Review: 'Malignant' (2021) Dir. James Wan
Updated: Sep 15
James Wan comes fresh from his horror franchises 'Saw', 'The Conjuring' and 'Insidious' to present a new original psychological tale that promises to be anything but conventional...
Madison Lake (Wallis) has suffered a lifetime of trauma and tragedy, including adoption and miscarriage. Yet her nightmare is only just beginning when she wakes to find her abusive partner dead downstairs, in a gruesome way.
Madison does her best to piece her life back together, but is haunted by visions of death; people she knows, people she doesn't. It becomes worse when her visions aren't just visions at all, but actual murders taking place.
Clues from Madison's past hold the key to these murders and identifies the pattern that links them together. Who, or what, is behind these supernatural massacres, and what part does Madison play in it all...?
Isolated female leads. Television sets turning on by themselves. Loud creaks and groans of floorboards. Clinical lighting. Odd movements. Spooky shadows caused by moonlight streaming into homes with seemingly no use for their curtains. Refrigerators opening by themselves. Gruesome deaths / murders. Wise-ass police officers investigating with no clue as to what's going on.
You know what you're in for with these horror clichés very early on. The musical score is screechy, loud and erratic for full panic / anxiety effect, and the diegetic sound is quiet and natural, reeling you in for that jump-scare over and over again. It's a horror playground, and James Wan is back in familiar surroundings for a tale that explores supernatural horror, but laced with tongue-in-cheek elements that come from the best 80s/90s horror.
Annabelle Wallis does a decent job of the young woman Madison facing these horrors on her own, with nobody bar sister Maddie Hasson who actually takes her seriously. Wallis has it all - the blood curdling scream(s), the fear stricken face, the emotional punches and the often introverted dress sense that makes her perfect to be played with by the demonic supernatural. And in that regards you probably already know where this film is heading once the pretty cool CGI visions start.
Wan's story includes all the expected tick boxes of the horror genre, and is unsettling when it wants to be away from the usual screams into camera and CGI blood splats.
It's hard to fathom why most mainstream horror continues to play so safe - perhaps because if it's not broke, don't fix it? There is a comfort for the general horror fan who want to come and be spooked and scared the way they always have for years. You can see things a mile away. When it comes to people exploring dark corners of their rooms, poking around with little light and everything else is ghostly quiet, you're waiting for that shock reveal / burst of audio to send shivers down your spine ready for the kill.
The James Wan "universe" of horror may well nothing new in terms of delivering for the genre, not since Saw at least, but he clearly understands what audiences want in terms of cheap thrills, scares, dark humour and subtle lampooning of the genre itself thanks to those more serious, but comical, moments. Think about the acting quality, lack of creativity in sets and the formulaic shocks and scares - sometimes they can be bad enough to lull you into a false sense of security and really play with your mind that you know what to expect, but then Wan pulls out a scare or a revelation that turns things on its head.
Maybe this is the point in the way Wan plays it - with a slasher fuelled synth and string score and number of blood spurting kills (and plenty of screaming from Annabelle Wallis), this is by the book slasher horror with some ridiculous plot points and twists along the way, but without anything memorable once the credits roll after 1hr 45mins.
It's hard to guess if this is a serious horror or just tongue-in-cheek replication of the paranormal/slashers that have come before. It will please some horror fans but probably bore others looking for something bolder.
'Malignant' is a co-production between New Line Cinema, Starlight Media Inc., My Entertainment Inc. and Atomic Monster Productions