In horror circles, James Wan is a modern legend—and for good reason. If nothing else, creating the Saw franchise and helming both Insidious and The Conjuring certainly brings an air of well deserved respect with it. His new film Malignant is a film of an entirely different kind. Horror, yes, but it’s one of the most unique horror experiences you’ll have for some time.
The film follows Madison Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), a woman who from the outset is in a clearly bad relationship and has herself had a long stroke of bad luck—she’s suffered multiple miscarriages. One night after a particularly harrowing fight with her husband, strange phenomena start to occur and (long story short) her husband ends up mysteriously dead. Madison knows the killer—Gabriel, who she long ago had experiences with and has long since forgotten. The resulting police investigation reveals shocking truths about her past, Gabriel, and Madison that I will absolutely not spoil—you have to see it for yourself.
Without spoiling it, however, I can say the film’s conclusion will be divisive—it’s a massive, swing-for-the-fences big-idea ending (and one you’ll either love or loathe). It harkens back to the days when major horror franchises were launched with out-there ideas like “what if everyone’s being hunted by a doll with a serial killer’s soul in it?” or “what if a burned-alive predator can kill you in your dreams?” Whatever your takeaway, it’s refreshing to see someone like James Wan putting films out there with novel ideas.
Annabelle Wallis brings exactly the range needed to land her role as Madison, from grounded and realistic to high camp when needed. The film’s VFX transitions (highlighted in the trailer) were another novel high point, and the stunt work and action choreography in the final act of the film that was stunningly executed—seriously some of the best this year.
At the same time, perhaps the entire first half really struggles with widely inconsistent performances, some oddly paced edits, and corresponding issues with tone. The campiness of it’s cold open, for example, sits poorly against the abusive argument we see in the following scenes, and a lot of the performers are oddly flat or muted compared to what the scene seems to call for. Frankly the inconsistencies are odd and a tad inexplicable for a director as talented and seasoned as Wan.
Altogether, Malignant is messy but imaginative. There are serious inconsistencies across the board, and when you find out what the end is you’ll surely either love it or absolutely hate it—it’s wild bonkers madness. Despite its flaws, however, there are some major technical accomplishments, the third act is at the very least a tremendously entertaining cinematic endeavor, and it’s great that Wan is taking risks in new horror endeavors instead of playing it safe—this movie is anything but safe. Check it out with as open a mind as you can.
Malignant is available in theaters and on HBO Max.