VOD film review: Malignant (2021)
James R | On 30, Oct 2021
Director: James Wan
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
“This is crazy, Sydney!” Those are the four words that signal the final act of James Wan’s Malignant has arrived, and when a character in a James Wan film openly admits things are crazy, that’s saying something. Written by Akela Cooper, Malignant is a horror that goes from 0 to Bonkers in 60 seconds – almost immediately, as an opening sequence in a hospital sees a treatment go wrong, a patient spiral out of control and a number of medical experts meet their demise at full Dutch tilt. It’s camp, loud and it knows it.
That things then suddenly quieten down is both Malignant’s biggest strength and weakness, as we’re introduced to Madison (Annabelle Wallis, channelling The Shining’s Wendy Torrance), a nurse who is in an abusive relationship and struggling with the grief of multiple miscarriages. In her darkest moments, she starts having visions of a spate of grisly killings around the Seattle area – and it soon becomes apparent that these murders are actually taking place in real life.
What ensues is a sinister investigation that takes the best part of an hour to unpick, and Wan and Cooper don’t always succeed at keeping the momentum up through the uneven 110-minute runtime. But when the answers do come, they come thick and fast, with the emphasis on both words – the gruesome, gory spectacle unfolds with a kind of manic glee that’s something to behold. The film takes a conscious decision to throw caution to the wind, open up its skull and let its imagination pour out, producing the kind of genre fare that feels like Sam Raimi in his early days.
The plot, such as it is, taps into all manner of familiar concepts, from doppelgängers and twins to that old chestnut of imaginary childhood friends. But the narrative’s themes are at their best when confronting head-on the bond that can exist between a child and their chimeric companion and how that can sometimes seem more substantial than their ties with biological family, or even an affectionate adoptive sister, such as Sydney (Maddie Hasson). Where some films might go down a bog-standard possession route, Malignant does something more interesting, instead dwelling on the point at which friendships can go from supportive or symbiotic to unequal or parasitic – something that Wallis and Hasson explore with surprising emotional impact, back up by George Young and Michole Briana White as the dogged detectives delving into past secrets.
Wan echoes that duality of how people can perceive relationships with a genuinely unsettling play on perspectives – the death scenes that Madison witnesses are a vivid, unsettling use of second-person storytelling, an inventive, dizzying bit of disorientation that reminds us Wan doesn’t want to play things safe, or for us to feel safe.
All that isn’t to say, though, that this is a cerebral piece of filmmaking: Malignant is operatically stupid in the best way possible. That becomes clearer the longer the film goes on, as it lurches from a gloomy, atmospheric mystery to a Gothic, gory, zany romp. Wan is no stranger to jump-scares, but once he starts jumping here he keeps on hopping, and his excitement is infectious, as he lets his villain throw a chair across a room with pinpoint accuracy or stand up on a table in a superhero-like pose. The graphic action sequences are so frenetic they might as well be playing out backwards, with stunts that leap from fire escapes to offices like a World’s Nastiest Parkour compilation video.
Remixing beats from Hooper, De Palma and Cronenberg, the result is a rollercoaster of ideas and absurdity that sits somewhere between Argento and Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races. In short, it shouldn’t work and, at such a long runtime, it almost doesn’t, with its knowingly old-fashioned approach to medical conditions and deliriously over-the-top dialogue. But Malignant finds new life with every unexpected transformation, confidently shifting tone with an unpredictable energy that’s really quite thrilling. Crazy? Yes. Entertaining? And then some.