From the bonkers opening scene, James Wan establishes his return to horror will easily become his most polarizing yet. Channeling the spectacle of late ’90s Dark Castle, the opening sequence sets up an outlandish plot that feels lifted from the ’90s both in tone and bloodletting, signaling a wild ride ahead where you’re on its outrageous wavelength, or you’re not. It’s the precise type of horror that hits harder with horror fans but might confuse mainstream audiences not in the know.
It’s the early ’90s, and a sprawling Gothic castle-like hospital nestled in rural isolation houses a medical anomaly. Malignant opens to a bloodbath. A doctor, accompanied by security, checks on their deformed but dangerous patient, Gabriel, only to find he’s already slaughtered much of the staff. Cut to the present, where we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a timid woman trying to soothe her abusive husband while pregnant. A nasty altercation leaves Madison in the hospital, forging a mysterious psychic connection with Gabriel, who’s just begun a new trail of slaughter.
Wan conceived the concept with Ingrid Bisu, who plays the charmingly comedic role of a forensic officer here, ensuring that the bonkers tone and humor are every bit intentional. Malignant embraces every bit of zaniness found in the late ’80s and early ’90s thrillers, including the more out-there efforts of David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, and Dario Argento. That ’90s excess that lined the horror shelves of video stores is baked into Malignant’s DNA, and it permeates Wan’s playfully stylistic and story choices- right down to the Bryan Ferry tune in the soundtrack.
The level of camp, including the cheeky love triangle forming on the sly between Bisu’s character, Madison’s sister (Maddie Hasson), and Detective Shaw (George Young), catches you off guard. It’s in such an infectious way it’s hard not to grin through every bit of madness that Wan tosses our way. And it does get insane.
Wallis has the unenviable task of playing it straight in such an outrageous world. Madison’s trauma sparked an unwanted chain of events, linking her to a killer, but her childhood offered no lightness either. She’s a melancholic, fragile character forced to find inner strength as her life spirals. Comparatively, Hasson’s character isn’t bound by trauma and brings a boisterous spirit to counterbalance Madison. It’s solely through Hasson’s lighter, more passionate scene-stealing performance that the sisterly bond offers emotional depth and engenders audiences to the pair.
Malignant is more about the journey rather than the destination. Wan doesn’t inject any surprising twists or turns in terms of narrative, but more in how far he pushes the envelope and how much fun he’s clearly having doing it. That you connect the dots long before the protagonists do means that the pacing sags in the second act, but Wan swoops in with a Grand Guignol-style third act that gleefully goes for broke. Wan takes big swings, and the humor and bloodletting come in equal measure.
Wan’s return to horror won’t be what most expect from the filmmaker. He’s bucked the genre trends entirely, redirecting back to an age where serial killer thrillers and Giallo stretched the furthest boundaries of plausibility. Where killers and protagonists could be linked psychically, and the detectives tasked with solving the slayings were in on the joke. Those unfamiliar with the tropes of this era may have a more difficult time connecting with what Wan is attempting.
Creativity is on full display, with no shortage of inventive set pieces. Malignant won’t unnerve or scare, but then again, it’s not meant to. Wan’s return to horror is a means of satisfying an itch to tackle his brand of a Giallo, to act like a bloody valentine to the formative horrors of his youth. It’s silly, it’s outrageous, and it’s a blast- an imperfect but wildly entertaining throwback to a bygone era of horror.
Malignant releases in theaters and HBO Max on September 10, 2021.