Will this modern take on a B-movie be a blinder or bin-worthy?
I was surprised as anyone when James Wan, famed creator of the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring franchises signed on to direct Furious 7, and even more so when he went on to direct the first good DCEU film, Aquaman. Surprise turned to disbelief when both of those films turned out to be pretty darn entertaining, with a highlight being Wan’s direction. Despite his low-budget horror roots, he seemed to be a natural at shooting inventive, visually appealing action sequences.
Wan’s first film in five years back to directing horror is this year’s Malignant, and I can’t help but think he’s lost a step. It follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman in an abusive relationship who begins having visions of a supernatural killer hunting down former staff members of a private medical facility.
This movie was awful, and I attribute a lot of my negative feelings towards the film to its poor fusion of action and horror elements. For instance, the horror monster (who up until this point has been sneaking around and clinging to ceilings) engages in a well-lit extended fistfight with a room full of cops. Once you see something like that, it’s hard to be afraid – and this is ostensibly a horror film.
It’s not like that kind of combination is impossible to do, but there’s an opportunity cost to mixing up your genres. Aliens armed Ripley to the teeth and had her mow down dozens of xenomorphs, killing the impotent terror of the original. In exchange, it empowered her to become the most awesome action heroine of all time. When I see Ripley face off against the Queen, I’m rooting and cheering for my gal. In Malignant, you see the villain doing the same moves Aquaman and The Rock pull off, and the heroine is not in the scene (functionally speaking anyway). It’s messy, confused, and fails to either terrify or delight.
The movie’s chock-full of cookie cutter characters, from the Stephen King-esque abusive husband (though I’m always happy to see Jake Abel), to the bland, doubting detectives on the case. Most of the cast are either phoning it in or seem like they don’t know how to react to what’s happening beyond blank stares. Unfortunately, the only things to stand out were some truly bad line reads and reaction faces by Maddie Hasson.
If you’ve heard anyone talk about the film already, you’ll likely know that there’s a completely insane twist, and yes, it was pretty fantastic. I can’t deny credit where it’s due, even in a film I hated; it certainly woke me up and kept my interest for the rest of the film. It’s that perfect middle ground between stupid and amazing, making Shyamalan’s twists look restrained by comparison.
It comes too late though, since the first hour is somehow rushed and boring at the same time, in a way that makes me think that they came up with the twist and built the rest of the movie from there. I’ve even gone back and rewatched the film and knowing the twist doesn’t retroactively make the prior parts of the film any better. In fact, it makes them more ridiculous, since much of the first half is horror-by-numbers: doors opening mysteriously, figures running through corridors then disappearing – these things are stupid enough when ghosts are the answer, but this villain is a tangible person with very clear motivations.
Speaking of the villain, they move around in a very particular way that’s unfortunately obscured by some terrible CGI. Talking about it in detail would risk spoiling some things, but I love the concept of a horror villain with that particular kind of mobility, yet I was far too distracted by the janky effects. I saw a stunt actor credited but I couldn’t really parse their work through the effects, not in the same way that I can appreciate someone like Doug Jones’ work.
Despite that, I will say that Wan still has a great eye for movement, whether that’s the movement of the camera, the characters, or both. Momentum is never lost between shots, and normally matches the intensity of the scene. But there’s never a sense of place around all that movement in the film. No two shots are the same, and no scene lasts long enough in one place for you to get a sense of the space he’s intending to scare you in. It all has a lot more in common with a Michael Bay production than what I see from the best horror directors.
The soundtrack stood out to me as particularly awful, being absent for most scenes then coming in way too strong out of nowhere, and peppered with ten seconds of pop music here and there. The highlight of bad was a remix of the main riff in The Pixies’ Where Is My Mind? that grows in intensity throughout the film. Not only does it feel more at home in a trailer than in a finished film score, but it’s incredibly distracting. There’s the first stab of recognition that nags at you, then the confirmation when you hear it again, and if you’re anything like me, you wonder if it’s an homage to Fight Club, and start to guess the twist from there. I suspect Wan saw how Jordan Peele and Michael Abels transformed I Got 5 On It in Us and wanted to try his hand. It’s not as good.
My biggest issue with Malignant, however, was its offhand use of plot points including miscarriage, rape, domestic abuse, and unwanted pregnancy. Despite being some of the most soul-destroying traumas a human being can experience, the film brings them up casually and tosses them aside just as easily to move the story forwards. It’s not the topics themselves that I found off-putting, but Wan’s treatment of them.
Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, Madison has been violently injured by her husband, finds his mutilated body, and suffers a miscarriage (her third at the least). The movie acknowledges her grief by having her refuse to speak in the next scene… and then cuts to two weeks later. She’s quiet, clearly grieving, but speaking again, and she quickly returns to normality from there.
The whole rest of the movie, I couldn’t help but think that those two weeks – where Madison manages to recover from her many losses with the help of her sister – were the real story. Wan either wasn’t interested in that story, or this was the best way he could tell it. Much like with the genre mashup, this can and has been done better. Ari Aster and Jennifer Kent did a masterful job of examining the horror and grief of loss in Hereditary and The Babadook respectively, and they did it by not compromising or distracting from the suffering inherent to those stories.
I’m not saying the movie had to be a deep dive into the psychological toll of trauma, rather that they shouldn’t have brought it into the picture at all without giving it due consideration. I find it incredibly juvenile to so blatantly use such serious topics as the stepping stool towards something more akin to a spooky campfire story.
Perhaps I’m the only one who found it so tasteless. Even so, that still leaves the illogical plot, awkward CGI, terrible acting, and jarring mishmash of horror and action tropes to contend with. If there’s one certain thing to take away from the film, it’s affirmation of the wise words of Ron Swanson: “Never half-ass two things; whole-ass one thing.”