Unfortunately, any hope of director James Wan abandoning his penchant for jump scares is abandoned in the very first scene of Malignant, which serves as a return to the genre for Wan (who hasn’t directed horror since 2016’s The Conjuring 2). However, Wan has proven himself to be a reliable measure for success — whether that holds up during a global pandemic is to be determined — and while I’m not thrilled about mainstream modern horror being mainly jump scare-focused, Malignant is effective in what it strives to do.
After a Saw-style intro sequence with very similar music, we meet Madison (familiar horror actor Annabelle Wallis), a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband (Jake Abel). Without spending too much time on character, Malignant delves into horror very quickly — household objects begin moving, lights turn on and off, and weapons are fashioned from strangely-shaped decorations. Madison begins to see visions of some incredibly grisly murders, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to deducing that she’s somehow connected to the victims.
The perpetrator of these murders (and the latest addition to the Wan-verse of monsters) is Gabriel, who feels like any other mysterious horror creature, down to the bone-cracking sound effects accompanying his movements. He’s voiced by Ray Chase, who gives an excellent voice performance that harkens back to Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw. Just like the other inevitable plot holes, we’ll ignore the logistics of how his speech actually works — especially in the last twenty minutes, the movie goes full ham, which I can appreciate and respect from James Wan. It’s there that he fully leans into the absurdity of his ideas, and the character of Gabriel makes much more sense within the context of the rest of the story.
On top of all of this, Malignant follows Saw in being somewhat of a police procedural. George Young and Michole Briana White play Detectives Shaw and Moss, respectively, and act as the conduits of exposition as we discover more and more about Madison’s past. They’re nice additions to the story, if only for one singular purpose — there’s also a shoehorned romance plot involving two officers that has no effect on the story whatsoever.
I’ve compared Malignant with Saw multiple times in this review, but in addition living in a different sub-genre of horror, Malignant works better as a horror movie because it embraces the best that the genre has to offer. While it’s not the scariest film Wan has ever made, Malignant brings with it a genuinely creepy atmosphere, perfectly bizarre twists, and a feeling of paranoia that permeates every moment of its runtime. James Wan is a man who knows horror, and understands tension — and how to make an impact on an audience.
Being just over-the-top enough benefits Malignant, and it feels like a good niche for non-franchise horror to be in right now. Acting as an extended metaphor without too much nuance is nothing new for the genre, and I was legitimately surprised when Malignant turned into an action movie in a few of its scenes. It’s horror with a budget, headlined by a cinematically-minded director who knows his stuff (albeit with a bit too much of his signature moves). What more could a horror fan ask for? [Grade: A]