“Malignant” movie review: “Aquaman” director James Wan returns to horror roots

Ben Saito Barwig

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Fresh off the box office success of “Aquaman”, James Wan produces and directs a wildly original concept that, while taking a while to get its footing, challenges the limits of mainstream horror as well as our preconceived notions of traditional tropes.

“Malignant” follows the story of Madison (played by Annabelle Wallis), a trauma-ridden nurse trapped in an abusive relationship with her alcoholic boyfriend. When she suddenly begins to see gruesome visions of a cloaked figure committing real-world murders, she must grudgingly work with the Seattle police to uncover the true face of the killer, as well as the bloody secrets lying dormant in her past.

I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s strong directing. That is to say that James Wan’s direction is by no means idiosyncratic; the film definitely possesses all the camp of any other horror flick. Rather, it is quite simply well-made, especially during horror sequences. Wan knows how to make a horror film, after all he was the breakout director of “The Conjuring”, and his proficiency shows in “Malignant”. The horror scenes have a strong rhythm, where each shot is framed in a way that makes it feel like the killer could pop out at any moment. The audio deafens the background clutter, putting the victim in a duel-like state with the murderer. Jumpscares rip through the tension, catching me off-guard and making my heart skip a beat. That’s not to say that the jumpscares had me paralyzed or haunted with fear, rather they were just something to raise my BPM and straighten my posture.

I think what makes this film unlike anything I’ve seen in mainstream horror is the latter two-thirds of the movie. I won’t be going into spoilers for both the sake of the review as well as my own recommendation because the twists and turns are good enough to warrant a blind viewing. I will say that the narrative and lore go off the rails in a very good way. The way that will make you gasp. They nail what is essential to any film like this which is strong imagery. The props and art design become genuinely disturbing and shocking in their pure gruesomeness, and I would definitely not recommend this film to anyone who gets put off by gory imagery. For me, however, it was well worth getting through the first third of the film, which brings me to my problems with “Malignant”: the first third of the film.

Malignant is in theaters today. (Photo via Warner Bros)

It was bad. It was bad in the way that it betrayed what I thought James Wan wanted the film to do, which is to subvert the typical horror tropes. While the rest of the film does take a twist on the typical tropes of “The theme of the movie is trauma” and ‘Character makes purposefully unrealistic decisions” in a well crafted way, the first act is a poorly-paced, messy, and overall badly written segment that definitely tarnished my viewing experience. For one, the narrative itself has no weight. Characters will tell each other things about them that are extremely personal, that in the real world are MAJOR events that a person will work through and struggle with for weeks. But in “Malignant”, they frown into the distance, and we move on to the next scene. There are so many traumatic events that act as pillars to support the narrative moving forward, so a similar scene happens again, and again, and again, to the point that it diminishes any sort of intimate connection and chemistry the characters feel for each other. I think that the reasoning behind the sloppy first act is because the screenwriter, Akela Cooper, knew that the real action lies in the second half, and felt as though laying the groundwork was just an obstacle to get to the later story, and it shows.

No matter how weak the first act is in comparison to the rest of the film, I still enjoyed watching “Malignant”. I think it is incredibly important for people to see these kinds of movies, because original ideas executed at a high level of craftsmanship are a dying breed. Disney and the like buyout IMAX and Dolby Atmos theaters with remakes and cash-grabs that squeeze out independent and creative projects that deserve a larger spotlight. I understand that this film is distributed under Warner Bros. (who are by no means exempt from this conversation of extreme commercialization in the industry, case in point Space Jam: A New Legacy) but I do applaud them for releasing a brand new vision with little-to no brand or face recognition. Even then, this film likely wouldn’t have been made without James Wan’s Aquaman proceeds (which is obviously a product of the commercialization as well). I am glad I came around on “Malignant”, and I encourage anyone who loves a good horror film to check it out, either in theaters or on HBO Max.