I’ll always be excited about a new James Wan horror film. He hasn’t disappointed me yet (and yes, that includes Dead Silence), and I would even argue that The Conjuring kicked off this golden age of horror that we’ve been in for almost a decade. He’s hands down one of the best genre directors working today, so when I finally got a chance to watch his new movie Malignant, I knew I was in for another top-notch spooky treat.
Starring Annabelle Wallis, George Young, Michole Briana White, and Maddie Hasson, this film is a supernatural slasher about a woman named Maddie who experiences nightmarish visions of brutal murders as they’re happening. She doesn’t know who’s committing these murders or why she’s seeing them, so she and her sister Sydney have to do their best to unravel the mystery.
Admittedly, that’s a very bare-bones plot description, so if it sounds a bit lame and generic, don’t worry. I’m purposely trying to be vague because I think it’s best to go into Malignant as blind as possible. You’re going to want to learn about this story as it unfolds before your eyes, not as some reviewer describes it to you, so I promise that there’s a lot more to it than what I’ve told you.
Malignant starts out with a pretty cheesy scene that looks like it was ripped straight out of a Stuart Gordon film, and in the hands of a lesser director, I’d say it was just bad filmmaking. But since Wan is one of the greats, I immediately knew it was supposed to be cheesy. It’s an obvious homage to low-budget 1980s horror, and I think fans of those movies are definitely going to enjoy it.
Then, when the film transitions into the main storyline, the tone completely changes. It begins to take itself a lot more seriously, and within the first 20 minutes or so, it hooks you in with a real emotional gut punch. I won’t spoil it for you, but trust me when I say that it will make you sympathize with Maddie and buy into her character very quickly.
And that’s important because she’s the heart of this movie. The entire plot revolves around her so if she doesn’t work, the film as a whole doesn’t work. But luckily those first 20 minutes and Annabelle Wallis’s performance ground the character in a way that’s both believable and sympathetic so you can’t help but enjoy watching her story unfold. In some ways, Malignant stands or falls with Maddie, and she’s absolutely up to the challenge.
But she’s not the only great thing about this movie. Malignant also has three other elements that make it another win in James Wan’s already impressive filmography. For starters, we have the horror. Unlike Wan’s earlier movies, this one doesn’t really have jump scares. It’s more about the atmosphere and the brutal kills—and they work perfectly.
For example, the film has a lot of creepy scenes in dark rooms that would feel very much at home in the Conjuring or Insidious franchises, but Wan manages to make them fit the slasher mold just as naturally. What’s more, the kills are pretty brutal, even if they’re not always gory. The movie doesn’t always show you all the bloody violence that some fans might crave, but the killer goes about his business with a cold-blooded savagery that I think even the hardest of hardcore slasher fans will appreciate.
Next, let’s talk about the mystery. While I really enjoyed the horror in Malignant, I think this is probably my favorite thing about the film. At first, you have no idea what’s really going on, but as the story slowly reveals its secrets, it hooks you in more and more. It makes you want to stick with it to find out just who this killer is and how he’s connected to Maddie, so you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to the screen as you wait for answers.
My only caveat here is that I think the explanation might be a bit divisive. In some ways, it picks up where the cheesy opening left off, so I can see some people rolling their eyes at it and thinking it’s lame. It’s not at all what I expected the answer to a James Wan slasher-mystery to be, so even though I liked it, I suspect that a certain segment of his fans might end up being a bit disappointed.
Last but not least, we have the finale. While I enjoyed just about every minute of Malignant, the last 15 or so were definitely the best. Wan really went for the jugular here, both literally and figuratively. Once you find out the truth behind the killer, he just goes crazy. He piles up a bigger body count than he did in the previous hour and a half, and you see a lot more blood and gore with these kills as well.
On top of that, Wan also uses this finale to give the film a nice message that I wasn’t expecting. It turns the movie into more than just your typical supernatural slice-and-dice, and I really appreciated that. I love it when filmmakers can use brutal horror to convey heartwarming messages, and Wan pulled it off perfectly here.
If you couldn’t already tell, I absolutely loved Malignant. It’s one of my top 10 favorite movies of the year so far, and while it might get knocked off that list sometime between now and December 31, I’m confident that it’ll at least be in my top 15 when all is said and done. This film just has so much going for it. It features a likable lead character, some really fun horror, a super intriguing mystery, and an insane finale, and when you put that all together, you get another win for the incomparable James Wan.