Dir. James Wan
Reviewer. Martyn Wakefield
James Wan's return to horror since 2016's THE CONJURING 2 is a welcome, if unusually shocking, movie that brings everything you love about Wan's previous films and rips up the rulebook.
In 1993, Dr. Florence Weaver and her colleagues Victor Fields and John Gregory treat a psychiatric patient named Gabriel at Simion Research Hospital. Gabriel has special powers like controlling electricity and broadcasting his thoughts via speakers. One night, Gabriel turns violent and kills several staff members of the institution.
Twenty-eight years later, Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman living in Seattle, returns home to her husband who smashes Madison's head against a wall. Madison later wakes up to find Derek's body after having a dream of a man entering their house and violently killing him. The killer, still being in the house, attacks Madison, rendering her unconscious and what follows is a mad path to uncover the true identity of the perpetrator and exactly where Gabriel and Madison's paths link.
Some part Giallo, some part SILENT HILL and a splash of BASKET CASE make MALIGNANT a true gonzo classic. For those expecting a repeat of the hauntings of INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING will feel disappointed as this really does tread into 80s b-movie territory and relies less on the build up of tension and instead is a blood shed (and there's plenty of it) that answer the question; what if Roger Corman had a Hollywood budget?
From the very opening, Wan sets the scene and suddenly jolts into creature feature territory with Gabriel being revealed in the opening frames, mixed with an action packed attack on the hospital and some real b-movie dialogue, there's no denying that this is not the tried and tested formula most horror fans come to expect from big screen releases.
While the film tones down into a more grounded reality on the introduction of Madison, it begins to walk a path well worn in a predictable reveal. As characters from her past start dying amidst visions of the brutal attack, questioning psychic and mental abilities however there are signs on reflection that indicate the true reveal which is much more interesting and original than what might be expected. Annabelle Wallis really carries the traumatic soul of Madison throughout and is made for a lengthy stay as one of this generation's best scream queens. Let's not forget THE MUMMY and ANNABELLE, both mediocre films however made more bearable thanks to Wallis' lead. a traumatic presence but one that is both enchanting and hypnotic, pulling you into the nightmare. There's also a star turn from police detective Michole Briana White who channels the viewers frowns and questions throughout.
The biggest hindrance in Wan's vision here is budget. The stylised transitions between the murders and Madison's dreams and big action set pieces feel made for the big screen but the Giallo references (black gloves, slightly out of shot murder scenes and a telekenetic presence to the murderer are all present) and head scratching dialogue feel purposefully bad in places, the opening scene feels closer to RE-ANIMATOR than SINISTER and if that doesn't reel you into the mad journey MALIGNANT takes then the rest of the film won't make it any better. The film really doesn't quite gel as it should. Transitioning from mainstream suspense horror (the scenes with Annabelle Wallis are always mesmerising and shot to cinematic perfection) and grotesque midnight monster movie (when we see the last act the film goes full gonzo), as if Frank Henenlotter had a blank cheque and was told to finish off ROSEMARY'S BABY. The best part of b-movies is they use creative ways to remove budget obstacles, instead here it's simply bank rolled and out scales the small, genuinely horrifying terror at the centre of the film.
MALIGNANT is clearly not from THE CONJURING universe and it shows. Through his love of horror and wanton to evolve as a film director, it's easy to see why Wan wanted to make a much smaller scale horror film but his last few years in the hands of Hollywood (FAST AND FURIOUS 7 and AQUAMAN) really show and it's a transition very difficult to reverse. Despite this, there really are some unique shots here that have fun with the characters and a stalking overhead scene in the house following Madison is sheer brilliance proving that Wan is not only a fantastic horror director, but one of the best movie makers across all genres. The scene inside a police station will also have you grinning from ear to ear.
Long time collaborator Joseph Bishara returns but at times his score is for a much different film and as if he had pre-planned this was going to be a chilling suspenseful movie instead of the campier and fun one we got. That's not to take away from a fantastic use of a certain Pixies song that will be forever haunting. Hopefully, despite the inevitable let-down many will see on viewing MALIGNANT, there is a resurgence and love sought for this much more entertaining beast.
While this is far from Wan's best film, it's certainly a refreshing and much needed reminder that horror can be fun. Those wanting to sit through a tense and distressing horror movie need look elsewhere, instead despite the often confusing balance between action and horror, there is much to love about MALIGNANT which looks pretty set on being the most original horror film of the year.