James Wan’s Malignant tries so hard to scare and shock its viewers that it forgets to figure out what it even wants to be.
Malignant is the newest horror film from director James Wan (known for films like Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious). It stars Annabelle Wallis as Madison, a woman who is somehow forced to see gruesome murders take place right before her eyes, at the hands of a figure simply known as Gabriel (Marina Mazepa, voiced by Ray Chase). As investigations are underway, it becomes clear that there is a connection between Madison and Gabriel, one that opens up the secrets to Madison’s mysterious childhood.
A warning sign to indicate the major problem with Malignant shows up right at the very beginning. We open in a research hospital where an evil, superpowered patient is manipulating electricity and going on a killing spree, a rather heightened and crazy scenario. But then, when we’re introduced to Madison, she’s having a very uncomfortable and violent altercation with her husband (Jake Abel) over her multiple past miscarriages, which plays out in slow, quiet fashion. If you think these two things can’t go together well, then you won’t enjoy the rest of the Malignant. It constantly alternates between being a really heavy, grounded horror film, and an over-the-top, clichéd one. It’s frustrating because when the movie tries to be the former, it does so relatively well. But that’s soon drowned out by imagery and settings that try so desperately hard to be big and scary, but come across as either underwhelming or just plain silly.
Unfortunately, a lot of that has to do with the directing. Overly dramatic zoom-ins and a corny, excessive score undercut a lot of big scenes and reveals, trying to hammer in the emotion that should be coming to us naturally. There are action sequences primarily in the third act which are staged decently, but I swear it looks like the framerate drops by 25%, which makes these scenes look flimsy. Not helping are the weak digital gore effects, the same kinds that are littered throughout most of the film’s kills. This really confuses me because Malignant has a few instances of really good and grotesque practical effects, making me wonder why more weren’t used. I never cringed or gasped at a kill because of how fake they all looked. And I certainly couldn’t take Gabriel seriously when he leapt at the camera and I saw his face in all its cheap digital glory.
I have to give Wan credit for not resorting to bottom-of-the-barrel tricks for the horror, particularly jump-scares, of which Malignant has very few. Many scenes in the first half are fueled by suspense and the anticipation of what’s going to happen, rather than a more bombastic scare. At the same time, though, I could only appreciate these scenes to a certain extent, because I surprisingly didn’t feel much tension from them. They’re mostly really basic setups and do very little to surprise you. And with nothing very disturbing happening at the same time, even these more reserved scares fall flat. That’s not even mentioning how, instead of using clever editing when Madison is forcibly transported to the room of the next kill, terrible CGI is used to transform her surroundings instead, which sucked me right out of the scene every single time.
Some of the performances from the side characters can be a little exaggerated, although given the outlandishness of some lines, I’m impressed they turned out as well as they did. Too many unfunny moments of comic relief are placed at the most ill-fitting times. The voice work and dialogue for Gabriel is just generically demonic, but I can’t blame Ray Chase because I’m sure he gave what was asked of him. Nor can I blame Marina Mazepa for the eccentric, goofy movements and ridiculous costume design. Though the makeup is excellent, and Gabriel’s design is admittedly creepier once you know what he is.
I love the core idea of Malignant in concept. It’s absolutely crazy once you know what’s been happening, and I can understand how someone else could call the big reveal downright stupid. But I can see how the idea could be genuinely terrifying. It offers a lot of possibilities for exploring free will and memory via both psychological means and effective body horror. I also really like how it ties in to some of the more dramatic plot points in really eerie ways. But I keep coming back to the main problem of how goofily it’s executed, for all of the reasons already covered. Because of that, I found the third act almost ironically humorous, even what’s supposed to be the big pinnacular confrontation scene at the end. What’s clearly meant to be taken seriously simply can’t compete with the loud, obnoxious style that seems intent to hijack Malignant at nearly every turn, right up to the very end.
Malignant isn’t completely devoid of redeeming qualities. It’s a potentially great idea with glimmers of assured direction and a few successfully unsettling moments. But those glimmers are fighting against misguided choices that just don’t fit and ultimately drag everything down. As a result, we have a film that seemingly has no idea what it wants to be, and somehow comes across as both trying too hard and not hard enough. Maybe this is exactly how James Wan envisioned his film from the start, maybe he got nervous that he had to go bigger to appeal to his audience, or maybe something else went wrong. Obviously, I can’t know. But at least the film he made is bad in a way that makes me curious about these things, as opposed to leaving me feeling indifferent. I was never bored with Malignant. I’m merely baffled as to why some of what we got wasn’t excised from the final product.
Malignant was released in US theaters and on HBO Max on September 10, 2021.
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