‘Malignant’ Film Review: James Wan Breaks All the Horror Rules, With Gusto

The “Conjuring” director sucks viewers into his mad monster vortex of sketchy ideas and viscera

Ron Batzdorff/Warner Bros.

With “Malignant,” James Wan reminds us that no matter how many billion-dollar mainstream movies he directs (two and counting), he’s still a super kooky horror auteur whose biggest influences are Ozploitation, Italian supernatural thrillers and good old-fashioned scuzz cinema.

Hot off the superhero blockbuster “Aquaman,” it seems as though Wan is eager to let off some steam. “Malignant” boasts exciting visual effects, but it’s a small-scale shocker seeking only an audience of envelope-pushing scary movie buffs. That gives the filmmaker the freedom to make the sort of ultraviolent thriller Lucio Fulci and Frank Henenlotter might have co-directed in the early 1980s if they had carte blanche and a blank check.

“Malignant” stars Annabelle Wallis (“Annabelle”) as Madison, a woman with visions of a bizarre serial killer named Gabriel with a penchant for slaughtering retired doctors. Madison wasn’t in a good place to begin with, having recently endured multiple miscarriages and an abusive relationship with her husband Derek (Jake Abel, “Supernatural”).

Does Madison have a psychic link with a madman? Or is something far more eccentric afoot, the sort of oddball supernatural mystery that can only be solved by our troubled hero, her plucky sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson, “We Summon the Darkness”), a hunky detective named Kekoa (George Young, “A Bread Factory”) and his partner Regina (Michole Briana White, “Songbird”)?

Wan visually constructs “Malignant” like a lurid giallo, with elaborate and operatic cinematography by Michael Burgess (“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”) that constantly threatens to jump off the screen and throttle you. But Wan is such a cunning horror craftsperson that even the film’s clearly stated genre could be a misdirect. When “Malignant” shows us an empty and foreboding room, we know a scare is coming. The surprise is where it comes from and what form it takes.

Even if you do manage to get on “Malignant’s” wavelength and predict where the surreal plot is headed, you’ll probably get whiplash when it unfolds. The film’s third-act centerpieces are unpredictably strange and absolutely breathtaking. To hell with the rules, to hell with storytelling sanity, Wan is having so much fun being freaky that we get swept up in his manic energy. He’s a tornado of sketchy ideas and viscera, and he’s sucking us all into his mad monster vortex.

If you can step outside of “Malignant’s” spell long enough to question it — not advisable, but let’s follow this thread anyway — you might pull your hair out. “Malignant” understands psychology the way the “Fast and Furious” movies understand physics, and while the movie begins with Gabriel focused on a singular motive, if one examines the total body count at the end, it’s hard to ascertain who this movie is really even mad at. One gets the distinct impression that all Wan really wanted to do was kill a lot of characters as spectacularly as possible, just for the hell of it, because it’s fun.

Well, mission accomplished: “Malignant” might not hold up to scrutiny, but by the time all its mysteries are revealed, it’s clear that it was never supposed to. It’s an absurdly entertaining frightfest with a heavy emphasis on the absurd, and thank heaven — or hell — for it.

“Malignant” opens in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max on Sept. 10.

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