As I mentioned in this month’s edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable,” it’s curious, if not downright depressing, that this October doesn’t really appear to have any great options for horror films. There’s Antlers, which looks to have some promise, and the utterly surreal Lamb, which I didn’t include because I still don’t know what to make of it, but otherwise, there’s nothing. Everything is either a lazy-looking sequel or an uninspired TV/Streaming movie for Amazon (Bingo Hell, Black as Night) that doesn’t have an MPA rating, and thus isn’t eligible for the column. It really does suck to not have any great horror to look forward to.
Thankfully, just a couple weeks ago, Warner Bros. and James Wan gave us what is likely the best horror movie of the year, even if they did jump the gun on the release date. Stylish, goofy, and just an all-around giddy splat fest, Malignant leans heavily into its own nonsense, and in doing so creates some legitimate scares to go along with its geek-out worthy execution. The film is in theatres now, and available on HBO Max for another week, so if you’re hurting for a nice night in with a good scary movie, take advantage of this opportunity while you still can.
For better or worse, Wan is responsible for three of the biggest franchises in modern horror, having directed and overseen the Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring series. Your mileage on these will obviously vary, but it can’t be denied that Wan has a wheelhouse in this genre, and he knows how to execute his vision. Because of that, we can go in knowing this story is in capable hands, and we can judge the film on its merits, rather than worrying about behind-the-scenes incompetence or overcompensation. That goes a long way.
The plot (written by Akela Cooper with a story from her, Wan, and Wan’s wife Ingrid Bisu, who also has a small role and is best known for the brilliant Toni Erdmann), centers on Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis from Annabelle and Peaky Blinders), an abused wife pregnant with her first child after several miscarriages. When her husband Derek (Jake Abel) knocks her against the wall, she injures her head and locks him out of their bedroom. That night, a mysterious assailant brutally kills Derek and attacks Madison, rendering her unconscious, with her wounds proving too severe to save the baby. An inconsolable Madison wakes up in the hospital with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson of Twisted) trying to help her recover while detectives Kekoa Shaw and Regina Moss (George Young and Michole Briana White) try to solve the murder.
From there, the secrets of Madison’s life become unraveled, and the bodies start to pile up, particularly the staff at the mental hospital where Madison was raised until she was adopted by Sydney’s parents. Home videos and research journals mention a malicious presences called Gabriel, who Madison talks to, and who she believes to be the Devil himself. As her former caretakers are murdered one by one, Madison finds herself transported to the scenes of the crimes, watching them in real time, but unable to stop them. A legitimate mystery develops as to who Gabriel is, what Madison’s connection with him might be, what she had to endure in her childhood, and why Gabriel has chosen to kidnap one victim – a tour guide in Seattle’s underground, which makes for a great set piece for a later chase scene – rather than outright killing her. And of course, Madison has to convince Shaw and Moss that she herself isn’t the very murderer they’re tracking.
A lot of this hinges on some pretty bullshit science, but Wan leans into it, outright admitting through his cast that a lot of the stuff going on here is just plain silly, if not totally insane. Small clues like upside-down fingerprints and recurring head injuries add just enough legitimacy to the investigation to allow for the more batshit stuff to be passed off in the name of suspending disbelief and having a good time. The basis for the events is utterly impossible, but there’s enough credibility with the process to make it forgivable, and even enjoyable on an ironic level.
It also helps that Wan makes sure to give the audience what it needs in the form of spectacle. He doesn’t shy away from the more gory elements of the kills, eschewing the protection of a PG-13 rating in favor of a more visceral experience. He lets tension build in the major scenes without ever cheapening them with frustrating cutaways. Even my Jump Fail Index (patent pending) doesn’t come into play here, as I only counted two jump scares in the entire film, and both of them actually played into the scene rather than trying to manipulate the viewer.
Most importantly, though, Wan goes the extra mile on the visual effects, favoring a practical look over a digital one in almost every instance. With the exception of Madison’s transition to Gabriel’s killing floors – which itself is a really cool effect, as the walls around Madison melt in this grainy, sand-like texture before being rebuilt around her – Wan opts for a more realistic look, with awesome stunt work and some makeup effects that would make Tom Savini weep with joy. This draws the viewer in, and keeps them engaged for the more nonsensical moments, leading to a few bits where I giggled with euphoria and muttered, “Hahaha, that fucking ruled so hard!” Throw in just enough pathos via the themes of adopted vs. biological family bonds, cancer, and repressed trauma (plus a semi-believable hint of attraction between Sydney and Shaw), and you’ve got the recipe for a truly riveting bit of horror that delightfully straddles the line between masterful and gratuitous.
The only element that doesn’t quite measure up is the ending. I won’t go into detail, but there was a space created for a really great resolution that would keep this film self-contained with a satisfying conclusion. But at the end of the day, James Wan is a franchise man (even departing his horror roots for Aquaman of all things), so of course he had to take one last turn late to open the door for future sequels, none of which will live up to this, I’d wager. It robs the film of its place in the true pantheon of 2021, because I’m certain there was some corporate involvement from Warner, and since they’ve practically made Wan’s career to this point, I’m sure he was more than happy to oblige. So yes, I have to dock a few points for a fairly blatant sacrifice of artistic integrity.
But aside from all that, this is precisely the type of film I’d want to see during the Halloween season. It’s fun, it’s surprisingly well-made, and the filmmaker made the right decisions when it came to making the presentation feel as real and shocking as possible, even in the moments that border on the absurd. It really isn’t that hard to make a great horror movie these days, but sadly, so many productions take the easy way out for a cheap buck. Malignant, however, is such a welcome exception to the new normal, giving viewers a nearly perfect B-movie with A-movie production values, a great way to spend a spooky evening.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy slasher films over other types of horror? Do you miss practical makeup effects as much as I do? Let me know!