2021 | rated R | starring Annabelle Wallis | directed by James Wan | 1 hr 51 mins |

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

While he’s enjoyed a lot of acclaim with atmospheric haunted house movies like The Conjuring and Insidious, there are – like George Costanza packing for a trip – many shades and moods to the horror films of director James Wan. Everyone expecting another ghost story built out of meticulously crafted misdirected jump scenes a la The Conjuring is going to get the rug pulled out from under them by Malignant. Opening in a psychiatric hospital on a cliffside in a rainstorm, with a monster that seemingly controls electricity attacking the wardens, the film’s first scene announces it’s intentions in the cheesiest, most stomach-sinking possible ways (I thought, “oh this could be bad”) and then Wan spends the rest of the film doubling and tripling down on that ridiculousness, feverishly mounting a synth-rock piece of hyper-stylized schlock horror. This is the kind of unpretentious, totally absurd movie’s movie that audiences will either love or hate.

Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis, Conjuring universe film Annabelle) looses her husband and unborn baby in one night when a mysterious figure appears in the house, murders him and attacks her. Soon she starts suffering a paralysis and accompanying visions of the creature attacking and killing other people, the apparent psychic link between her and the killer arouse suspicion in the Seattle police and send Madison and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) down a rabbit hole investigation of forgotten childhood memories, adopted parents and an imaginary friend that might be all too real.

James Wan is back in wacky Saw / Dead Silence modebut this time the results are unequivocally glorious. Difficult to summarize and increasingly bonkers, Malignant isn’t a scary movie, or even a ghost story. It’s a slasher film that rides that fine line of producing something different while paying homage to it’s inspirations. Here Wan moves from 70s haunted house horror to 70s Italian Giallo films and gimmicky slasher movies. Mimicking their visual style and utter shamelessness, Malignant recalls Dario Argento and Brian DePalma, Deep Red, Sisters, The Fury mixed with a Frank Henenlotter filmIn this movie our villain wields a makeshift golden dagger probably just because the color popped on the film’s palette. Wan eschews atmosphere and jumps for action, gore and raw high energy.

This is a story that in the hands of an inferior filmmaker would be a disaster – but Wan knows how to make a horror movie, diving into this nuthouse story and assembling it with a filmmaker’s style and just enough of a straight face to make the campy parts fun and the creepy parts effective.  It’s the best looking slasher movie I’ve seen in a long time, in addition to it’s vibrant color palette, Wan offers several crisp tracking shots, one top-down over Madison’s house as she runs through the rooms (akin to Minority Report), another very effective set piece set to the film’s unofficial theme – a sample of a Safari Riot remix of The Pixie’s “Where is My Mind?” that slots perfectly into a horror film.

Malignant doesn’t transcend it’s camp and influences to become a true classic, limited by anemically undeveloped characters. Wallis is totally game for the balls-out physicality of the role without any vanity, but the script doesn’t give her much depth beyond moving through the mechanics of the plot. Malignant is ostensibly a story of sisters (back to DePalma), one where a lonely girl found family in her adopted sister. It’s unclear if Wallis and Hasson just don’t have the chemistry spark to make it work or if the film doesn’t give us an opportunity to see their relationship – but either way that deflates the final conflict. The film just kind of ends, not poorly, but in an anti climax that wraps it up but doesn’t escalate as gonzo as the rest of the film. The special effects range from kind of convincing prosthetics to terrible CGI. The animated action in a police station massacre is as phony as it comes – but in fairness it is also delivering an impossible visual I’ve never seen before and my mind would have rejected anyway.

For all of it’s crazy ideas, Malignant is a mousetrap of tightly scripted red-herrings and plot twists. Too tight to let the characters breath. I did like the film’s take on the usual genre useless cops (George Young and Michole Briana White) who trade barbs with Sydney’s contention that the police solve crimes with psychics. White knocks out the best lines in the film without it being too jokey. The central mystery centers around what this monster is. Is it a demon,  a creature or a physical person? Malignant’s creation seems to have 2 arms and legs, but a monstrous face, it appears out of nowhere, talks through electricity, flips down fire escapes and crawls around like a spider. Wan keeps that reveal for the film’s final twist – and it is a show-stopper. One that is both as insane as it is only-in-a-movie cinematic and (at least on first pass) seems to make total sense in the film’s internal logic.

James Wan has spun his influences and own style into a wild corker of a film here. Malignant is a blast. A cheesy, campy B-movie that wears that badge on it’s sleeve and commits 100% to it’s own bloody, skull-crushing madness – wrapped up in a stylish bow. Wan makes this movie work by sheer filmmaking resourcefulness. He empties all the bullets, then throws the gun, then throws the holster at us. It will be very, very hard for 2021 to produce another movie as wonderfully batsh*t crazy as Malignant. One of the most purely entertaining slasher films I’ve seen in a long time and one of the most entertaining movies of this year.