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‘Malignant’ bloody, bizarre and bloody bizarre

September 13, 2021
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There are few directors who have had as thorough an impact on 21st century genre filmmaking as James Wan. While I personally run a bit hot-and-cold with Mr. Wan’s oeuvre, there’s no denying that he has played a big role in defining genre over the past couple of decades.

Horror’s the big one, obviously – this is the dude who directed the first “Saw” movie and helped shepherd the first couple of installments of both the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” film series. That trio alone would place him as one of the creative movers and shakers in the industry.

But then you take into account that he ALSO helmed “Aquaman” for the DCEU (and is also leading the sequel) and directed the seventh “Fast & Furious” movie and you’re looking at a guy with serious influence.

Wan’s latest film is “Malignant,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. It’s a return to his roots of sorts, the kind of visceral and gnarly blood-and-guts horror that isn’t overly concerned with laying the groundwork for future films or continuing the stories of past ones. Instead, we get a gory and weird horror tale that delights in its own strangeness, the kind of movie that engages in gleefully in-the-moment deconstruction of its influences.

That strangeness is amplified exponentially with an absolutely nutso third-act reveal that pushes us fully into the realm of Cronenbergian body horror, resulting in a movie that, while perhaps not traditionally scary, manages to evoke some emotional churn in its own gross, bizarre, kind of absurd way. All in all, this movie is bonkers.

The film opens in the past – 1993, to be exact – at a dark and spooky hospital perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, an ideal introduction to the type of over-the-top film we’re about to experience. We see a bunch of frantic doctors, aides and administrators, all in a panic because “he” has gotten loose. We’ve got a lot of shadow, a lot of bloodshed, some potentially paranormal abilities … and a quick and unsettling glimpse of the aforementioned “he.”

In the present, Madison (Annabelle Wallis, “Boss Level”) is living in Seattle; pregnant, she’s dealing with the emotional fallout of two miscarriages. This fallout leads to conflict between her and her husband Derek (Jake Abel, “Son of the South”), whose emotional abuse spills over into the physical when he pushes her into a wall, smashing the back of her head. She locks herself in the bedroom; when she comes out, she finds Derek dead and the shadowy assailant still in the house.

When she wakes in the hospital, her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, TV’s “Mr. Mercedes”) tells her that she has lost the baby. Devastated, Madison deals with questioning from police detectives Keoka Shaw (George Young, “A Bread Factory”) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White, “Songbird”) before making her way back home.

Madison is having vivid dreams, all of them revolving around a mysterious shadowy figure – the same one she dreamed before her husband was killed – engaged in brutal, savage murder. These dreams feel incredibly real, as though these things are really happening and that she is somehow present. And as the bodies start to pile up, it becomes clear – these things ARE happening and she IS seeing them, courtesy of the entity calling itself Gabriel.

How? Well, that’s the question. It’s a question whose answer leads back to the mysterious now-shuttered hospital, a place to which Madison has an intimate connection … even if she can’t remember it. But as some of those dark memories start to resurface, Madison realizes that she and the people she loves are in grave danger, because there is something out there that seeks to punish her. Something evil. Something … malignant.

Look, I’ll level with you – it is very difficult to talk about this movie without engaging in conversation about the aforementioned twist, but I refuse to be the one who spoils it for you. I had some suspicions with regard to the direction of the narrative, but I’ll freely admit that I was not at all prepared for how it all came to pass. Again – bonkers.

All that said, there’s no disputing the fundamental Wan-ness of this movie. He has always had a knack for reinvigorating and reinventing genre tropes, so it only makes sense that he would be ready and willing to tear down the expected and erect something unanticipated in its place. He certainly does that here, lulling the viewer into a false sense of familiarity as he gives us the haunted-house energy at which he excels before straight up yanking the rug out and confronting us with lunacy that could be considered either sublime or ridiculous – your mileage may vary.

“Malignant” is … a lot. Like, a LOT. Whether we’re looking at gallons of blood or lovingly rendered compound fractures or twisted blends of contortionism and CGI, the viewer is inundated with viscera and gore. There are some traditional scares here and there, but mostly, this film likes to ramp up the tension so that it can then immediately puncture it with some absolutely wild and splattery business.

The cast is solid. Wallis is no stranger to the Wan energy – she starred in a couple of the creepy doll spinoffs from “The Conjuring” – and embraces it here. She finds ways to ground the absurdity of it all, even as the crazy gets cranked up to 11. Hasson is quite good as the younger sister; even without a lot to do, she manages to convey a genuine connection between the siblings. Young and White are doing pretty standard horror-movie-cop shtick; they’re fine, but it’s all pretty boilerplate. Ultimately, though, we spend the vast majority of our time with Madison, but Wallis proves more than able to handle the storytelling burden.

I’ve changed my mind about “Malignant” a few times since seeing it – it’s that same sublime/ridiculous dichotomy I mentioned earlier. Is it too much or just enough? Depends on your mood, I suppose. Regardless, it is certainly well-made, with the same general genre craftsmanship that has made James Wan such an industry powerhouse. It is blood-soaked and bone-crushing weirdness that delights in pushing the envelope. “Malignant” certainly isn’t bad, but rest assured – it is far from benign.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 13 September 2021 11:01

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