Hitting theaters and HBO Max on September 10th, digital streaming on October 22nd, before a Blu-ray/DVD release on November 30, 2021, Malignant is the latest Horror film by genre heavyweight James Wan (Saw & Conjuring series). It marks his return to both the Horror realm and the director’s chair for the first time since 2018’s massive success Aquaman. Wan has stated that Malignant will be much different than his previous films, and feels the genre could use some shaking up. Does he succeed in that endeavor with Malignant? That may depend on how much of a Horror fan you consider yourself.
The story is soft on character development and heavy on atmosphere and emotional manipulation, which as usual is a benefit and hindrance to the film. Nearly 30 years ago, there was a young man named Gabriel (voiced by Ray Chase, physically performed by Marina Mazepa), who was a psychiatric patient with psychic powers that manifested in various ways. Gabriel is also violent by nature, and eventually kills many of the guards and scientists around him.
In the present time, the protagonist Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallace: The Tudors series, The Mummy 2017) is a pregnant woman in an abusive relationship. After suffering another horrible episode at the hands of her fiancé Derek (Jake Abel: I Am Number Four 2011, The Host 2013), she passes out in her bedroom, she wakes to find Derek has been brutally murdered, and the unseen killer then attacks Madison.
This is the basic setup for Malignant that is part Psychological Slasher and part Murder Mystery, at least for much of the film. The problem it has is that the characters and dialogue don’t feel solid enough to hold onto throughout the film. For example, the aforementioned intro scene to Madison and Derek. The fact that she is an abused pregnant woman who has suffered presumably forced miscarriages before is a heavy emotional burden for someone to bear, however, it is glossed over and moved on from far too quickly. It is effective at garnering sympathy for Madison of course, but that doesn’t have as much impact when the story treats it the way it does.
It would also be remiss not to mention the worst plot twist in recent Horror film memory; one that isn’t a twist at all because there is always a kind of wink-and-nudge aspect to it. The mystery part of it is treated with an odd balance of seriousness by the police, but the audience always knows where it’s going. This is because Malignant is constantly either paying homage to or making fun of genre tropes. Wan said he wanted to make this film more fun than other recent Horror films, and it does succeed in that aspect in its own way, but a deconstruction of recent Horror this is not. The climax of the film certainly is fun, but is tonally weird and over-produced, which oddly fits in with the rest of the camp.
All that said, there is still a lot of good in Malignant. Horror fans always enjoy violence and there is a hefty amount in this film, and it wisely saves the best for the end. Additionally, the stunt work and contortion abilities of the actors in the action/killer scenes is excellent. There are also a number of genre nods throughout, such as the repeated close-ups of the black gloves of the murderer holding a weapon; a trademark of Dario Argento. Serious Horror fans will find several of these that more casual fans might miss upon first viewing.
Overall, Malignant is a mixed bag that leans toward more fun and amusing than it does a serious Horror film. The emotional tone of the characters is there, but too much of it is stated instead of shown, and we never get a chance to really know or like anyone. However, the action and gore are good, and as a total package should satisfy even a jaded Horror fan if only for a fun afternoon rental. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Malignant 3 out of 5 stars.