Review: Malignant (2021)

  • Director: James Wan
  • Writer: Akela Cooper
  • Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young


James Wan’s Malignant seems as though it came out of nowhere. Landing in cinemas and On Demand without much fanfare, especially for a Wan film, I can’t help but wonder if Warner Brothers just didn’t know how to market the film without making it appear to be something it isn’t, ruining the final act or both. I knew next to nothing about Malignant going in and that’s probably how it should be experienced. If you have not yet seen the movie, please stop reading as I will be going into seriously heavy spoiler territory.  Sincerely, go into Malignant with as little knowledge as possible and just see where it takes you because I have a feeling this is going to be a love/hate film that finds itself with a fervent cult fanbase.

Opening on a spooky hospital in 1993, we meet Doctor Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) as she tries to gain control of one of her patients. Gloomy fluorescent hospital lighting, electrical sparks, dramatic camera swoops and lots of screaming and gunshots later, we see that the patient that has just killed a handful of people is a young boy named Gabriel. Well, we don’t really see him so much as get a fuzzy glimpse through some plastic sheeting and then Dr. Weaver dramatically declares, “It’s time we cut out the cancer.”

Cut to present day and we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis) as she returns to her very old and very large home after a long day at work. She is clearly very pregnant, but that doesn’t stop her husband Derek (Jake Abel) from being an asshole. He makes a cruel remark about Madison having suffered miscarriages previously before physically assaulting her and it’s this altercation that sets the story in motion. Waking up with a still bleeding head wound, Madison also ends up confronting a mysterious entity in her house. Looking like a goth refugee from a 90’s J-Horror film, the biggest question is whether or not this intruder is real or of the supernatural variety and this is when things get interesting.

Director James Wan has a very specific horror aesthetic, but he also knows how to handle action with a fun, winking eye. Both of these talents are on full display in Malignant with some Giallo thrown in as well. What begins as a seemingly by the numbers supernatural film, slowly works it’s way to a batshit crazy third act that mixes horror with Matrix-like fighting all done by someone walking backwards. Let’s back up a bit.

Early on we learn that Madison was adopted. In a truly cheesy moment, Madison says to her sister, “Sydney, I’m adopted.” The camera zooms into Sydney’s face as dramatic synth music begins to play and it’s fucking perfection. There are quite a few of these dramatic facial reaction shots with accompanying music in the film and each one of them is magic. All of the actors treat these moments with just the right amount of sincerity before it becomes more like a Lifetime movie and less like Wan and Wallis giving the audience a cheeky nod. With characters named Sydney Lake and Kekoa Shaw, (and their adorable, clunky flirting) the twee-ness of everything is spot on and evened out by the comedic timing of Detective Regina Moss (Michole Briana White). Detective Moss is the kind of hardened cop who sucks on a lollipop while looking at a corpse in the morgue, gives her partner a hard time, approaches everything with a droll and sarcastic attitude and, quite frankly, has two of the best lines in the film.

As the mysterious entity begins murdering doctors, Madison is aware of the killings because she becomes psychically transported as a witness to them. Unsurprisingly, we learn that the killer is Gabriel and he has somehow learned to control Madison’s mind and can also communicate via electricity. Gabriel likes to call Madison and taunt her, telling her that she knows who he is and everyone lied to her when they said he’s all in her head. But here’s the thing: HE IS ALL IN HER HEAD! Gabriel is a teratoma, a type of tumor that can contain several different types of tissue, such as hair, muscle and bone. A parasitic twin, he developed in utero on Madison’s brain, thus, a Basket Case type of situation growing on the back of Madison’s head. As Gabriel’s strength and control began to grow, Dr. Weaver decided to excise him from Madison and any tissue that they couldn’t remove was suppressed into her skull and stitched back up. It’s all so literal and wackadoo, that it’s possibly the most amazing thing ever. Gabriel is someone who used to exist on his own, but whatever tissue was suppressed back into Madison kept doing what it does best and fed off of her and her foetuses until he was strong enough to be so much in her head that he can control her and this is where we get the third act of Madison’s body being led by Gabriel as he makes quick work of an entire holding cell of people (complete with the always excellent Zoe Bell) and the officers in the police station. Gabriel exists on the back of the skull, so her body is moving backwards and doing wild leg and arm movements as she does some Neo level fighting all while Madison’s face is, seemingly, asleep. It’s fucking wild and the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. There is gore, action and loads of WTF moments.

Wan has been catching flack from some for the gratuitous, dramatic camera work, but I have to firmly disagree with that. In particular, a tracking shot that does an overhead view of Madison’s house from the first floor, up the stairs and then through the second floor is a true beauty. There’s a peephole POV that is a great nod to Opera, the dramatic moment of Madison running through her giant house and shuttering all of her curtains, the mandatory abandoned hospital scene, the classic Wan shot of a front door opening by itself only to let in rustling leaves and more dramatic overhead shots than you can shake a weaponized medical trophy at. Malignant is over the top on purpose and it is done with the perfect amount of polish and cheesiness. Wallis deftly handles the responsibility of being a Final Girl while also playing villain and delivering sappy lines in a genuine way. In less capable hands, this would have been an utter disaster, but Akela Cooper’s screenplay, Wan’s direction and Wallis’s performance make for a wickedly absurd time that is not at all what anyone was expecting, but is exactly what we needed.

Lisa Fremont

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