Movie Review: ‘Malignant’ Proves James Wan is the Modern Horror Master
Director: James Wan
Writer: Akela Cooper
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Susanna Thompson, Ray Clark
Synopsis: Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.
If there is any horror filmmaker we can count on, it’s James Wan. Since the release of the groundbreaking Saw in 2004, Wan has shown his expertise in and command of his craft in excellent genre films like Insidious, The Conjuring, and the underrated Dead Silence from 2007. He has gone on to take the helm of huge franchise non-horror blockbusters like Furious 7 and Aquaman, and one could think after the incredible job he did on The Conjuring 2, easily the best horror sequel of the past twenty years, he might put the genre behind him for good. But thankfully he’s back with plenty more scares and delightfully crazed action set pieces in the wildly entertaining Malignant, a film that rarely stops moving and gives you everything you want in a movie like this and more.
It was a treat to sit down for this one knowing nothing of its plot, but if you want a tease, here it is: Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant and has an abusive partner Derek (Jake Abel) who one night in a moment of rage pushes her into the wall, making her bleed out the back of her head and nearly knock her unconscious. Soon thereafter a ghostly presence emerges in their house, one that violently massacres Derek and hurts Madeline so bad she wakes up in the hospital to discover her baby didn’t survive the night. When she returns to the house, she starts seeing visions of the same evil figure now attacking others, each grisly murder seeming to be connected to her in a way she needs to discover before it’s too late.
The less you know about the film the better because Wan keep the twists and turns coming at you all the while scaring you senselessly from beginning to end. It’s always fun while watching a horror movie to know you’re in a good director’s hands, and that’s the case here with someone who loves and understands the genre so unbelievably well he knows he can take risks and throw insane things at the viewer. This is definitely his nuttiest, most insane horror movie to date, particularly in its final act, but Wan also makes time for quieter moments of terror throughout, using darkness and shadows in the supremely effective way only he can.
He has an ability to keep the viewer in near constant suspense in these quieter scenes, like when Derek notices a black figure sitting on the couch, only for him to turn the light on and see the figure is gone. In nearly every frame of this film we cautiously scan our eyes across the entire frame, often looking for something ominous in the background even if one isn’t there. I did that all throughout The Conjuring 2, and I found myself doing it again in this film, like when a man enters his pitch black closet before heading to bed, or when a young woman steps down a darkened hallway in the Seattle Underground tunnels (a creepy tourist destination I’ve visited before that’s used beautifully in the film).
Sure, Wan isn’t reinventing the wheel by any means here, but what’s additionally such a blast with Malignant is how the director and his screenwriter Akela Cooper keep growing the tension and upping the stakes to take the story in new directions that offer not just some heart-pounding chase scenes and impressive special effects and but also insane moments of over-the-top violence that will leave you wide-eyed and amazed, especially scenes that take place in a jail holding cell and a police station. This film costs about 40 million dollars, a lot for a modern-day horror film with no stars that’s not based on any known property, and you see the money on the screen in one dazzling sequence after another.
But what I loved so much about the film is that despite the at-times wild storytelling detours and outlandish action sequences, the emotional core of the story always remains on Madison’s journey and her quest in facing fear and defeating evil. Wallis gives a terrific performance in an ensemble of actors mostly unknown to me, and it’s a thrill to see a studio horror film at this high of a level filled with actors most of us won’t be familiar with. Maddie Hasson is solid as Madison’s sister Sydney, George Young is an effective presence as the police officer Kekoa, and Ray Chase is crazily creepy as the vindictive, all-powerful, “it’s time to cut out the cancer” Gabriel.
If there two things that keep the film from being an all-out modern horror classic, it’s the rushed ending, along with an overuse of bland scenes that take place with the police officers, which too often act as a dull break from the past-paced terror and madness. The Nightmare On Elm Street-like final few minutes are also too abrupt, the resolution making sense but also leaving some plot threads unresolved and happening too fast to carry the emotional weight it deserves. At nearly two hours, Wan could have cut down on some of those early police station scenes and given the grand finale with its final big twist a bit more time to breathe.
But overall I was delightfully giddy for almost all of Malignant, certainly the best horror film I’ve seen so far this year and one that certifies James Wan as a master of the genre. It doesn’t matter how low-budget or high-budget the film is, if he has a cast of familiar actors or actors we’ve never seen before if it’s a sequel we go in knowing what to expect or something totally original, Wan delivers every time out. I’m happy that with all his success he’s not turning his back on the genre like some other great horror directors have in the past, and here’s hoping he’ll continue to surprise and delight us with many more terrifying gems to come.