Movie Review: “Malignant”

James Wan is a favorite on the Nightmare Shift. The famous director started in his career with the Seven-esque film Saw, introducing a horror icon for the new millennium. Since then though, he has not sat on his laurels in the least. He could have accompanied Twisted Pictures on the never ending Jigsaw escapade, but he didn’t. He brought us oddball films like Dead Silence, and even kickstarted other successful franchises like Insidious and The Conjuring universe, respectively. I respect that about him, and as much as I would have loved to have seen him at the reins of Conjuring 3, I appreciate and respect his decision to make something new and original – Malignant.

Released in unison on HBO Max and in theaters, Malignant is another of his more “oddball” films, akin to Dead Silence. With a screenplay by Akela Cooper and an original story by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Cooper, the film has received a divisive response from critics and moviegoers alike. Thus, it should not come as a surprise the film has received a lukewarm reaction at the box office overall. Thing is though, that was always likely to happen. Given the Delta variant and apprehensive moviegoers, and the fact you can watch it from the comfort of your own home (like I did), it was always going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Lastly, if you’ve seen anything for this film, you and I don’t have that in common. I knew of this film in name only, following the development of a then-titled “Silver Cup” horror film, but knew nothing about it otherwise. No, this was a film always meant to be a cult film, both in the marketing approach and the film itself, and that’s okay – the Nightmare Shift is nothing if not a cult (horror website).

The film sees Annabelle Wallis as a woman whose life is flipped upside down when she begins having visions of a dark, violent figure and the murders he commits. The kicker is – the visions are real. Now, she is left to make sense of her connection with the violent figure and, hopefully, stop him.

As prefaced, this was a film that was not on my radar, per se. It was a film I was interested about as a writer for the Nightmare Shift and a fan of James Wan in general. As I sat down and watched it, pizza in-hand and alcohol in my system, I could not help but think my drink must’ve been spiked someway. Kidding aside, it is an peculiar, strange film. Furthermore, I can see how it would be a polarizing film, in the same headspace as Wan’s previous film Dead Silence.

Speaking briefly on Dead Silence, it was a film with a bonkers, but predictable storyline, competent, but otherwise unnoteworthy characters, and, at times, cringeworthy jump-scares and scares embedded into it. That in mind, I can’t help but feel affection about it. Again, re-watching it years later, I can say that it hasn’t aged particularly well, but something between the doll itself and the “Mary Shaw” nursery rhyme, I regard Dead Silence as a lowkey classic in Wan’s oeuvre. It is not a great film nor is it even a good film, but it was memorable and unique, and I appreciated it in that respect.

Maligant plays a lot like that. The storyline in Malignant is suitably bonkers, and yet, the payoff is one I was able to see from a mile away. Likewise, the actors are competent in their portrayal, but, otherwise uneventful in their characterization. A lot of this film feels very average and run-of-the-mill in some respects, in-spite the capable technique and pedigree of those involved. At the same time, it is easy to see how much Wan has improved comparative to Dead Silence. The best way I could describe it is that Dead Silence is a film that Wan made after making Saw, and Malignant is a film after making Conjuring, bolstering all the improvements and growth he has made. This is something I feel can even be seen from the end of each film’s. Dead Silence’s end “feels” like it was made by the makers of Saw, all it is missing is the spinning cameras at the end of its twist end. Whereas, Malignant has an end (without revealing it), that, feels more subdued, almost like an anti-ending, comparative to Conjuring 2’s.

Of course, Malignant is a very different beast than Conjuring, or Dead Silence, or any film James Wan has in his filmography. The concept feels camp and cheesy, like a shlocky B-movie film, but is played straight with a budget of 40 million. A lot of the budget can be seen on the screen too, and it’s in the special-effects and scenes I think horror enthusiasts will smile fondly on Malignant. This is not a scary film in the least, nor does really seem to be the intent. This is not a film that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand. Rather, this is a film where I watch and say, “That looked cool,” over and over again. And, there’s something to say for that.

James Wan wrote a graphic novel called Malignant Man, which he has went on record saying this film was not an adaptation of, citing that Malignant “not a superhero film”, and it isn’t, but it definitely does have the vibe of a supervillain stepping out the panels at some instances.

Malignant is memorable and even enjoyable, and likewise, a film I feel will be regarded well in James Wan’s filmography. I don’t feel it ever comes together fully as a film. It isn’t that I think the premise is too absurd, or anything like that, but, rather, that I felt it could have done better fleshing out its characters, particularly the supporting cast, and/or established a tauter narrative with more cohesion. The film is rarely boring, and, as said, has a lot of cool ideas wedged into it. Sometimes a great director will do a horror film and play it safe, and it’ll be plain and painless. They will do a paranormal film with a shoestring budget, pay homage to the films of yesteryear, and take a bow. The name “Malignant”, even the cover of the film itself with the letter “I” that bleeds down off the text, would suggest that’s what this film is. But, it isn’t. It’s something different and unique from somebody talented, and I feel it’s worth a recommendation because of that.

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