Malignant movie review: Decent but not quite the genre-blending adventure


Malignant is saved by an audacious, stunningly mounted third act, clearly a vintage James Wan in its glorious lunacy

Aditya Mani Jha September 10, 2021 16:22:25 IST

Malignant, horror impresario James Wan’s new horror movie, begins with a cold opening set at a hospital where psychiatrists and surgeons are trying their best to help a violent young patient. After the obligatory shots of attendants fleeing and screaming in horror, a determined doctor pronounces for the camera, “Time to cut out the cancer”; cue opening credits. The line itself is so cartoonishly over-the-top that I expected Malignant to be in Wes Craven territory, a self-aware film engaging with horror themes and treatments wrung dry by the Hollywood machine (which he is now a big part of, thanks to the Saw and Conjuring franchises).

"Anna Karenina." One of Alicia Vikander's favorite experiences from the production was the filming that took place in the countryside outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. The temperatures soared below -40 °C, and she stayed in a cabin for five days that didn't have hot water and only featured benches instead of beds. Meanwhile, Russian security guards protected her and co-star Domhnall Gleeson from wild wolves and bears that dominated the deserted area

As interesting as it would have been to see Wan grappling with that particular tonality, Malignant’s aims are un-ironic: it seeks to unite what Wan clearly sees as twin strands of horror cinema: the ‘body horror’ conveyed masterfully by David Cronenberg in classics like The Fly (1986) and Shivers (1975), and the Italian giallo cinema of the 1960s and 70s, helmed by filmmakers like Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Mario Bava (Black Sunday). Wan’s protagonist Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is a woman whose loutish husband’s latest domestic violence episode has left her with a leaky head wound. We learn that Madison, who was adopted as a child, has suffered several miscarriages in the recent past. The horror beats kick into overdrive when Madison receives a series of gory, frightening visions where a demonic creature with inexplicable strength and agility murders several people. Moreover, Madison is convinced it’s somehow Gabriel (Marina Manzepa), her imaginary friend from childhood, an aggressive creature who has previously manipulated her, as she confesses to her sympathetic sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson).

"Moulin Rouge!" The necklace worn by Nicole Kidman was made of real diamonds and platinum and was the most expensive piece of jewelry ever specifically made for a film. The Stefano Canturi necklace was made with 1,308 diamonds, weighing a total of 134 carats and was worth an estimated U.S. $1 million.

Malignant movie review Decent but not quite the genreblending adventure

Unfortunately, Madison’s visions make her the prime suspect in the murders, investigated by detectives Shaw (Bryan Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White). Shaw and Moss are largely generic characters here (he has kind eyes and a thing for the suspect’s sister; she has enough skepticism for both of them) but it’s clear that Wan intends these two to be recurring characters, if not steering the franchise altogether. Their investigation provides a kind of parallel commentary track for the horror at the heart of Malignant; it’s not a particularly elegant genre mash-up but Wan’s technical brilliance covers the gaps.

"Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles." All the actors playing vampires were required to hang upside down for up to thirty minutes at a time during the make-up application. This would force all the blood in their bodies to rush to their heads, causing the blood vessels in their faces to bulge out. The make up artists would then trace over the swollen veins creating the eerie translucent-skinned vampire look. Unfortunately for the actors, they would have to repeat the process several times over, as the blood would quickly drain from their heads. This, in part, accounts for the lengthy make-up process.

Does it all come together harmoniously? Not always, but it’s a lot of fun when it does. Wan is largely successful in transposing the giallo style — intense facial close-ups, red-and-black hued scenes of psychological terror — onto the claustrophobic visual palette his fans are familiar with, artful jib shots driving the horror. But the other giallo conceit of blending the noir/police procedural aesthetic with horror beats, doesn’t quite work out for Wan. Or perhaps in his eagerness to make Malignant a franchise, the director and screenwriters waste too much time in world-building, which anyway happens via Sydney and the rest of Madison’s family (not via the cops).

"Pretty Woman." Edward (Richard Gere) snapping the necklace case down on Vivian's (Julia Roberts) fingers, was improvised by Gere, and Roberts's reaction (laughter) was totally natural. The filmmakers liked it so much, they decided to leave it in.

Two things save Malignant, however; the first is its audacious, stunningly mounted third act, vintage Wan in its glorious lunacy. You might see the reveal (ie Gabriel’s identity and origins) coming, you might not. But it won’t matter once Gabriel is unleashed, his custom knife dropping bodies at warp speed. The last 20 minutes of the film are pure adrenaline and play unabashedly to the gallery of horror fans. Yes, they take too long getting there but the payoff is satisfactory. The other big positive is the character of Gabriel, one of Wan’s best creations since the Jigsaw Killer all those years ago. This is a Big Evil that audiences can stay with over several films, as Wan knows well. Physically on the cartoonish side (indeed, he is described in jest as “Sloth from Goonies” in one scene), his malevolence is neither righteous nor governable. His connection with Madison (described as a ‘psychic bond’) isn’t a tether; his presence may be dreamlike but a la Freddie Krueger it’s a nightmare that he’s controlling all along.

There Were 10,297 Balloons in Up. The animators who created the pack of balloons in Up actually created every single one. The film’s effects artist, Jon Reisch, told Tech Radar that, “The entire canopy is filled with balloons. We didn’t just simulate the outer shell.” And they even got a specific count of exactly the number of balloons: 10,297.

There’s no doubt that Wan is a skilful, entertaining filmmaker whose love of the spectacle merits the wider canvas and heftier budgets Hollywood is increasingly giving him (Fast & Furious 7, Aquaman ). Better screenwriters and a firmer editing style would go a long way in curbing his cornier, paint-by-number impulses. If Warner does decide to make more Malignant movies, they could look at models like True Detective’s first season, which featured a far more efficient, visually distinctive blend of horror and detective fiction. Malignant is a decent start, but not quite the mind-bending, genre-blending adventure it could have been.

"Schindler's List." During production, the atmosphere was so grim and depressing that Steven Spielberg asked his friend Robin Williams if he could tell some jokes and do comedy sketches while Spielberg would watch episodes of Seinfeld (1989). Some of Williams' sketches, while played through the speaker phone to the cast and crew, ended up being part of dialogue material for his character in Aladdin (1992), the Genie.

Rating: 3/5