Review: ‘Malignant’ (James Wan’s Shyamalan tribute)

It’s like someone took the un-aired first season of a supernatural fantasy horror show and beat it down to movie length with a sledgehammer.

Pregnant and in an abusive relationship, the life of Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is thrown into further turmoil when her husband turns up dead at the hands of an intruder who inexplicably spares her. When her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) visits Madison in the hospital, it is revealed the baby was lost, the latest in a string of miscarriages. Determined to survive, Madison moves back into her murder-scene home and tries her hand at securing it, but she also begins having waking nightmares — seeing her intruder murdering other people in unknown locations. When she takes the questionable information to Seattle detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) who first investigated the death of Madison’s husband, the police begin to consider Madison herself as a suspect for them all.

Average moviegoers may get lost quickly due to so much happening in Malignant. It’s presumably the first installment of a new franchise brought to you by writer/director James Wan, the man who unleashed Saw and The Conjuring Universe upon the world — and Furious 7 and Aquaman — but also the forgettable and deservedly forgotten Dead Silence. Wan’s work is full of iconic imagery that is most imitated by its own forthcoming franchise, but his low-budget fare appears to work better in terms of story and completeness than when he’s handed a lot of money. This isn’t unusual, as there are plenty of filmmakers forced to become creative when the budget is strained and even more clever in the editing room. It took a reboot like Spiral to echo the creativity of Wan’s Saw, but with a new original work being championed from the filmmaker, will Malignant turn out to be another Saw or his next Dead Silence?

Fans of Saw will immediately recognize elements of the opening sequence borrowing all the best tensions from that series, down to similar music cues and filmography. The film’s sequence starts in 1993 before jumping forward from event to event, rushing to introduce numerous characters with zero time to consider importance or relevance. After an eternity in screen time, we finally get to assumed next-victim Madison only to learn she’s the main character; it’s at this moment Wan slows the pace down to consider everything that’s come before. Overstuffed and over-budgeted, the director begins connecting the dots backwards — even holding the hands of viewers who haven’t already guessed what’s coming — before finally showing his cards. It’s farfetched, a bit ridiculous, yet fully dedicated to creating its own rules and sticking by them. Ready-made for adaptation into a Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights attraction, it works and doesn’t look back.

Many of the characters seem to be caricatures of their earlier-draft selves, with lifestyles, nicknames, and attitudes unaddressed in the running time. “Kekoa” Shaw acts like a trust-fund kid who dabbles in police work because he’s bored, partner Moss inexplicably treats her victims like convicts, and officers calling the medical examiner “Lonely Hearts” behind her back has no explanation. The film instead embraces all the style tropes popularized in the 1980s for a villain origin story, from the look and choice of weapon to combat style and supernatural abilities. It shouldn’t work, yet it pushes forward with sheer will daring viewers not to finish it the same way Benny Loves You does, and the reward is one hell of a graphic body count.

Yes, there’s an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist herein, but it’s seeded from the very beginning for genre fans who notice everything and hang on to every clue. Who can say why “The Hospital on Haunted Hill” is stupidly massive and inexplicably abandoned, the killer’s powers defy fair explanation, or the Seattle police department can’t afford a minimal surveillance system into their warehouse-sized holding tank. In spite of everything, Malignant abides by the rules it sets and makes a bizarre kind of sense, setting up memorable set pieces, watchable action sequences, and a throwback reveal Freddy Krueger would be envious of. While the specifics are spoilers unmentioned here, the core idea is embedded in classic horror and dark fairy tales, and that may be Wan’s smartest trick to date.

Malignant is rated R for strong horror violence and gruesome images, language, and why are you still bleeding?

Three skull recommendation out of four

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