From the days of the Universal Classic Monsters inspired by Gothic literature (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, etc.) to 80s slashers (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street) and other supernatural oriented films such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, horror has long been a popular genre amongst audiences. Joining superhero blockbusters and action franchises, the horror genre has become mainstream and is represented by filmmakers as Andy Muschietti (director of It, which still holds the title of highest-grossing horror film of all time), Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Flanagan, Jordan Peele, Robert Eggers and James Wan (dubbed by many as the modern master of horror and creator of the Saw franchise and the excellent The Conjuring films).
Between producing The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and working on the sequel to Aquaman (2018), Wan is back with Malignant, a project he described in an Instagram post as “my ‘little horror thriller’ I do between the big ones”. The film follows Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis), then pregnant and stuck in her marriage with a violent husband Derek as she begins to develop strange visions of murders perpetrated by a hideously deformed shadow. Her connection to the mysterious killer runs deeper than what meets the eye and poor Madison soon finds herself caught in a spiral of madness with a past she doesn’t remember resurfacing and the Seattle police on her tail. Despite working in a genre he usually excels at, the director’s newest creation is a miss, more concerned with just how much frightful medical bizarreries and plot twists it can impose on the viewer than a believable storyline and tridimensional characters.
Part thriller (or slasher, to be exact) and part supernatural, Malignant is at its best early on when the killer’s nature is unknown. The primary fault of the film, beyond character and plot weaknesses, is its muddy generic make-up. It never fully taps in either genre, lacking direction and commitment. Using the thriller aspect as a conductive material for the suspense with little moments of ambiguity and visual horror would have been more effective and satisfying. Instead, the film is an uncertain hybrid whose surface-level exposition fails to answer all the questions (for instance, Gabriel’s electric capabilities are mentioned but never explained) and develop certain points to a satisfying degree. One could argue that Gabriel and Madison’s (or should we say Emily ?) story would have been better served by a more believable approach to it. A grotesquely deformed, revengeful, but separate Gabriel who comes back to torment his long-lost twin sister and everyone involved in his abandonment would not only have been more plausible but also given more room to the themes and emotional connection the film is desperate to explore.
The themes of found and adoptive family, biological connection, trauma, and abuse rarely materialize in something meaning, both from a plot standpoint and in terms of character arc. Malignant here lacks what makes The Conjuring films so engaging: round characters. Granted, Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people and true stories make a solid starting point but Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s on-screen Warrens are layered enough for the audience to care and fear for them (and yes, the good acting helps too). One of the (many) stereotypes that can be found in horror films is passive characters, characters who simply let things happen (and sometimes make stupid decisions, let’s be honest) because the plot requires it to go from point A to B. Unfortunately, the film’s lead is one of those. After her first incident at the beginning of the film, Madison barricaded the house and seemingly prepares herself to face whatever force is haunting her, but that moment only comes during the mind-boggling and silly finale. Worse, she never actively seeks to know who she is although she does know she is adopted. Instead, it is her sister Sydney, a secondary character who takes those steps.
Madison is dragged throughout the film from murder to murder, jumpscare to jumpscare. And that, for the main character, is problematic. Even the cartoonish police officers make more progress in less time than she does. Despite the tragic angles given to her backstory and life, it is difficult to root for her as the protagonist. Although if we stretch the reasoning, it can be attributed to Gabriel’s partial control of her body and mind, Madison has no agency. Save for a few quick flashbacks, her backstory is mostly implied and the audience isn’t given a door to what in literature we would call internal focalization. The audience is barely a witness, there is a clear distance between the characters on the screen and them. The supporting cast on the other hand brings some welcome levity to the story with some comedic moments but the ensemble is shaky.
The redeeming quality of the film is its visuals. Gloomy and dusty with some contrasting touches of red and blue, the cinematography is agreeable, and although no stranger to old houses as a setting, Wan still finds new ways to shoot narrow corridors, old creaking doors, unlit kitchens, and dark streets through various rolls, tilts and pans which brings some dynamism and allows the audience to at least follow the characters well in a visual sense. Two shorts moments are especially worth mentioning: the camera quickly panning around as Derek turns his head and the overhead tracking shot showing Madison running through the rooms of the house, as she was stuck in a dollhouse (this is later referenced too in a flashback from her childhood where we see a dollhouse in her room next to the desk). Malignant also gives viewers a satisfying load of body horror and gruesome killings (that prison sequence !).
When the film reaches its climax and Gabriel’s parasitic nature is revealed, visual chaos ensues the film loses all reasonableness, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, which brings us back to the realism issue mentioned a few paragraphs above. Films like Dracula, The Conjuring, The Shining, or The Witch – to name a few – are believable because the supernatural or horror element, although partly rooted in reality through religion, folklore, history is inherently fantastic and always the product of man’s imagination and deepest fears and beliefs. And for those adaptations and films to work, the logic must never be pushed too far beyond. The science behind Malignant, while anchored in an existing (and extremely rare) phenomenon or condition, veers so far in the film it becomes ridiculous. This sheer ridiculousness coupled with the meticulous technical execution that is part of James Wan’s signature makes it a fun ride and original experience but the film as a whole is an unfortunate miss.