movie picks back up with a young couple in their spooky old home. Husband Derek (Jake Abel) lounges on the bed watching sports and reading his phone when his visibly pregnant wife, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), enters wearing scrubs and telling him she's not feeling well enough for work. The two get into an argument about her working while pregnant and he slams her head against the wall. The scene is deeply unsettling and we get the feeling that Derek has been abusive to Madison for some time. She locks herself in their bedroom and cries herself to sleep before having a horrifying nightmare about a man invading her house and attacking both her and Derek. 

When she wakes up, Derek has been brutally murdered and she's in the hospital. She's lost the baby and now has to try to pick up the pieces of her life. Her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), is there to help, but Madison grows increasingly distant. She starts having more horrifying visions and nightmares, and the bodies start piling up.

From Gorgeous Giallo to Silly Splatterpunk

Most of the first act is a slow-burning, giallo-inspired murder mystery. Wan cited his giallo influences in interviews promoting the film, and it's no wonder as it shares many of the subgenre's thematic and visual elements. Giallo films originated in Italy in the 1970s and feature gruesome murder mysteries with scenes of shocking violence, highly stylized camerawork, and jarring musical scores. The victims are almost always beautiful women, and the killer usually wears black gloves. While some critics argue to this day about what defines a giallo film, there's no doubt that "Malignant" shares many of its aesthetic and storytelling elements. 

As Madison begins having grotesque visions and more people wind up dead, the movie grows into something a bit more gonzo. The transitions between Madison's world and her visions are stunning and disorienting. Since her visions and knowledge of the crime scenes make her their number one suspect, detectives Kekoa (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) start digging into her past. 

There are hints along the way as to the third-act twist, and some eagle-eyed and horror-trained viewers might figure it out, but the reveal is a ridiculous ton of fun, regardless. The movie moves from giallo to full-blown splatterpunk madness when Sydney tracks down Madison's early hospital records and discovers she is the host of a parasitic twin named Gabriel. The twin is a monstrously-deformed thing that's one part Kuato from "Total Recall" and one part Belial from "Basket Case." Gabriel is a violent, angry creature with incredible speed and strength, plus some control over electricity. When Madison thinks she's having visions of the killer at work, she's actually watching Gabriel, trapped inside their shared body as he takes over. It's less a case of multiple personalities and more an instance of a true parasite, feeding on Madison and her unborn children. The title, "Malignant," refers to Gabriel being seen as a cancer to be removed. 

Once Madison is arrested on suspicion of committing the murders, Gabriel is cornered and goes to extremes to escape. The third act of "Malignant" turns into an all-out gorefest with big action scenes. When Gabriel takes over Madison's body, he operates her body like a puppet, only backward. It's unsettling to look at without much motion, but when Gabriel dispatches an entire police station in a ballet of blood, it's a great monster design. 

There's a lot of material to dig into in "Malignant," but it never quite lands. There's are interesting themes to explore about women's bodily autonomy, the effects of trauma, and how people define the concept of family. Madison has been abused and traumatized by the medical establishment, her husband, and a masculine figure within her own body. It's only with Sydney's help that she's able to regain control, and flickering lights in the final shot let us know that control isn't all that strong. It's a brilliant bit of body and psychological horror, though it is a bit too surface-level to commit to anything deeper.

"Malignant" and its bonkers third act are the kind of thing we don't get to see in mainstream cinema very much, and that's a shame. But while it isn't perfect, it's a whole lot of fun.