Malignant is a 2021 horror movie directed by James Wan. It was produced by Atomic Monster, Boom Entertainment, Boom! Studios, New Line Cinema, and Starlight Culture Entertainment. Warner Bros., Cinemundo, New Line Cinema, Universal Pictures International, and HBO Max served as distributors. Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is living an unhappy life with her abusive husband, Derek Mitchell (Jake Abel). One night, an intruder attacks the couple. After being hospitalized, Madison is left with visions of a deformed killer performing bizarre and gruesome murders. What’s even more bizarre is the realization that these murders are happening in real-time.
Malignant is directed by James Wan. Despite what the film would lead you to believe, this is not his first foray into the world of horror. He had previously directed Saw in 2004, Insidious in 2010, The Conjuring in 2013, Insidious: Chapter 2 in 2013, and The Conjuring 2 in 2016. The man has some serious experience when it comes to horror. Aside from directing, he has a wide number of credits as an executive producer for horror films, primarily the Saw franchise.
“I’m having visions.”
The cast is a mixed bag of experienced and relatively new. Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors, Peaky Blinders) plays the lead, Madison. Supporting her as Madison’s sister Sydney is Maddie Hasson (We Summon the Darkness). George Young (Containment) plays Detective Kekoa Shaw and Michole Briana White (Encino Man) plays Detective Regina Moss.
The acting is terrible. That sentence was supposed to be a placeholder in my outline, but it holds. It’s simply atrocious. The performances are on par with an Asylum film. For many of the actors, this feels like their first major film. But when digging into them, it is clear this isn’t their first or second rodeo. Many of them are experienced actors that have been in big-budget productions and done remarkably well in them. For example, Annabelle Wallis plays the lead character, Madison. She has played a strong female character in The Tudors and Peaky Blinders. Watching Malignant would give you no indication of that.
The cinematography is the only redeeming factor in this mess of a film. Several interesting shots stand out. They’re so good, it makes them feel out of place in a movie this poor. The first is when our lead character, Madison, is moving through her two-story Victorian home. The camera pulls back and pans up until it is a complete top-down shot that follows Madison as she moves through the sprawling home. It’s a mesmerizing shot that flows beautifully. It immediately got me thinking about how the shot was made, which pulled me out of the movie. It was too good.
The other sequence that stood out to me was towards the end of the movie. It involves a brutal attack on the precinct and is full of hyper-violent action. The problem is, despite being a violent horror movie, it was never to this level. So, when an otherwise amazing piece of cinematography turns the violence up, it feels completely out of place. James Wan is a good director from not just his previous works but Malignant as well. He knows how to set up a shot and deliver on it. The biggest problem is consistency.
Despite being a horror movie, the audio lends itself to being more of a comedy. It could be that I was watching the movie with subtitles and “ominous music” appearing well before the actual audio cue took away some of the intended dramatic effect. But, I choose to believe it was the unnecessary cues anytime something remotely spooky or mysterious was happening. A quick run of the violin strings is effective when used sparingly. In the case of Malignant, it was anything but.
“It’s time to cut out the cancer.”
Aside from the poor acting, the biggest issue is the pacing. Malignant doesn’t take any time to get going. There are also plenty of interesting bits happening throughout the movie. The problem is, the movie takes so long to figure out what it wants to be. My wife and I had heard nothing but good things about the movie. But after the first sequence had finished, I remarked “This can’t be the movie.” Malignant is full of cheese. But rather than fully lean into it, it’s treated as a serious film. This conflicts with the obvious jabs it sporadically throws at itself. So, when they happen, it only pulls the viewer out of the film.
Along the same vein of taking too long, Malignant takes far too long to reveal who the killer is. The reveal doesn’t happen until the last 20 minutes in the 111-minute runtime. By then, because the film couldn’t help dangling elephant-sized clues in front of the audience, the viewer figured out what is happening long ago. So, when the big reveal finally happens, it feels more like constipation that has finally passed. Compounding it is that the reveal isn’t all that original. In particular, fans of the video game Dead by Daylight will see what is happening quite early.
It’s in this final 20 minutes that Malignant throws out all pretense and starts to cut loose. Unfortunately, it’s also when the movie starts to get good and you see what it could have been. It’s like eating a rather bland meal and suddenly finding the flavor in the last three bites. Those last three bites are really good. But the overall experience almost makes it worse by having them in there, because you realize what could have been.
“Who are you, Gabriel?”
There are two ways to address this. The first is to lean into the cheese and make it more of a dark comedy or a spoof horror film. I think that hitting the tone of something like Scream or What We Do in the Shadows would have served Malignant. The other way would be to embrace the bizarre nature of the killer and lean into the horror. The design of the killer and their movement, in particular, was fascinating. Rather than treat the viewer like an idiot, reveal the identity of the killer much earlier and have fun with it. Without that big plot point hanging overhead, the film could more fully explore the killer, their motivation, and have some real fun with their interactions.
Overall, James Wan’s Malignant is an awful movie. It was bad enough until that final 20 minutes when you realize what it could have been. Some think the final sequences redeem the film and make it a worthwhile watch. I respectfully disagree. Even if you can watch it for “free” via HBO Max, save yourself the time and pass on this one.