Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Akela Cooper Based on an original story by Ingrid Bisu and James Wan
Starring Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hanson, George Young, Michole Briana White
I am a fan of director James Wan. His work on the first “Saw” film was inventive and fun. With “The Conjuring 1&2” and the first two “Insidious” films, the director showed a respect for the stylings of 70’s Horror cinema and proved he could craft something moody and creepy without resorting to overblown special effects. His foray into the superhero film with “Aquaman” took the normally drab and dull modern DC comic film and made it colorful and quite fun. He crafted a good little film that was full on “Death Wish” style (based on author Brian Garfield’s sequel novel to that classic) with 2007’s “Death Sentence”, a harsh and violent tale of revenge. The filmmaker even did his time in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, directing one of its biggest successes, “Fast 7”.
Wan now returns to the Horror genre with his latest creep-fest, “Malignant”. Crafted in the style of Italian Horror mixed with dashes of Giallo, Wan’s latest is a film of ups and downs but is (for better or worse) one hell of an experience.
A truly batshit bombastic prologue set in 1993 finds a team of doctors fighting a “patient” called Gabriel, who seems to be some wild half human creature who speaks through electronics and moves like a wild animal. After he viciously attacks some of the staff, Gabriel is restrained. The main doctor (Jacqueline McKenzie) says “It’s time to cut out the cancer” while Gabriel speaks through a speaker system, vowing to kill them all.
Cut to a full-on credit sequence of gruesome imagery and pulsating music from Joseph Bishara. The mood is set as Wan’s film roars in like a demonic lion.
In present day Seattle we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a woman who is pregnant for the fourth time. As we learn, her previous pregnancies have ended in miscarriages, and we find her in an abusive relationship (both mentally and physically) where her husband blames her for killing his babies.
Almost immediately, a dark presence enters their home on a foggy night and the husband is violently murdered. Madison survives the night and fends off this entity but is now plagued by visions where she experiences the murderer’s killings.
Of course, the killer is Gabriel. This is no spoiler, but what is Madison’s connection to him? Why is she the only one who has a psychic link with him and why was she chosen? Is Gabriel a spirit or is he real? The mystery is a fun one to solve.
As the film rather quickly unfolds, its success is based on the audience’s tolerance for the strange and outlandish. Things get nuts and grow more bonkers as the film goes on.
The detectives on the case of the husband’s murder (George Young and Michole Briana White) come to believe there was no intruder and peg Madison as their prime suspect. After being told of the ghoulish presence and her visions of the killings, Madison’s younger sister (Maddie Hasson) tries to help prove her innocence and, strangely, seems to take it all very well.
Akela Cooper’s screenplay (based on an original story from Ingrid Bisu and James Wan) has a wild tone that works for Wan’s vision. While the script has flaws (after his murder the husband is never mentioned again, the character of the younger sister is goofy, and the dialogue is a too silly at times) it doesn’t allow for a wasted moment. From the first second, Cooper throws so many things into her screenplay with an “anything goes” wild abandon. Even though it doesn’t always work, there is something refreshing amongst the madness of it all.
Where the film and screenplay falter are in the performances and some of the dialogue. Annabelle Wallis does fine as Madison but everyone else is a bit off. Some try too hard while others seem to not register at all with Young barely registering as the detective while Hasson is too gleefully goofy in her role as Madison’s sister. A half-assed flirtation between the two would have better served if left on the cutting room floor.
The film’s look and feel are commendable. Forgiving an overuse of CGI in some important moments, Michael Burgess’s cinematography is pure macabre throwback. The sharp reds and blues blanket many scenes while the extreme low lighting enhances the darkness, keeping the visual tone balanced throughout. Bishara’s pulsating electric score completes the package.
Wan and his costume designer Lisa Norcia give their villain Gabriel a sinister design. With his long ratty hair, leather trench coat and gloves, and ultra-sharp, over-exaggerated, murder weapon, his presence calls back to the killers from films such as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, “Profondo Rosso”, and “Blood and Black Lace”.
Be warned! Those who do not have a knowledge nor an admiration for Italian Horror may find themselves confused and lost in the bizarre world of this film.
While not overtly so, James Wan is something of a showman in the modern horror world. His films have an edge and a style that plays with audiences. His frights do not find their way deep into our psyche. They are meant to induce chills and take the genre fans on a fun rollercoaster ride of terror.
I find there to be a pure fun in Wan’s filmmaking. With “Malignant”, the director really pulls out his bag of tricks and is relentless in his quest to create a thrilling show. It does not always work but when it does, it is something to see.
There are many effectively entertaining moments within this wild (Wild!) film. A scene where a cop chases Gabriel down a building and through walls is a sight. The moment where Madison is put in a holding cell populated with a bunch of women straight out of 70s Grindhouse central casting (look out for a fun cameo from the great Zoe Bell!) becomes an insanely bloody slaughterhouse. And when Gabriel full-on attacks inside the police station squad room, the scene becomes a kooky “Matrix”-tinged test to see just how much absurdity the film’s audience can take.
With each insane moment, we can feel Wan sitting back and smiling, knowing that he just might lose a third of his audience with the extreme craziness, and not caring one bit. Just when the film becomes too ludicrous, Wan makes sure his cast plays it all very straight and tries to keep a fine balance. While he doesn’t always achieve the desired stability, the filmmaker assures that we cannot stop watching.
“Malignant” is a Horror film crammed with many sub genres wrapped up in one big homage. This is William Castle by way of Dario Argento and Mario Bava.
Wan’s latest may divide audiences and doesn’t always hit is mark, but the film is fun and will certainly be a good time for open-minded Horror aficionados.
Be prepared, this is set up to be the beginning of a possible new Horror franchise. Will it come to fruition? Will Gabriel be a new Horror icon? The Horror community shall decide.
R, 111 Minutes, Atomic Monster, Boom! Studios, New Line Cinema