Film Review: “Malignant”

I was first impressed by director James Wan’s brand of eerie horror with 2013’s “The Conjuring” (since I never was much of a “Saw” fan). It was a hat tip to an older style of horror, one that relies on atmosphere and a creepy story to build anxiety, as opposed to gory shock—reminding me, in particular, of the 1980 George C. Scott-starrer, “The Changeling.” What was most impressive was Wan’s mastery of a dreadful, utterly cinematic tone. I don’t believe in ghosts any more than I do the devil. But “The Conjuring” got under my skin in the same way “The Exorcist” did.

The ironic thing about “The Conjuring” was how much of a stealth Christian film it is. In a world filled with bad movies aimed squarely at the pious, “The Conjuring,” based on the “true” tales of Evangelical paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren was an incredibly effective horror film that I imagine went largely unnoticed (or avoided) by the “Left Behind ” crowd, who would have found it perfectly in line with their values despite not wearing them on its sleeve.

I think there’s something like that going on with “Malignant.” Though to say why would the movie give away too many surprises—unless, like “The Sixth Sense,” you figure out the secret in the first 10 minutes. Suffice to say, “Malignant,” Wan’s return to horror after the surprisingly fun “Aquaman,” feels like a personal film. One for the dark arts.

Following a mysterious cold open, we meet Madison and Derek Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis and Jake Abel), an expecting, young married couple. They get into a violent fight, after which Madison wakes up to find Derek dead. She’s promptly attacked by a shrouded stranger and loses consciousness. When Madison wakes again (in a hospital, now) she learns that her unborn child was also lost.

Upon her recovery, Shaw and Moss (George Young and Michole Briana White) arrive—two detectives assigned to the already weird case. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as Shaw and Moss, along with Madison, find themselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of murder and dark, familial secrets.

Wan is in peak shape here, pushing a somewhat threadbare formula to more inventive heights. His already excellent control of unnerving tension is bolstered by the evolution of his visual technique. The execution exhibits a sophistication that was always there but has been taken to new levels over Wan’s earlier films. Just check out the overhead tracking shot in the trailer to see what I mean.

The cast of unknowns acquit themselves well (with Wallis being a standout). Wan has always known how to get the performances he wants out of his actors. Stars don’t matter, and this isn’t really the kind of film that benefits from big names anyway. That money is better spent on everything else.     

A lot of the largely positive reactions pointed out Wan’s shift toward a Dario Argento-esque giallo influence, which I can see in the serial killer elements of the plot. Not so much in the actual look the film employs. Giallo, as a style, gained popularity the ‘70s, with its Kodak-shot, super saturated, primary colors, convoluted bloodletting, and a borderline operatic tone. “Malignant,” aside from a few shots, doesn’t really fit that bill. It looks and feels like a James Wan flick. Where “Malignant” does pick up Argento’s mantle is in its sense of narcotic shlock. Like a penny dreadful with a moral to the story. Or, basically, the best “X-Files” episode ever.

If that sounds like a slam, I assure you that it is not. Turn out the lights and fire it up.