‘Malignant’ Review: James Wan’s Chilling Concoction Delivers Gore with a Silly Story

The "Insidious" and "The Conjuring" creator's new original terror delivers jump scares, slashing, and eye-rolling in equal measure.
Warner Bros.

“I always wanted a blood relation,” says Madison (or Maddie, or is it Emily?) to her adopted sister in the final moments of “Malignant,” the latest terrifying concoction from horror titan James Wan. It’s meant to be a moving emotional crescendo to the film’s bloody conclusion, but the line that follows is just cheesy enough to produce eye rolls, but not so self-aware as to be funny. A humorless melodrama about a woman haunted by her past, “Malignant” sits somewhere between a slasher, a ghost story, and a possession flick, never fully embracing any of those different spins on the horror formula. The result is a confusing melange of genre archetypes that lacks a clear point of view, even a surface-level stylistic one.

A dry seriousness haunts “Malignant” more than any murderous ghoul, though Wan flirts with flair in certain loud choices. Some — like the most horrific remix of “Where Is My Mind,” sure to offend Pixies fans the world over — wreak of a movie trying way too hard to be hip. Others, like a bird’s eye view pan of a house as Madison panic-scurries through each room as if trapped in a dollhouse, temporarily jolt the viewer out of the otherwise formulaic proceedings. Most of the time, as when an ominous red light cuts abruptly to a serene blue, these choices scream far louder than the killer’s tormented victims.

The movie follows Maddie (Annabelle Wallis), who’s been plagued by three miscarriages and an abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) while living in an obviously haunted house in Seattle. After Derek pushes Maddie so forcefully against a wall that blood gushes from the back of her head, a spirit visits upon Derek the kind of bodily damage usually reserved for car crashes. (At least, according to the obligatorily nerdy forensic scientist.)

Two detectives arrive on the scene the next day, one who’s all business (Michole Briana White) and one tall glass of water (George Young) who takes a coy shining to Maddie’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson). Like in every haunted house movie, Maddie refuses to leave her creepy old murder mansion, despite the fact that the lights keep flickering and she’s seen a ghoulish looming figure traipsing about the dusty place. But the hold-your-breath scenes of Maddie’s nights home alone soon give way to something else, as other murder victims start turning up around town, seemingly at random.

“Malignant”Warner Bros.

What began as a home invasion terror soon morphs into something else, as Wan bounces gleefully from gory slasher to demonic possession tale. Maddie begins having visions of the murders as they happen, able to observe the killer’s movements in a state akin to sleep paralysis. As her connection to the killer begins to wear Maddie down, she and Sydney uncover the disturbing truth of her past. Adopted when she was a young girl, Maddie’s mother reveals that she once exhibited strange behaviors, often talking to a sinister imaginary friend named Gabriel.

Once Maddie is too far gone under Gabriel’s control, Sydney hunts down the truth, which leads her to a long-shuttered psychiatric home for children — where surprisingly nothing terrible happens to her. Despite its wild shift in tone, the movie’s ghoulish reveal is satisfyingly disturbing, and the make-up department certainly knows its way around stomach-churning visions to inspire nightmares.

For those who enjoy that kind of thing, heads do roll by the movie’s end, though a particularly bloody women’s jail scene feels wildly offensive in costuming, make-up, and casting — just in plain poor taste. The same goes for the adoption storyline, which uses adoption not only as a plot point but a terrifying specter; while also playing on the idea of blood relations, or the yearning for them, as something equally sinister.

Written by Wan and Akela Cooper with a story by Ingrid Bisu, the dialogue in “Malignant” never quite reaches guffaw levels of awful, though it probably could have used a few more forehead smackers. When you’re taking this many wild turns, it’s better to just lean into the fact that you’ve made a ridiculous horror movie than to try and make a serious drama. If Wan has franchise plans for “Malignant” (and let’s face it, even if he doesn’t, Warner Bros. does), he would be well served to play up the insanity in the dialogue and character development to match the action. After all, it’s in his blood.

Grade: C-

Warner Bros. will release “Malignant” in theaters on September 10.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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