James Wan's return to horror delivers some great scares in a barebones narrative
James Wan is most comfortable in horror. Despite having made some jumps to action blockbusters with Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018) the Australian director has shined and pushed the boundaries of his filmmaking when making viewers crawl with terror. He’s largely credited with the horror renaissance in the 2010s with his one-two punch of The Conjuring (2013) and Insidious (2010), and now returns to the genre with a new original story.
Malignant (2021) is the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis) a woman in an abusive relationship who suffers a home invasion by a violent presence. Along with her sister (Maddie Hasson) and two detectives (George Young, Michole Briana White) Madison starts uncovering aspects of her past and of this evil presence, showing them to be more linked than she could possibly imagine.
Wan has always been incredibly adept at crafting horror out of singular scenes. He prefers his plots to be rather simple, so that he can focus on his strengths of playing with shadows, tension, and creating dread. He showcases all these skills in Malignant yet again, crafting scene after scene of ingenious scares. His camerawork is once again stellar, thanks to his collaboration with cinematographer Michael Burgess; both are unafraid of more experimental shots, such as an overhead one following Madison through her house as if she were in a rat’s maze, or an uninterrupted action sequence that will remind some of the church scene in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Wan also brings frequent horror collaborator Joseph Bishara to score this film, and the soundtrack is rather effective and original, standing out for not being a simple scratching of strings as we’ve grown accustomed in much of today’s horror. However, you sense that Bishara sometimes indulges too much in electronic music, so that you’re given a rather good and cool vibe in some scenes instead of curdling in your seat.
Malignant has a cast of relative unknowns, actors who have been biding their time for a chance at the spotlight; and they are largely successful and solid in their roles. However, the film is essentially carried by Wallis, the one recognizable name in the cast. The Australian actress had been thrust too soon into stardom earlier in her career making for some disappointing end products. However, she’s been slowly honing her craft in recent years, and her performances are gaining added intensity and depth. One can say that Wallis is finally finding her stride as an actress, and Malignant is a great showcase for her show that.
As with many of Wan’s films, however, the story is not worked on as much. The twists and turns are clearly delineated, and the barebones of the narrative are rather creative. However, the actual execution of the trajectory is rather sidelined for stylistic aspects. This means that some of the dialogue and exposition scenes can seem clunky and cheesy, with a tone more akin to a late 90s or early 2000s film. The supposed “twist” of Malignant is also rather obvious and given away for sharp viewers thirty minutes in. The solving of this mystery didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the film, but it did make the teases and head scratching of the characters feel slightly tiresome and frustrating. The lack of much work into dialogue and characters also means that while Wan is successful at creating horror in certain scenes, the film struggles to congeal together into a terrifying entity.
In the end, Malignant is rather effective at creating horror situations, and the aesthetic and tone sprinkled by Wan are creepily enjoyable to submerge in. The film is another encouraging performance and credit for Wallis who is delivering subsequent strong work. However, the narrative struggles to truly say anything, and its creative elements are not given the fluidity and character work that they deserved. Nevertheless, the stronger aspects of Malignant end up trumping the weaker, making for an enjoyable time at the theater. My biggest concern (as with many of Wan’s previous work) is that this creative idea and villain will be squeezed dry for a handful of unnecessary prequels and sequels by the studio.