Unlike a lot of movies, “Malignant” doesn’t take its time to slowly build up the story, characters, and tension before diving into the grisly details. Rather, it starts off at a sprint and doesn’t stop—if anything, it just runs faster and faster as it progresses. Director James Wan cut his teeth on the horror genre, serving as a creator on what have turned out to be some of the biggest and longest-running horror franchises in the last couple decades, including “Saw,” “Insidious,” and “The Conjuring.” Recent years have seen him as a director pivot to big budget studio action films, like “Furious 7” and “Aquaman” and its upcoming sequel. “Malignant,” however, is not based on existing IP, but on an original story by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper, who wrote the screenplay. Watching “Malignant,” it feels like all of Wan’s recent success gave him the money and the ability to do whatever he wanted, and it’s glorious. Because despite a pretty abysmal marketing campaign from Warner Brothers that made it seem like a movie that would be easy to ignore, “Malignant” is one of the most hilariously insane horror movies in recent memory.
“Malignant” opens in 1993 on a psychiatric hospital. Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her associates have been treating a patient called Gabriel, who seems to possess strong supernatural powers. One dark and stormy night, Gabriel snaps, killing several of the institution’s staff members before he is subdued. In a way, this opening sequence at least partially prepares us for what the rest of the film will be. Gabriel’s kills are violent in an over-the-top, incredibly gory fashion. But there’s also a touch of camp humor in the dialogue, editing, and performances. As the sequences concludes, Weaver stares straight into the camera, overdramatically proclaiming that “it’s time to cut out the cancer” before a smash cut brings us to the opening credits.
At the same time, you’re not actually as prepared for the rest of the movie as you may think you are, because never at any point does Wan make it easy for the audience to predict where this thing is going. That’s not to say that “Malignant” is utterly unpredictable, but any of its shortcomings are overwhelmed by the sheer wild energy by which this story is told. When the movie fast forwards to 28 years in the future, we meet our protagonist, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman whose multiple past miscarriages have contributed to her strained relationship with her husband, Derek (Jake Mitchell). After a traumatic event, Madison starts experiencing a strange phenomena: she sees visions of people being brutally murdered, as if she is transported to the same room as them. But these are more than just visions—these people really are being killed, in the way that Madison witnesses, by a cloaked figured that seems to possess superhuman abilities. On the case is Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and his partner Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), while Madison and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and mother Jeanne (Susanna Thompson) attempt to unravel the mysteries of her past and connect them to what is happening to her now.
Wan borrows from the Italian giallo genre for this movie, which combines detective thriller and horror elements. A decent chunk of the film follows the detectives trying to track down the killer, the high point of which is a long, zany chase sequences involving Shaw and the killer. “Malignant” isn’t really scary—it’s a bit too silly to take completely seriously, especially in the second half of the film—but Wan does a great job building suspense, especially in a few scenes early in the movie before we really know what’s going on. In these scenes, the camera follows a lone potential victim around their home, or, in the case of one woman, the tunnels of the Seattle Underground where she works as a tour guide. Wan takes his time letting these scenes play out, showing the characters walking around, performing mundane tasks. Sometimes, the camera seemingly takes the point of view of the killer—we see feet from the perspective of peering out from under a bed, or look down on someone from the ceiling. These more typical slasher movie sequences become fewer and farther between as the film progresses, but they are very effective, serving to establish a motive for the killer, and show the way Madison is suckered into being a passive witness to these violent acts. When the film switches to her perspective in these scenes, the lighting changes from natural light to a bright, ghoulish red, emphasizing the otherworldly connection that links the killer and Madison.
As Madison, Wallis is appropriately wide-eyed and fearful for most of the film, but she convincingly makes a transition later in the movie that sees her take back some control over herself. Much of the supporting cast are given some amusing quirks that contribute to the film’s light sense of humor. When we first meet Sydney at a hospital, she runs into the frame clad in a frilly costume gown; it turns out she works as a princess entertaining families. White is given some great one-liners playing her sense of humor against Young’s straight man; as the lead detective, Young maintains a steady presence throughout the film. Other characters don’t bear much weight on the story, but are fun to watch when they are on screen, like Bisu’s peppy and awkward forensics specialist, Winnie. When, at a crime scene, Shaw states that they need to find “their missing half”—referring to the murder weapon—Winnie quips, “Don’t we all.”
There are some unnerving scenes (creepy home movies from Madison’s childhood) and the mystery is genuinely intriguing, but “Malignant” really pops off in the last 30 minutes or so, where a bonkers twist launches it into full blown madcap camp hilarity. I don’t want to spoil it, and I don’t think it would matter if I did—it really needs to be seen to be believed—but here’s a taste of what you can expect: weird creatures. Action scenes that are exaggerated to the point of hilarity followed by brutal kills and buckets of blood. It’s all punctuated by horror veteran Joseph Bishara’s fantastic score, and Wan’s camerawork, which contains a lot of fast zooms that play up the B-movie schlock, while the way he moves the camera around some of the heavy action scenes, keeping it centered on the character at the heart of the scene while everything else moves around them, clearly benefited from his work on movies like “Furious 7” and “Aquaman.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting from “Malignant”—I’ll be honest, it wasn’t much—but it definitely was not what I got. What I got was an enthralling, hilarious, and crazy ride from start to finish. Not all of “Malignant” works; some of the character beats feel either rushed through or don’t really go anywhere, like the undercooked sisterly bond between Madison and Sydney. But there’s something to be said for a movie that succeeds at portraying a woman reclaiming her hold on her own life from the abusive relationships she’s involved in. And the advantage of being so unabashedly crazy is that the things that don’t work are largely overshadowed by a rollercoaster of a ride that you won’t want to get off of.
“Malignant” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until October 10. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.