Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema
By Dean Robbins
To quote the great temporal tourist Marty McFly: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are gonna love it.” There is no doubt in my mind that director James Wan’s latest horror concoction Malignant, now in theaters and on HBO Max, will find a devoted fan community at some point in the future. For now, however, the vast majority of viewers are likely to find the film a ridiculous mess. They are not entirely wrong.
Malignant follows thirtysomething Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) who finds herself drifting into terrifying visions of murder after the end of an abusive relationship and pregnancy. There is a lot more to the movie than that, including a giallo-inspired black glove killer, medical surgery gone wrong, and an epic ultra-gory, martial arts-inspired action sequence.
The term “giallo” is key for understanding part of Wan’s approach to the film. Giallo is traditionally Italian and Spanish pulp fiction-inspired horror and/or mystery cinema. It is obscure but it does have a lot of fans. Screen Rant recently (https://screenrant.com/malignant-last-night-soho-giallo-revival/) credited this film and the upcoming “Last Night in Soho” as being the beginning of a potential revival of the genre, which petered out in the 1980s. What Wan is doing with Malignant, alongside co-writers Akela Cooper and Ingrid Bisu, is taking key giallo tropes and mixing them with 80s horror camp and 90s comic book sensibilities.
Aspects of the film that may seem “bad” to general audiences in Malignant are almost always part of a calculated aesthetic choice. Wan is one of the best genre directors in the business right now and has a firm grip on style and mood. That choice of going for camp and over-the-top style also hews closer to Wan’s comic book film Aquaman (2018) in its tone than his popular Insidious and The Conjuring horror franchises. While the latter series are PG-13/light R serious supernatural nerve shredders that focus more on old-fashioned scares than gore, Malignant is an ultra-violent yet not extremely scary film that rejects the spiritual side of Wan’s other horror films. Like Aquaman, Malignant is often willfully silly and ridiculous. A third-act reveal is so over-the-top that one cannot help but laugh a little at it. I do not believe this laughter is entirely unintended.
The tension between wanting to laugh and be disgusted or scared is a fine line the film tiptoes on uneasily. If you want clarity in how to react to a film, Malignant is not for you.
However, especially on a technical level, most of the film’s aspects are extremely well-crafted. The camera work is a smorgasbord of what one can do in the genre and the visual effects are delightfully trippy and surreal. The lighting of interior space, often bathed in sickening red light, is a direct callback to gialli like Suspiria (1977). Wan is in tune with the texture of his film, going for an almost plastic-like feel that renders objects and the world a little rubbery. This only serves to underscore the reality-bending visions Madison is plagued with. The performances are also well-calculated in their ridiculousness. Everyone is playing a different shade of cartoon to perfection. All of the dumb lines that dot the screenplay are not usually failures of acting but yet another calculated choice. McKenna Grace, already one of the finest child actors of this generation, stands out as a young Madison.
So if you made it through this entire review and are still saying “this sounds up my alley,” watch it. For everyone else, take a pass.