There’s no denying that writer/director James Wan’s first feature, 2003’s Saw, was a horror phenomenon. The movie was so popular it spawned nine-plus nasty sequel installments and went on to become one of the most well-known entries in the genre. Then he did it again with the Insidious franchise—and again with the Conjuring universe. What I’m saying is, the man knows horror. So it came as no surprise to me that by the time the credits rolled on his new terror trip Malignant, I was grinning and nodding my head Joker-style. The film ends up playing like the horror version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas:” It has been several years since Wan wrote, directed and produced a genre piece and it’s hard not to love having him back under the morbid mistletoe—even if the material is a little wackier and weirder than before.
Malignant tells the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman rattled by a particular bout of abuse from her husband. The incident sets in motion a series of events which begins with consistent yet unexplained bleeding from the head and culminates in paralyzing visions of murder that are, shocker, actually real. This is a film you don’t spoil—once the pieces of the puzzle start coming together, you’ll find it was worth staying in the dark—so I won’t. But like the original Saw knocked audiences out with its twist, so too will Malignant.
Admittedly, the film has a bit of a slow start. In fact, in the first half, I was wondering if I was going to end up hating it purely on pace alone. But around the 40-minute mark, I found myself subconsciously settling into the plotline of a film I was happy to write off in the beginning. The first chunk comes off a bit muddled and beckons you to keep up with what little exposition it gives you. That did sour me, I’ll admit, but like any good game, it paid dividends after the wait. Things became clearer, loose ends tied up—and the whole thing goes zero to 60 incredibly quickly. As proven time and time again within the Saw franchise, Wan is all about a balls-to-the-wall twist and Malignant throws one at us intended to splatter us in the face. The film goes places you don’t exactly expect, which highlights one small aspect of how a muddled opening can work to your advantage (though I don’t recommend relying on the tactic). Between sufficient scares and a puzzling yet promising narrative that takes shape in a wild fever that matches the intensity of the nearly feral antagonist, the story is vast and threaded smartly into a wearable piece of dread. The more granular writing, however, can be lackluster and the dialogue comes off cringeworthy in several spots.
With this juxtaposition between story and script, it sometimes feels like the film is unintentionally toeing the line between wanting to be an artful, calculated horror story and a wacky, giallo-meets-video-nasties thrill ride. My biggest criticism of the film is, as they say, pick a lane. Wan has experience on both sides of the aisle, and it would have been nice to be able to gauge the tone of the film from the jump. Did it make those last 40 minutes any less exciting? Not really, no. But it would have had me hooked from the beginning in a movie I may have otherwise just turned off had I been streaming it (which you’ll be able to do via HBO Max).
One thing that will keep you interested is the slow reveal of the big bad. This monster seems pretty nasty in all the minuscule glimpses we get of them, but they really show out during the second half of the film—and again, that thing called payoff, folks. Whether or not you agree with the themes laid out in the storyline (and there is a lot of nuance here that can and should be discussed by the communities represented), it feels assured that with the cult-classic status this movie is most likely going to achieve, the character of Gabriel is going to be remembered alongside the likes of Jigsaw and the Man with the Fire in His Face. After all, they’re all Wan creations and we appreciate them for a reason.
There is a lot of homage in Malignant—was it just me or was there a hard electro remix of “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies playing over nearly every kill?—but mostly, the film ends up being a writer/director’s love letter to his past. To the early days of his career, to his roots. At this point, he deserves to pat himself on the back, and I’m happy that the result is a return to form. To know Wan is to (mostly) love him, and Malignant is no exception…as long as you’re willing to stick it out.
Director: James Wan
Writers: Akela Cooper, James Wan, Ingrid Bisu
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Lex Briscuso is an entertainment, film and culture writer with bylines at Life & Style, In Touch Weekly, Shudder’s The Bite and EUPHORIA. She spends too much time thinking about One Direction and the leftover moments writing poetry, fiction and screenplays. Her horror radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays 5pm ET only on KPISSFM. She tweets @nikonamerica.