The perfect horror movie remains an elusive goal for many filmmakers. Director James Wan delivered such an experience with Saw. The visceral film might have introduced a subgenre that some complainers negatively called “torture porn,” but it also contains one of the best twists in movie history. Nobody could see it coming, and it caught me completely by surprise, which is hard to do as a movie buff. Hell, I correctly guessed the famous, ingenious secret of The Sixth Sense from the trailer because of one scene that showed too much. Dammit, I hate to admit it, but Wan and the writers got me again! Malignant evokes horror movies of a bygone era and builds slowly to an amazingly bonkers reveal and finale.
Writer/director Wan and writers Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper clearly channel a lot of influences in what starts as a simple slasher film and grows to something more. Maddison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis of The Tudors, Peaky Blinders and, ironically, Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation) has an abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) who ends up dead after he attacks her despite her pregnancy. Although Seattle detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) think that she may have had something to do with his murder, Maddison maintains her innocence. Her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) believes her and supports her as they delve into Maddison’s past and who this killer might be. To complicate things, Maddison begins to imagine/experience other murders from the perspective of the killer who offed Derek.
Wallis carries the film on her shoulders with her great performance. She never crosses the line to campy and stays in the realm of believable as do the other actors. When she’s terrified, you feel it, too. Things could easily have gone south with Wallis as the put-upon heroine whom we’ve seen so many times in the horror genre. Young, White and Hasson have their moments here and there, and White delivers the comedy with perfect timing and sarcasm in a role that I can imagine Wanda Sykes taking on. A key performer in action if not name is contortionist Troy James. You’ve seen his work, but you probably don’t yet know him. I can imagine a time when he will be as well-known for his stunts as Andy Serkis is for performance capture (notably Gollum in all of those J.R.R. Tolkien movies). James has an amazingly bendable body, so he’s perfect for the extreme movements of the killer here.
As a huge horror fan, the first half or so of this movie feels very familiar. A killer on the loose and a woman who’s the key to solving the crimes? Been there, done that. The slow pace and weirdness bring to mind many of the Italian horror flicks of the ’70s and ‘80s, especially the repertoire of Lucio Fulci. Joseph Bishara’s music delivers that same creepiness after a hard rock opening that honestly left me hungry for more of that approach instead. Once a director establishes a feeling or emotion, maintenance of that state should receive top priority… unless things change radically. Here, they do, and I enjoyed that last part more than many entire horror movies in recent memory. The killer stays in the shadows as Wan did with his bad guys in other movies like The Conjuring and Insidious. Although the purpose of the spooky dark figures in those films was to scare you, Wan instead keeps things mysterious here for that dramatic reveal.
Despite my enjoyment of Malignant, I have some issues that take my overall impression down a notch. Although Wan uses flickering lights and electronics to effectively announce the presence of the killer instead of obvious music cues, I don’t buy the ability of the killer to talk/communicate through those devices. Yes, there’s an explanation later on, but not all weirdness passes the smell test. I can’t blame the actor for a switch too quickly from Derek’s violent abuse to contrition and loving behavior. That lack of believability took me out of the movie for a moment, as did a scene when a search for a proverbial needle in a haystack completes in a matter of seconds. Come on, writers; these problems could have been easily fixed. My biggest complaint comes not from the movie itself, but its marketing. The poster image used everywhere has the “I” in the title heading down toward a frightened eye like a spike. Not only is that kind of scene absent in the movie, but it also calls to mind the terrifying drill scene in the aforementioned Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (released in America as The Gates of Hell). Malignant’s violence evokes action movies more than gore flicks, so the poster designer blew that one.
Wan offers a lot of neat elements to keep you interested. The killer moves like a video game character, which is partly stunt work or James’s performance and partly digital effects. A neat melting effect of the background takes Maddison from her current location to where the killer is about to strike. Such dissolves work better than fast cuts. Continuing with fun camera work, some scenes follow the killer in frenetic, continuous shots. After you see this movie, you’ll understand how Wan has delivered another title (like Saw or Insidious) with multiple meanings. Wan seems to be busy with the sequel to his Aquaman right now. He has gone outside of horror before with Furious 7. I’m happy to wait a few more years to give Wan another chance to surprise me like Malignant.