Since bursting onto the scene with his genre-defining horror classic 'Saw' (2004), Malaysian-Australian filmmaker James Wan has become one of the most exciting horror directors working within the studio system. The horror film has long been a staple of the major studio summer release schedule, but one of the downsides of films like 'Saw' or the equally superb 'Paranormal Activity' (2007) is the conceit that an adequate horror film can be made quickly and cheaply for a significant financial return, ignoring the fact that these quickly-made, low budget horror hits had years of story and script development first. As a result, for every genuinely great studio horror film, there will be ten films bordering on unwatchable - poorly made, poorly written and thoroughly unentertaining. One thing you can guarantee is that many of those truly great studio horror films released since 2004 were probably directed by James Wan, and thankfully his latest entry into the most maniacal of genres, 'Malignant', doesn't break that track record.
Madison (Annabelle Wallis, 'Annabelle') is trapped in an abusive marriage, desperate to protect her unborn child after two successive miscarriages. After a violent outburst from her husband Derek (Jake Abel, 'Love and Mercy'), they are attacked in a home invasion and Derek is brutally murdered. Madison loses the baby and tries to begin a new life for herself, but each night she has visions of the entity that attacked her committing further horrific murders. With the bodies piling up and the police baffled by her visions, Madison must work with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and Officer Kekoa Shaw (George Young) to find out who this figure is and why he and Madison are so closely linked.
For much of his career, James Wan has engaged with many of the workhorse tropes of studio horror. His sublime career-defining classic 'The Conjuring' (2013) was a fairly typical ghost story that, in lesser hands, would have been pretty forgettable, but with that film and his films since, Wan has demonstrated some astute instincts - to enthusiastically embrace the tropes, to understand their function and to elevate them with exceptional craft. 'Malignant' benefits from these instincts. The narrative twists and turns become fairly evident about halfway through the film, but Wan makes it very clear early on that he's not trying to hide the big reveals. He doesn't want us to put the puzzle pieces together, he wants us to strap in and go along for the ride, and what he offers is one of the most satisfying and exhilarating horror carnival rides in years. The film drips with stylistic imagination and bombastic aesthetics, but they aren't executed as flourishes of fancy. Wan and his team have an endless number of tricks up their sleeves, each deployed to amplify the tension, the horror and the insanity of the premise, and its predictability is turned on its head with the flat-out bonkers manner in which it is realised. The shocks aren't in the twists, it's in how far the film is willing to push those twists.
Any great horror film builds from a foundation of great characters, and while the screenplay from Akela Cooper falters with some clunky dialogue, it excels in giving us clear narrative markers for who these characters are, Madison in particular. We quickly understand that she has persistent trauma, has been isolated from family and friends by her circumstances, and is desperate for a new start. This need for freedom underpins her search for this mysterious killer calling themselves Gabriel (a lovely bit of intertextual wit), and gives the film an accessible, potent emotional weight. A film like 'Malignant' needs to be expedient, it doesn't have the luxury of an Ari Aster or even a Mike Flanagan to build theme and character, and yet Wan is able to access the necessary emotional integrity of the film in a way that doesn't disrupt the speed of the rollercoaster.
One of the most satisfying and exhilarating horror carnival rides in years.
As the film moves from each imaginative and gloriously bloody set-piece to the next, you can feel it building in momentum. The first two acts move with a touch more care than you would expect, letting each piece fall carefully into place, but this attention to rhythm ensures that, when the film finally cuts itself loose, it does so with aplomb. The last act of 'Malignant' is glorious insanity, the point where the film elevates itself above most studio horror films in terms of its uncompromising commitment to its nightmares. You sit on the edge of laughter and disgust while you watch, and this is just where the film wants you to be. Of course it's bonkers, of course it's absurd, but at no point does the film want you to think otherwise. It's there in Michael Burgess' giddying cinematography, in Desma Murphy's gothic production design, even in Joseph Bishara's 80s-infused synth score. At their best, what the studio horror film offers is a rollercoaster into hell, one that will zip you in and zip you out before you have a chance to think about it, and if what you see isn't bat-shit insane, then what was the point of taking the rollercoaster in the first place? James Wan knows that we need to see some shit, and that's precisely what he offers in spades.
I've tried to avoid giving any spoilers away; even though they may be a tad easy to pick as you go along, that doesn't make them any less satisfying. And this is due to the careful handling of all aspects of this film, that regardless of its silliness, everything still needs to be earned. You can't just throw a bucket of offal in the audiences' face for no good reason, and through clear characterisation, emotional integrity and imaginative execution, 'Malignant' leaves you begging to be dunked in its blood. Sometimes we go to a horror film to meditate on mortality and the emptiness of existence, to face our darkest fears and bottomless psychological nightmares. And then sometimes we want some good scares, some good laughs and some good old-fashioned yelling at the screen. 'Malignant' is further proof that James Wan is one of the few genuine visionaries delivering horror films within the Hollywood studio system, able to combine all the tropes we expect with bombastic, daring and enthusiastic imagination. You'll jump, you'll scream, you'll look away, you'll giggle, you'll gasp and you'll leap out of your seat with joy, and emerge back out into the sun still tingling from the adrenaline rush. That's what you want from a great horror film, and 'Malignant' is certainly a great horror film.