Brant Lewis describes Malignant as a horror rollercoaster that perfectly embraces its campiness.
[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]
James Wan has continued to make waves in modern horror, establishing the Saw (2004), Insidious (2010), and The Conjuring (2013) franchises. Malignant (2021), written by Akela Cooper, served as Wan’s return to horror following Aquaman (2018) and reinforced his creative and unique vision as a director. His commitment to the film’s campy tone and fantastical horror created an instant masterpiece.
Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis), a nurse and expecting mother, lives with her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel), in Seattle. During a particularly aggressive argument, he slams her head against the wall, causing the back of her head to bleed. To protect her unborn child, Madison locks herself in their bedroom to hide from Derek, eventually falling asleep. She dreams of a mysterious figure, Gabriel (Marina Mazepa), murdering her husband, only to wake up and discover he has been killed in real life. She begins to experience visions of more murders. With the help of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), she investigates what’s happening to her while attempting to prove to the police she isn’t mentally unstable or a murderer.
The film’s striking visual style immediately stands out thanks to its director of photography Michael Burgess. He often uses the camera in fascinating ways, such as a complete overhead shot of Madison running through the house as if moving through an intricate maze from above. It’s reminiscent of the overhead maze shot in The Shining (1980). His elegant camera work is completely fluid. When Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) chases Gabriel through Seattle’s underground, the scenes beautifully highlight his technicality in filmmaking in collaboration with Wan. The camera masterfully tracks Shaw and Gabriel, keeping the tension of the chase built up while ensuring the audience keeps up. With the added stunt work of Gabriel gliding and climbing around the space, Wan’s direction is evident of a master filmmaker.
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Mazepa’s physical performance as Gabriel, using her experience as a contortionist, helped the character to feel grounded while allowing for a physicality impossible for most humans to achieve. Her specific movements and choices make Gabriel a more defined and distinctive character. Ray Chase's vocal performance as the character deserves recognition as well. He gives the monster just the right level of menace to scare audiences—perfectly pairing with Mazepa’s movements. Gabriel's costume design by Lisa Norcia aided in making the monster stand out in a sea of horror villains. Gabriel’s black jacket, gloves, glimmering knife, and fluid movements make for a chilling new horror icon.
Malignant embraces camp with intensely melodramatic moments, like Madison discovering she’s adopted, the intense score that virtually copies "Where is My Mind” by The Pixies, and one-liners like "It’s time we cut out the cancer." Wan plays it straight and doubles down on the camp with the over-the-top villain and the stylistic production design choices. This should not be surprising given Wan’s reputation with films like Insidious (2010), but the film’s playful elements are well-stirred.
Wallis and Hassonhave fantastic chemistry illustrating an authentic sisterly bond. The story primarily focuses on Madison and Gabriel, the on-screen sisters, perfectly conveying the tension between them as their relationship becomes complicated throughout the story. Cooper's script centers around family and aims to display a positive view of “found family” due to Madison's adopted status. Even when this comes to light, Sydney never dismisses her as her sister and reinforces their relationship. Ultimately, their strong sisterly bond helps Madison succeed in the film’s final act.
Wan demonstrates why he’s a strong and sought-after horror director with Malignant. It served as a surprise release to delight audiences during the pandemic. The film is a labor of love that Wan aims to set apart from his previous projects. It excels with a playful level of camp, a unique villain, and stunning visuals.
Malignant is now streaming on HBO Max.