“Swing away, Merrill,” says a character in a nearly twenty-year-old movie that’s wholly unrelated to the film at hand, “swing away.” It’s a lesson that more people can stand to follow, and that includes filmmakers who fall into ruts or succumb to box-office pressures. Most directors who graduate from low budget genre fare to the blockbuster big leagues tend not to look back — at least not until they experience a box-office bomb or two — but James Wan has never been “most directors.” He kicked off not one but three highly successful horror franchises with Saw (2004), Insidious (2010), and The Conjuring (2013) before delivering a pair of billion-dollar-plus megahits with Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018). And now, simply because he wanted to, Wan has returned with a new slice of grisly terror and dark imagination called Malignant… and it is a mighty goddamn swing indeed.
Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is young, pregnant, and married to an abusive husband, but two of those things are taken from her one night when a shadowy figure invades their home. The police suspect her — despite the grotesquely twisted condition of her husband’s body — but as more people are brutally cut down it becomes clear this is no simple case of an abused woman acting in self-defense. Madison has visions of the killer’s slaughter and sets out to investigate, but the deeper she digs the more shocking the truths become.
A somewhat heightened opening sequence aside, Malignant initially builds itself around a handful of familiar genre ideas that will have savvy fans feeling one step ahead of Wan and writer Akela Cooper. They’ll want to hold onto something tight, though, as their confident predictions are in for quite a journey. Those familiar beats find footing only to be shaken loose by story turns and set-pieces blending the operatic sensibilities and absurd plots of 90s Dario Argento films with Wan’s own mastery of visuals and tone. This shit is bananas, and its third-act punch to the brain might just be the most audaciously bonkers reveal since 2009’s Orphan.
At a hundred and ten minutes, Malignant could probably stand to lose some of its midsection bloat to help speed up the pacing, but that would arguably mess with the madness of Wan’s creation. The downtime here is spent doling out small reveals that viewers will be proud to have guessed in advance, but Wan and Cooper are simply lulling audiences into thinking they know where it’s all heading. Visual teases of the killer, whether knee deep in carnage or hard at work in its lair (a nod of sorts to the demonic being in Insidious), suggest an unsettling visage and contorted body that’s as at home in the shadows as it is leaping from rooftops against Seattle’s skyline.
Wan’s jump-started the genre more than once, and with any luck his particular brand of devilish lightning will strike once more as this cinematic stew is a much-needed change of pace from the current trend of Conjuring knockoffs and A24 horrors. Malignant turns from a ghost story of sorts to a giallo to an all-out barrage of action/horror, and even as individual elements lean towards the ridiculous and silly the energy and artistry on display are impossible to ignore. A chase scene, an insanely high body count, freaking parkour?! Did I already say this shit is bananas?
While the horror genre is as ubiquitous as ever, Wan remains one of its top practitioners in part for his understanding and appreciation for visuals. He and cinematographer Michael Burgess ensure the camera feels fluid yet focused and unafraid of wide shots capturing still scenes that feel mere moments away from exploding into nightmare. The camera points at nothing, or maybe it might actually be something? Visions and reality merge as one melts into the next. Tension dials up slowly as our eyes cautiously search the darkness, and Joseph Bishara‘s score — an absolute banger you’ll immediately be wanting on vinyl — plays beautiful havoc with our pulse.
Wallis does good, emotional work as a woman caught up in something well beyond the scope of expectation, and she’s supported by Maddie Hasson as the sister who stands and fights by her side. Less effective are George Young and Michole Briana White as the detectives on the case, but it’s due far more to their characters than to their performances. The pair are used to inject humor, but in addition to almost none of it landing, it’s also unnecessary — because say it with me, this shit is already bananas. Odds are good you’ll be laughing at times at the story itself, and that’s even if you’re fully along for the ride. That’s the intended effect as Wan and company know they’re painting well beyond the lines and are having an absolute blast in the process.
Malignant is not the kind of horror film we’re used to seeing these days, but it’s the change of pace we deserve. For Wan it’s a return to the unforgettably off-kilter terrors of Insidious and Dead Silence (2007), horror that feels anything but traditional, and for genre fans? It’s a reminder that horror can also be immensely and ridiculously entertaining. Its pieces may not always fit together, it might tip too heavily into the nonsensical at times, and the entire thing crumbles if you can’t get behind a certain revelation, but it’s so wildly ambitious, nutty, and gory that you’d be a fool not to at least respect the swing.