September is always an odd month for horror films as it is not quite in the thick of Halloween season and still simmering with summer sunshine. Malignant, however, belongs here: it’s a shower of red-washed lighting and plenty of chills. The story focuses on Maddy (Annabelle Wallis), a woman in an abusive marriage who soon finds herself psychically-linked to a killer, seeing visions of his murders as if she is being mysteriously transported to the scenes of his crimes. Maddy’s story slowly unfolds, fitting together the puzzle pieces to make sense of her condition. Malignant is a difficult film to fully assess: it’s wild, serious, and silly with low-budget grit and high production value. It’s unevenly-paced, then turns around to be a roller-coaster at its end. The film is like a knife that keeps turning until one last fatal twist in the end.
Malignant struggles in its first two acts, never quite finding a satisfying pacing until its climax. The majority of the film is filled with interesting ideas and images, but it doesn’t quite feel like the movie narratively “starts” until we have sufficient information about what’s happening. Although Malignant is never slow, much of the film’s runtime doesn’t feel as captivating as the rest of Wan’s work.
When the third act hits, it hits with no holds barred, and may prove to be the most surprising and intense finale for a horror film this year. It’s unexpected, fun, bizarre, and it might, for many viewers, make up for the rough journey to get there. Malignant has much to offer during its weaker sections too, and its cinematography will satisfy fans of the “dollhouse” approach to filming domestic spaces, zooming out to show the construction of these places as if their inhabitants are mice in a very dangerous maze. Annabelle Wallis also turns in a good performance as Maddy, highlighting her confusion and terror as she finds herself teleporting at the whims of the villain’s bloodlust.
Malignant is undeniably a James Wan picture. It synthesises some of the most enjoyable aspects of his past horror films, including the gritty police investigative scenes of Saw, the staggering visual set-pieces of The Conjuring 2, and a twist to take your breath away like Dead Silence. Malignant has it all without ever feeling too derivative of Wan’s oeuvre. Considering the Saw franchise doesn’t see a true onslaught of gore until its sequels, Malignant does seem to be Wan’s bloodiest horror film yet. It’s a bone-cruncher that doesn’t shy away from showing the gruesome bodily devastation of its killer’s rage. It’s important to avoid giving Wan all the credit though, since much is due to his screenwriter Akela Cooper, a Black woman who formerly worked on Marvel’s Luke Cage series. Wan typically works with male screenwriters, so it’s great to see him working with a woman this time. From the very start, the script is particularly attentive to women’s oppression and fears, including around domestic violence and (for cisgender women) pregnancy loss.
With that said, I do take issue with some of the ways the film approaches gender, but talking with any specificity about it would require me to give away too many spoilers. I still feel I should mention it, lest I give a problematic film a total pass and whole-heartedly embrace it for its fun. Unlike some other horror films that wear their problematic themes on their sleeves, the film draws far less attention to these issues, for which I’m thankful, but I still feel that some misplaced fears lurk at the edges of the film’s heart. My positive review, then, has more to do with the technical and filmmaking aspects of it, which are impressive, even as the film is worthy of a critical essay to unpack some of its more troubling articulations.
Malignant may not be a perfect film, or even a particularly excellent one, but it is still a sight to behold. Shocking, stunning, and at times worthy of a loud “WHAT?”, Malignant is a worthwhile film for anyone who can at least tolerate (but preferably relish) the weird and wacky while looking for a thrill. It’s especially a must-see for any James Wan aficionados. To borrow metaphors from music, it’s a fast track that samples his work, but remains sonically distinct on its own. At times the rhythm might be off, but when it clicks into place in the third act, it’s a monstrous mash you can really jam to.
Malignant is out in cinemas now
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter