Malignant review: James Wan’s horror movie is laugh-out-loud ridiculous

James Wan cut his directorial teeth on intense horror movies like Insidious and The Conjuring, but his latest horror outing leans into the loony cartoon sensibility he brought to Aquaman and Furious 7. In Malignant, he tells a story much smaller in scale than his action blockbusters, and one that doesn’t fit together by any basic narrative measure. But when it finally gets to where it’s going, it devolves into a goofy, nonsensical, hilariously enjoyable final act that feels like it was yanked out of a completely different movie. Malignant is rarely scary, but its outlandish bits likely didn’t happen by accident — not when it culminates in scenes so ludicrously over the top that they invite both fist-pumping cheers and wheeze-inducing laughter.

The film evokes pulpy sci-fi in its prologue, about a mysterious, grotesque, largely unseen figure dubbed “Gabriel” by doctors at a sanitarium. The garish lighting flickers as bodies are flung left and right, and the camera dips and swoops around to capture the sudden mayhem. In a stray line of dialogue, someone notes that Gabriel can “drink electricity” — hence the flickering — and it communicates with the doctors by sending signals through a nearby radio. Both these things re-occur throughout Malignant, as little visual and aural indicators that something spooky is afoot. But no matter how much the film goes on to overexplain its central villain, it somehow never touches on Gabriel’s electric nature, beyond this passing mention. It’s an amusing character facet with no real narrative purpose, except to create texture.

Photo: Warner Bros.

At first, these flourishes and oddities clash wildly with the film’s main plot, about a pregnant woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis), whose controlling, violent husband Derek (Jake Abell) may or may not be responsible for several of her miscarriages. While the film largely follows Madison’s sudden, phantasmagorical visions of gory real-world murders — committed by a bloody, disfigured, long-haired man in a leather trench coat, who seems to target doctors with shady pasts — the specter of abuse and related coping mechanisms is never far from its lips. The theme rarely feels woven into the horror specifics, no matter how much Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper attempt to bring the story full circle. Madison herself doesn’t feel like she exists outside of the way other people’s actions define her, but the film has enough momentum (and enough wild and flashy distractions) that its eventual metaphors for loss of agency don’t veer too far toward offensive.

Who was Gabriel? How is he connected to Madison? And who is the grungy, leather-clad killer who targets medical mal-practitioners with a sword fashioned from a HIPPA symbol? The film takes its time in having its characters parse out the logistics, but in a dramatic and visual sense, the answers all fit together awkwardly for the film’s first hour. A pair of detectives, Kekoa (George Young) and Regina (Michole Briana White) — broad cutouts on the cusp of self-awareness — claim that the killer leaves upside-down handprints. Stray shots of him escaping crime scenes vaguely hint at some kind of reversed or backward motion, though no one who catches a glimpse of this strangeness ever seems to comment on it.

Even the way the killer interacts with physical space feels like a decision half-committed to, wherein sometimes he’s ethereal, sometimes he veers in and out of corporeal form, and sometimes he’s a physical being with enormous strength. Some scenes tease playing with negative space in fun and unique ways, though Wan frustratingly refuses to follow that instinct.

The eventual in-world explanations make the noncommittal crafting even more bizarre in retrospect. But the initial lack of clarity is, ironically, what lets the film’s final act be so surprising, and so explosively silly. When the figure finally comes into view, his wildly unconventional anatomy becomes the center of some very conventional action involving guns and martial arts — a disconnect best described as riotously funny.

Annabelle Wallis sits on the floor of a bedroom looking terrified in Malignant

Photo: Warner Bros.

This is not the James Wan of skillfully crafted scares, it’s the James Wan who, in Furious 7, spun his camera around to capture the impact of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson delivering his signature wrestling move, and who sent Aquaman villain Black Manta plummeting off a cliff with a whistling noise, à la Wile E. Coyote. They are, of course, the same James Wan: a director who generally has great control over the tonal lever, which he sometimes nudges toward careful tension-building, and sometimes yanks in the direction of utter visual nonsense.

But the downside to having to wait for the film’s raucous final act is a middle section filled almost entirely with reveals the audience is sure to figure out in advance. Mostly, these twists and turns are conventional, though the one that finally makes all the floating pieces snap into place is so audacious that it works even better when the characters are chasing a conclusion the audience has already reached.

Malignant is a laugh riot, both by design, and when it slows down to be more thoughtful. Its themes of family, abuse, and trauma rarely materialize into something meaningful. But at times, the film places physical anguish on full display with a gonzo sensibility. There’s cartoonish wailing and thrashing, and CGI grotesqueries that resemble winking practical creations. Wan makes a visual meal out of several scenes by sending his Steadicam zipping around the room. Maybe a more serious version of the film existed at some point in the development process, but in the version that wound up on screens, Wan’s unabashed focus on its sillier elements is what makes it worthwhile.

Malignant premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on Sept. 10.