It's no surprise that, when it comes to the horror genre, a film from director James Wan comes with certain expectations. The director built his reputation on films such as Saw and Insidious and even completely changed the impact horror has on general audiences with 2013's The Conjuring, which kicked off a full-on multi-movie franchise. Now, after going on to direct DC's blockbuster Aquaman for Warner Bros., Wan returns to the horror genre with the new, original film Malignant, and while it's a welcome return that boasts both some impressive practical effects and a genuinely thought-provoking premise that will excite horror connoisseurs – particularly fans of back-shelf '90s horror – Malignant somewhat fumbles its overall execution with an overstuffed story that delivers more camp than scares for the mainstream audience.
In Malignant, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) finds her life turned upside when, after she and her husband are attacked in a home invasion, she begins having horrifying visions of grisly murders, but soon discovers that these aren't simply visions. These murders are, in fact, real and it is as though she is witnessing them through the eyes of the killer. As the police investigate not only the attack on Madison but these murders as well, it becomes clear to both Madison and her sister (Maddie Hasson) that there's something far darker going on.
From the start, Wan keeps audiences guessing about what that "something far darker" actually is. The film's opening suggests the possibility of something otherworldly, perhaps aliens or an experiment gone wrong, while the deeper the viewer goes into the story, the more possibilities appear. Is it a ghost story? Serial killer? All of the above? The mystery unfolds itself alongside the police investigation, something that gives the film an interesting additional dimension, but, unfortunately, while it takes the characters the film's run time to sort things out, it's obvious fairly quickly who is responsible both for tormenting Madison and for the murders.
While solving the puzzle of a horror movie can be fun, the problem here is that, in solving things early on, there really isn't much to offer in terms of scares. Audiences looking to be frightened by this film aren't likely to get that sensation, save for a few early sequences that get the pulse pounding. Malignant relies almost too much on its mystery to carry it, but the story isn't strong enough for that responsibility. Neither are the performances, save for that of Wallis, who moves between terror and determination with ease. The relationship between Wallis's and Hasson's sisters is also well-done to the point that one is left to wonder how much the film would be improved had it forgone the police plot, as well as the distracting romantic subtext between the sister and one of the detectives entirely.
While the actual story itself somewhat comes apart, the film makes up for a good bit of that weakness in the third act with action. Dominated by high-energy, frenetic, violent, action sequences, the full ridiculousness of it all comes together in what Wan himself has called a blender of genres, and that might be the most accurate way of describing it. Cinematic art it is not, but it is highly entertaining when all of the pieces come together and downright ambitious with plenty of cues taken from the straight-to-video horror flicks of the 1990s. Seeing certain actors go full action-star with kinetic and often bloody fight sequences is almost enough to forgive the mixed metaphors and dangling subplots that give the movie a run time about 15 minutes longer than it needs to be.
Malignant is unlike Wan's previous work in a way that is both fascinating and a little disappointing. As a true love letter to the genre, the film leans into its most outlandish and weakest elements but, while there are some brilliant visuals and genuinely entertaining action sequences, a weaker story and predictable, albeit questionable, plot twists undermine the finished product. Without more solid scares and with the variety of genres being tossed in on top of the horror, the film tries to do a little too much for a little too long.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Malignant opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max on September 10th.