Just in time for the fall weather transition, James Wan released his latest horror homage, “Malignant.” Unlike his signature supernatural chillers, “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” — along with their subsequent sequels and spin-offs — this splatter mystery doesn’t draw from the familiar well of haunted houses or demonology. Instead, we see the Wan, who directed the first “Saw” film, dipping back into serial killer territory — this time with broad illusions toward the outlandish slashers of the 1980s and the gory Italian thrillers of the ’70s.
After throwing us in the deep end with a dizzying cold-open showing the strange capabilities of an indescribable evil that prompts doctors to begin an emergency surgery, we jump decades into the future with our protagonist Madison (Annabelle Wallis). An argument between her and her husband gets physical, establishing a psychic link between her and a serial killer. Madison dreams of the grisly murders of a stringy-haired slayer in a leather rain jacket from the other side of Seattle. As the body count increases, these dreams become more intense. What’s more, they seem to match the crime scene investigated by detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White). To stop the bloodshed, Madison is forced to deal with her mysterious childhood to ensure that she isn’t next on the kill list.
More so than Wan’s previous work, this project is largely an exercise in style. The aesthetic points he’s referring to embrace a heightened state of reality that asks the audience to accept unrealistic dialogue, archetypical, sometimes stilted, performances, as well as absurd premises. In place of an expectation of tonal balance and grounded acting, Wan gives us elaborate set-pieces, theatrical color-filtered lighting and a visual emphasis on horror “camp.” Wan teases his traditional domestic horror themes early on, but the narrative unfolds to reveal stranger and stranger conceits.
But not all the flaws can be waved away by intentionality. The screenplay is in a constant struggle to misdirect the audience while feeding them more clues. The red herrings wear thin after a while, and eventually it’s clear that the police characters are searching for plot points rather than anything that would enrich or deepen the story. Still, seasoned slasher enthusiasts may feel nostalgic by the screenplay’s cheeky support of eye-rolling anti-logic.
“Malignant” is a pastiche of genre cheese made with high regard for lavish production values and impressive craftsmanship. It’s difficult to predict how this attempt will hit modern audiences who’re used to dower sincerity or ironic comedic parody in their horror diets. This is a film that walks a tightrope between both states of expectation. The scares are ridiculous and over the top — not necessarily asking you to laugh at it, but the movie doesn’t exactly discourage that reaction either. By the final act, in which science fiction, supernatural and body horror blend into a wild finale, certain viewers may feel betrayed by this winding mystery while others squeal with glee.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.