Sometimes, writing a review is easy. The movie is good, or the movie is bad. That, or the movie might be good, but not everyone’s particular cup of tea; or it might be bad, but in a way that is so entertaining that it comes back around into being a form of good again.
Then there’s Malignant, directed by James Wan, which is mostly bad until a last-minute twist swerves the movie into the kind of bonkers territory that comprehensively defies categorization.
In the interest of at least trying to be a professional, I will review Malignant the only way I can: by breaking the movie down into its component parts and reviewing those. Malignant tells the story of Madison, played by Annabelle Wallis, who is experiencing bizarre supernatural phenomena.
At the start of the film, Madison is pregnant by her comically abusive pig of a husband Derek, but a blow to the head opens her mind to visions of violence and murder committed by a mysterious being known only as “Gabriel.”
Madison herself is the target of Gabriel’s first attack, losing both her abusive husband and her pregnancy to his assault. From that point on, she finds herself psychically linked to her attacker, watching in real-time as he stalks and kills his victims, all while she looks on, helpless and horrified. The nature of that connection Madison and Gabriel share forms the central mystery that drives the rest of the movie.
As I said at the top, diagnosing the overall quality of this film is rendered extremely difficult by how much the late-movie twist recasts everything you’ve seen previously. It is made especially challenging by the need to avoid spoilers, though I will include a Spoiler Section at the end, where I will share my thoughts on the twist, for those who wish to read them.
Let’s start with directing. James Wan made his name in horror movies, breaking out with Saw, and going on to direct Insidious and The Conjuring 1 & 2. After a detour into DC-comics blockbusters with Aquaman, he now returns to the genre, and his comfort with it is evident.
Wan is a skilled technician behind the camera; whatever critiques one may levy against his films, they consistently look pretty. I particularly like his use of light- from fluorescent to neon to fridge- in several scenes to heighten the sense of eeriness in the moment.
He also has a good eye for bodies in motion. Whether it’s fluid parkour in an action scene, or the unnervingly herky-jerky, J-horror-esque movement of the killer, Wan gets the most out of his performers’ physicality.
Unfortunately, until I start talking about the twist, that’s where the praise is going to stop.
Where the movie really falls down is in the script. The writing is bad, and it hurts the acting.
For the first 80% of the film, Malignant consists not so much of scenes and a plot, as it does the Cliff’s Notes versions of scenes and a plot. It’s the kind of movie where a detective investigating a murder might say: “No forced entry… an abusive husband… Motive!”
Abandoning the “show don’t tell” rule, dialogue is mostly expository and embarrassingly workmanlike. When a character finds herself unable to move, we know because she simply states, “I can’t move.”
Performances frequently veer into soapy and over-acted, though I hesitate to blame the actors, because the dialogue is soapy and over-written. (How else do you deliver a line like, “It’s time… we cut out… the cancer!”)
Were these bad performances on purpose? Were they intended as some kind of joke? After the end of the movie, I’m not sure, but it’s played so straight that I don’t think so. Given that, I’m treating the performances as a failure, but see the Spoiler Section for more thoughts.
The movie is also way over-scored, beset with intrusive orchestrations and odd needle drops.
Worst of all, for a lot of the runtime, it’s just flat-out boring. Your mileage may vary, but if you’ve seen one slasher movie since the late-90s, there’s nothing here to get your heart racing. It starts to pick up steam in the second half, but mostly, you will be marking time until that twist arrives.
But oh my goodness, that twist. Without spoilers, all I can say is that it is so bonkers, so gory, so absurd and over the top, that it almost makes the entire film preceding it worth it. In fact, I wonder if the mediocrity of the rest of the film is intended to lull you into a false sense of security. If so, though, it does too good a job of it, and for too long. If that same wonderful shock had come 15 minutes earlier, I’d be singing Malignant’s praises with much more passion.
So what is it that makes a movie “good,” as opposed to “bad”? Is it narrative coherence? If so, then Malignant is not a particularly good movie; there are plot holes galore. It’s full of bad writing, and acting that belongs in a daytime soap opera. Most of the way through, it’s dull as dishwater. And yet, for its final twenty glorious minutes, Malignant is one of the craziest, silliest, most entertaining films I’ve seen in years.
Is that trade-off worth it to you?
Malignant scores a perfectly medium 2.5 out of 5 Stars, reflecting its warring positive and negative qualities.
Malignant is out in theaters now, and is available to stream on HBOMax.
Okay here we go.
Holy fucking shit, right?! About halfway through the movie, I was certain I knew what the twist was. And I sort of did. However, I did not predict just how coo-coo banana-pants crazy it was going to be in execution!
The killer, Gabriel, is Madison’s twin brother, who she absorbed in the womb. He remained an underdeveloped tumor-thing on her back—which, Jesus Christ that was amazing–until he was deemed “evil” and surgically removed.
Unfortunately, the parts of Gabriel’s brain that connected to Madison’s brain couldn’t be removed, so the doctors just kinda poked those into her skull and closed it up, job done. When Madison takes a blow to the head from her asshole husband at the start of the movie, Gabriel “wakes up” and starts taking control of her body in order to go on a revenge spree against those who wronged him.
It’s the form Gabriel takes that is so insane. Wan could have settled for just having Madison adopt his personality and “be” Gabriel, but no, it is WAY crazier and better than that.
Madison RIPS THE BACK OF HER SKULL OPEN so that Gabriel’s evil, tumor-like brain-face can come poking out, like Voldemort in Harry Potter 1. Even better, Madison then crooks all her joints the wrong way, so that her whole body starts operating backwards. It gives “Gabriel” a freakish, uncanny look and way of moving that is really unsettling and surprisingly distinctive.
Indeed, if Gabriel’s physicality reminded me of something, it was less of anything from Wan’s oeuvre than it was the movie Upgrade, by Wan’s frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell.
I don’t know why Gabriel would also be super-strong and Avengers-level combat savant, but I wasn’t complaining. The action that comprises the last 20 minutes of Malignant is so unhinged, I couldn’t take it. I laughed, I cried, and I wondered if the previous 90 minutes had retroactively become worthwhile.
(Perhaps the entire film, including the ridiculous acting, was just some kind of Troma-movie in disguise all along. If it were though… Why? After making so many successful, conventional horror films, was Wan just sick of the mainstream?)
In the end, I still think probably not. Still, the pure, lunatic force of that scene where Gabriel is finally revealed damn near brings Malignant back from the brink. I’ll be thinking about it for years to come.