Malignant Synopsis: Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact the terrifying realities.
Even as he’s amassed financial and critical success, James Wan still doesn’t receive enough praise for being the leading voice in modern horror. Wan’s adept craftsmanship has spearheaded three of the millennium’s marquee horror franchises (Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring), with each embracing traditioned horror aesthetics through Wan’s dynamic verve behind the camera.
The director’s latest spooky endeavor, Malignant, is his boldest descent yet. Operating with full carte blanche, Wan meshes Giallo, 80s slasher, and an array of horror influences in a bold genre concoction. His effort radiates with passion and adept craftsmanship, creating a piece of high-art camp that will go down as one of this generation’s definitive cult classics.
Wan’s direction isn’t unbridled by the tendencies of modern horror – with the craftsman reaching for the stars with a chaotic blend of loving influences. Malignant conjures the image of video store camp that permeated the marketplace in the 80s and 90s, refreshingly steering away from the self-serious posturing behind far too many modern horror outings.
From melodramatic screeches of the score to laughably stiff dialogue exchanges, Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper cleverly capture the spirit of this bygone era without descending into mawkish self-awareness. There’s never a wink at the camera or moments of smug cutesiness – Wan instead establishes an adoring love letter to his vast array of influences. The tandem spin a wildly unhinged narrative, including an infectiously insane third act that has rightfully drawn jaw-dropping reactions (no spoilers here, everyone should experience it with their own eyes).
From a direction standpoint, Wan’s already impressive work reaches new heights in visceral craftsmanship. He and Cinematographer Michael Burgess unload a limitless bag of tricks, morphing even the most rudimentary of horror bits into lively pieces of cinema. Astute audiences can point out Wan’s numerous sources of inspiration, but each panache is reinvigorated under the director’s visceral eye. The camera swerves with relentless energy while bold lighting choices and buckets of bloodshed paint the screen with colorful imagery. Similar to Gabriel himself, there’s a reckless abandon streak in Wan’s work that’s shamelessly enjoyable to embrace.
Malignant has driven a stark division of reactions – with the film’s campy performance work being a central target for several critics. To me, I think the acting is getting a bad wrap. While most of the performances work due to their campy, soap opera delivery (the buddy cop duo played by George Young and Michole Briana White are a hoot in their self-serious line deliveries), star Annabelle Wallis provides a much-needed emotional core. As Maddison, Wallis effectively conveys the character’s mental breakdown and longing for emotional connection. Co-star Maddie Hasson also elevates the material’s straightforward nature, with the duo cobbling a semblance of emotionality from the campy romp.
Like a lost relic from a bygone time, Malignant feels timeless in its bold recontextualization of horror influences. It feels like James Wan can do no wrong at this point, and I hope audiences begin to fully appreciate him as one of this generation’s defining voices.
Malignant is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.
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