Despite earning mixed to negative reviews upon its release, there’s no denying that Saw, James Wan’s 2004 indie debut, was a game changer in horror cinema. As if its grisly premise weren’t enough to shock and traumatize audiences, it should also be noted that at the time it came out, the kinds of horror films generating big box office numbers were meeker, milder PG-13 affairs. Whether they were American remakes of Japanese horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge, mediocre star vehicles like Godsend and What Lies Beneath, or higher quality efforts like Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others, it was clear that softer and gentler horror movies were en vogue at the time.
This made Saw all the more a landmark release. In an era when horror films were trending more and more benign (perhaps in the years immediately following 9/11, audiences were less inclined to seek out brutally violent content), out of nowhere came a grimy micro-budget gore fest about a man chained to a radiator and whose only hope of escape is to hack off his own foot. The film would birth not only its own billion dollar franchise, but a whole new sub-genre of horror films informally known as “torture porn.”
Ironically, however, director James Wan didn’t continue to churn out ultraviolent movies, but rather would go on to direct horror films more reliant on traditional genre elements. His follow-up to Saw, the underrated Dead Silence, involved the classic “possessed ventriloquist dummy” trope. He also directed the first two Insidious and The Conjuring installments, all of which were quite scary, but none particularly violent or bloody.
Wan’s latest effort, Malignant, attempts to combine the gratuitous violence of Saw with the more conventional horror elements that defined his subsequent films. In this way, it’s an interesting addition to his filmography. Unfortunately, that’s about all that can be said for it.
The premise of the film is somewhat unclear from the trailer and promotional materials, which is by design, as throughout most of the movie it’s difficult to tell if this is a possession story, a ghost story, a multiple personality story, or something else entirely. What we know from the outset is that Madison, a young woman played by Annabelle Wallis, is haunted by visions of brutal murders being perpetrated by a shadowy figure known as “Gabriel.” Whether Gabriel is her imaginary friend, a supernatural entity, or a long-lost family member, remains a mystery until the bonkers third act, when Malignant jumps the shark and becomes as much a broad comedy as anything else. By the time we know who and what he is, Gabriel becomes more reminiscent of the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail than any of the horror genre’s numerous iconic slashers.
While not a good movie, Malignant is also not a boring movie. Wan is a terrific craftsman who can still build suspense as well as any horror director in the business. He often combines still shots, dolly shots, and handheld camerawork all in the same sequence to create maximum tension. His shot composition is such that we are made to agonize over what lurks just outside the edges of his 16:9 frame. In Malignant, these skills don’t go unnoticed, so much as they just don’t add up to anything all that memorable. Unlike Wan’s other horror films which all contain at least one standout sequence (the final moments of Saw, the nun scene in The Conjuring 2, and the first reveal of the demon in Insidious, to name a few), there’s no such set piece in his latest film that makes anywhere near the same impression.
And for all the online chatter about the ending, the major plot reveal which propels the film into its blood-soaked finale is so random and ridiculous that it can hardly be called a “twist.” In fact, aside from its absurd and downright comical third act, most of Malignant is actually quite predictable. We know when all the kills are going to take place, who the victims are going to be, and, more or less, how they’re going to go down.
While James Wan is talented enough as a director and has sufficient technical tricks up his sleeve to string the audience along for 111 minutes without losing our interest, in the end, Malignant‘s payoff isn’t remotely worth the investment. It’s easily Wan’s worst horror film to date.