James Wan’s new film “Malignant” is so relentlessly nutty and outrageous that I am still scratching my head on how to evaluate whether it works. While I did get a fair share of laughs and thrills from this rather deranged but well-made piece of work, I also observed its loony plot development from the distance without much care, and I am still debating over whether it is “so-bad-so-good” intentionally or unintentionally.
After the gloriously overblown opening scene unfolded inside a big, imposing mental hospital on a steep seaside cliff, the movie moves forward to 28 years later, and we meet a young married woman named Madison “Maddie” Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), who lives with her husband in an old shabby house looking like your average haunted spot. Although Maddie is the one who has earned their living despite being pregnant for months, her husband, who seems to be unemployed at present, does not appreciate this at all, and we are not so surprised when he cruelly abuses Maddie later.
Not long after that, something terrible happens in their house. Her husband is suddenly killed by some mysterious figure, but the two detectives subsequently assigned to the case are baffled as there is no clue to identify the killer, and Maddie cannot help them that much because she happened to lose her consciousness shortly after the killer murdered her husband and then swooped down on her.
However, it does not take much time for Maddie to realize what is really going on around her. Her mind is somehow linked with the mind of the killer as the killer continues the killing spree, and that makes her to look back into her old forgotten past. Before she was adopted by her foster parents 28 years ago, she was in that mental hospital for some unknown reason, and the killer, who looks like a cross between that murderous ghost in Japanese film “Ring” (1998) and those insane killers in giallo flicks, seems to be very angry about several certain figures associated with the killer as well as Maddie.
I will not dare to go into details on who the killer is, but I can tell you instead that I was often amused by how the film goes all the way along with this mysterious figure. Besides looking spooky and menacing as demanded, the killer also has some supernatural ability of making electronic equipments go amok (I particularly like a nasty moment involved with a pacemaker), and this dude also seems to be quite invincible in physical aspects. At one point, one of the two aforementioned cop characters shoots many times toward the killer while chasing after the killer, but the killer does not look injured at all while demonstrating pretty incredible physical flexibility.
As the movie becomes more and more preposterous along the plot, Wan and his crew members including cinematographer Michael Burgess boldly push the movie into sheer excess. Besides that mental hospital, many locations in the film look deliberately artificial and stylish, and I was especially impressed by the vast and stark interior of a police station where our two cop characters work. The movie frequently unnerves us via various visual ways including tilted shots, and the resulting anxious mood is further amplified by the jumpy score by Joseph Bishara.
In case of character development, the movie is incoherent at best and nonsense at worst. Most of main characters in the film are more or less than plot elements to be manipulated in one way or another, and that is the main reason why we are not so scared of whatever will happen to and around our unfortunate heroine, who is quite hysterical around the point when she is cornered more and more by her homicidal opponent. In case of the other main characters besides them, they are not particularly developed well, and we do not care that much about whether they will be killed or not along the story.
However, I will not deny that I got sort of guilty pleasure as the movie struck me harder and harder with more blood and outrageousness. I enjoyed watching Maddie’s plucky younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) doing some detective work a la Nancy Drew, and the movie gives us some good chills as she eventually discovers a dark secret literally hidden behind her older sister, which somehow makes sense with the bizarre aspects of the killer. In case of a certain sequence during the last act, the movie throws lots of crazy and bloody moments of action onto the screen, and you will not be disappointed all if you are willing to go along with its over-the-top approach.
The main cast members in the film play their respective characters as straight as required, though their good efforts are hampered by weak characterization at times. While Annabelle Wallis dutifully holds the center, George Young and Michole Briana White are mostly stuck in their functional roles, and Maddie Hasson brings some life and personality to her seemingly thankless role.
On the whole, “Malignant” tries to be something wilder and crazier than Wan’s previous works including “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), and I appreciate that to some degree, but it is still not better than them in my inconsequential opinion. Considering that I gave both “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” 2.5 stars out of four, I give “Malignant” 2.5 stars, but it was not a waste of time for me at least, and I think you will probably be more generous than me if you enjoyed Wan’s works more than I did.
I actually really loved this movie. It’s a true love letter to all horror fans… almost as much as Cabin in The Woods was.
SC: It is destined to be a cult film, I guess.