James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ (spoiler free review)

Malignant is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror movie in a long time.

Since James Wan busted on the scene with 2004’s genre reforming hit Saw, his work has been consistently divisive (to say the least). But, the man doesn’t fail to reassure audiences that he knows what he’s doing, putting out two billion-dollar films in the last 6 years alone with Furious 7 and Aquaman. But, after exiting his career-defining Conjuring films and leaving the trilogy capper to be directed by someone else, I was unsure that he would ever return to the horror genre. My fears subsided, though, after this latest film was finally announced.

But then the trailers for the film were released, and I was more interested than before. Given the tone of the previews I saw, I was under the impression the film would be something like an Oscar-bait psychological horror that played with the idea of trauma and grief. Even going back and watching the trailer I still feel like it’s advertising a different film, even if I do see through the facade. The reality is, this film couldn’t be further from my preconceived notions about it, and it has more in common with slasher films like Friday the 13th than true psychological horror films like Possessor; though Wan certainly does attempt to find the balance between the two.

The film is a true slasher, like any Nightmare On Elm Street or Halloween, with the majority of the runtime being devoted to prolonged scenes of tension that climax with the death of another unsuspecting victim. But the real play of the film is watching our protagonist be forced to endure visions of death and trauma. Wan fails to ever explore what it might do to someone to witness such atrocities and instead focuses on solving the mystery that connects the protagonist and antagonist.

But I’ll give it a pass because the movie is just that much fun. From beginning to end the story never failed to excite me. Wan uses the camera in dynamic ways that he never has before, but he does occasionally fall into the same habits in scenes that lead to a scare. He likes to do these two shots where the camera focuses on something in the distance and creepily zooms in or out, and the immediate following shot is a handheld that follows the eventual victim while they travel through the house to track down a mysterious noise. It’s been a staple of the Wan horror films since Insidious, and I was a little disappointed to see him revert to old habits, but it does lead to effective thrills so I guess it works.

The cast is really great and full of a lot of people I didn’t know until now. Annabelle Wallis takes the lead and does an incredible job in the process, but given some late-story revelations, I wonder how much of the film the actress actually did. Even if her role is only the expected amount, she still brings the heat through the entire runtime. Her sister is played by Maddie Hasson, who I initially mistook for Florence Pugh, but her role wasn’t expansive enough to really leave an impact on me. The two lead investigating police officers are played by George Young and Michole Briana White, and when they are on screen the film is having the most fun. They even managed to get a real laugh out of me a couple of times.

The movie is nonstop fun. For a 2 hour movie with a TON going on, it had a surprisingly tight script and a good pace. It doesn’t hesitate to lean into the goofy nature of the story and setting, at one point even visiting a freaking castle on a cliff, and the story is out of this world nuts. Absolutely give it a watch if you love a good slasher with a creepy villain.

My rating for this film: 

★★★★ / ♥♥♥♥

*Rating scale is out of 5 stars (filmmaking & storytelling quality) and 5 hearts (love & entertainment value)

Malignant can be seen in theaters and on HBO Max through October 10th.

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