‘Malignant’ Review: Anything Goes in James Wan’s Delightfully Demented Slasher

The director's return to horror is a triumph of craft, bad taste, and go-for-broke lunacy.

Via Warner Bros.

Marking his return to horror after a detour into family-friendly blockbuster filmmaking with “Aquaman,” James Wan’s “Malignant” certainly proves that the director-producer still knows how to get down and dirty in the genre where he made his name. Although in a way he’s still operating in studio franchise mode, as “Malignant” might well be thought of as the most demented “Frozen” remake imaginable.

Like “Frozen,” “Malignant” centers on two sisters, one of them bubbly and optimistic, the other haunted and possibly possessed with supernatural powers. The similarities don’t necessarily end there, either – although the sisters’ hair color has been switched –  but to reveal too much more would be to ruin the film’s most essential quality: its willingness to steadily and purposefully descend to the lowest levels of delirious lunacy, and then keep going further still. Working from a script by Akela Cooper, Wan tosses elements of everything from classic ’70s gialli to ’80s soap operas, late-’90s action blockbusters, buddy cop comedies and psychological thrillers into a big, messy pressure cooker, and ends up with a film that’s like nothing else on his résumé. It’s hard to say whether a film this bonkers “works” or not, but it’s impossible not to admire both the craft and the extravagant bad taste behind its go-for-broke energy.

After a prologue set in a nightmarish medical facility, the film introduces us to Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a buttoned-down Seattle woman still working a tiring day job well into her pregnancy. She’s had several miscarriages already, for which her abusive alcoholic husband (Jake Abel) clearly blames her, and one night he brutally slams her head into a wall after an argument. Later, Madison awakes from a violent dream to find her husband’s mangled body in the kitchen, and is then attacked by a shadowy marionette-like figure, which knocks her unconscious.

When she wakes up in the hospital, Madison has lost her pregnancy, and has also been reunited with her estranged younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), a struggling actress who resolves to take care of her from here on out. Madison heads home and attempts to return to normal life, only to begin experiencing waking nightmares in which she is paralyzed as she watches the same spindly killer who previously attacked her gruesomely dispatch a whole swath of mysterious strangers. These murders, however, are not just occurring in her imagination, and she soon finds herself crossing paths with a sensitive, square-jawed homicide detective (George Young) and his “you gotta be kidding me with this shit” partner (Michole Briana White).

You can probably guess the broad strokes of where this is heading, but probably not the specifics, and Cooper’s script makes sure to throw in at least one dramatic revelation every 15 minutes or so, each more stupefying than the last. It is hard to imagine that anyone involved in making this film took it entirely seriously, but hardly ever do the masks slip, and as broad as some of the performances get, they never lapse into tongue-in-cheek knowingness. (In keeping with the film’s anything-goes philosophy, Joseph Bishara’s score nods to sources as varied as Bernard Herrmann and the Pixies, while production designer Desma Murphy gives us everything from foggy basements and creepy suburban houses to the underground ruins of Old Seattle.)

What makes it all work as well as it does is Wan’s command of the form – watching him construct a jump-scare-laden stabbing scene at this point in his career is like listening to an accomplished concert pianist toss off yet another run through “Für Elise” – and his willingness to simply go for it, especially as the film careens through its ludicrously gory final act. As a producer, Wan has been as responsible as anyone for the glut of identikit horror time-fillers over the past decade, but “Malignant” feels like a great shaking off of the cobwebs, an embrace of all of the genre’s most disreputable conventions. You’ll laugh in inappropriate places, you’ll say “WTAF?” outloud, you’ll wonder if you’re being pranked – just let it go, and you’ll be fine.

‘Malignant’ Review: Anything Goes in James Wan’s Delightfully Demented Slasher

Reviewed online, Sept. 10, 2021. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 111 MIN.

  • Production: A Warner Bros. Pictures release of a New Line Cinema presentation of an Atomic Monster production, in association with Starlight Media, My Entertainment. Producers: James Wan, Michael Clear. Executive producers: Eric McLeod, Judson Scott, Ingrid Bisu, Peter Luo, Cheng Yang, Mandy Yu, Lei Han.
  • Crew: Director: James Wan. Screenplay: Akela Cooper; story: James Wan, Ingrid Bisu. Camera: Michael Burgess. Editor: Kirk Morri. Music: Joseph Bishara.
  • With: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Mckenna Grace, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Ingrid Bisu, Zoe Bell