Wan, two, three, four. Horror movies, we want more! When The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It arrived in theaters last June, it was generally unanimous that the film was okay but would have been better had horror master James Wan returned to direct the threequel.
Instead of directing the new Conjuring, Wan directed Malignant, an original horror film starring Annabelle Wallis as Madison, a woman who begins to have visions of murders. Soon realizing that the murders are a terrifying reality, Madison must uncover the truth about her connection to this killer named Gabriel.
Look, when your filmography includes horror hits such as Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious, people will hold you to a high standard. This movie may not reach the bar that his other films have set, but it remains bold unpredictable horror.
The movie doesn’t quite feel like his other films — it can feel like a nod to classic cheesy slashers and supernatural horror flicks of the ’80s and ’90s, embracing absurdity while telling a personal story about a woman dealing with her inner demons.
Wan’s intent is clear from the opening scene, which takes place at an institution far away from the rest of civilization, as doctors examine a patient with power beyond their imagination. We get a few gruesome kills, and the direction of the entire thing feels a bit over-the-top in both its line delivery and the execution of its ideas.
After this, we get introduced to our protagonist, Madison. She is pregnant, married to an abusive husband named Derek (Jake Abel), and has had multiple miscarriages in the past. The film does an excellent job of setting up the characters before the horror begins.
Once we get into the horror, the film becomes a bit uneven. There are moments of creativity where we get to see classic Wan horror, as he knows the right way to set up a good jump scare and when to show us the killer’s POV to add tension to his scene.
However, there are times when it also feels like Wan is pulling from the same bag of tricks that he always does. He’s giving us our standard “bump in the night” horror sequences with strange sounds in the distance that we can’t explain.
We also have several scenes that we have seen countless times in supernatural horror: every time the antagonist arrives, the lights flicker and turn off. I have no idea what it is that makes demons so angry at luminescence, but at some point, the fact that the lights will always turn off makes me wonder why horror villains always go, “Dammit, it’s too bright in here! We’re wasting the power bill!”
The film does offer fine performances across the board. Wallis is an amazing scream queen, and her role is no easy task, as she goes to some frightening places. McKenna Grace is also excellent as the younger version of this character. Interestingly enough, Wallis and Grace both starred in two different Wan-produced Annabelle films.
At times, it can feel as if the flashbacks with Grace would have made for a more compelling horror film, but the film knows what it’s doing by the end of it. There are some genuinely surprising twists and turns, especially in the final act, where we have a twist that does not entirely hold up to reason under further examination but is ambitious and surprising, nevertheless.
Occasionally, the dialogue can be on-the-nose, and to the wrong audience member, laughable. In addition, the musical score can be overbearing to the point of annoyance, primarily when used to dramatize certain moments.
But this movie can be pretty campy, aware of the absurdity of its ending and ramping it up to 11. So when the film dives headfirst into Aquaman-style action, it can be shocking but enjoyable. And since this movie goes hard-R, we have some gory kills filled with blood that may please those who love the gnarliness of the Saw films.
To some, this may be an absurd, over-the-top horror movie that fails at what it wants to do. To others, this will be a fun, exciting horror film with surprises, great performances, and more of the classic Wan scares that we can expect from this horror pioneer.
Grade: ★★★✬☆ [7/10, B-]
Jonathan’s Tips: If you want a fun horror movie, you can check this one out.
Malignant is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.