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Malignant Review: A Gleeful Splatterfest

As the superhero movie industrial complex continues to swallow the film industry whole, the idea of a filmmaker dipping their toe into big-budget blockbusters as a means to an end keeps dwindling. Directors may think they can make "one for them," with "them" being the mass market who can't get enough of the capes, as a shortcut to being able to make "one for me," with "me" being the delusional artist who thinks they can get an original work greenlit with a big hit under their belt. For the most part, though, every auteur who makes the jump, particularly in the MCU, seems to stay in that realm, unable to extricate themselves and get back to what brought them to the dance.

But not James Wan. After the success of 2018's "Aquaman" but before returning to the seven seas with 2022's "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom," Wan is giving back to the horror genre that put him on the map with his new film "Malignant," indulging in every absurd whim his pop cultural cache has earned him. It is, without a doubt, the most "one for me" movie to be released by a major studio in years.

Someone needs to fashion a new kind of award to the marketing team at Warner Bros. for curating such a deceptive trailer for "Malignant," as early looks at the film suggest it to be the kind of interchangeable, safe spook-fest that always delivers at the box office. There's something about some murders, some grisly, intrusive visions of said murders, a mysterious, potentially supernatural baddie and a young woman caught in its web. You know, typical horror movie stuff. 

But "Malignant" is far from typical. This is hands down one of the most ballistic and unfettered expressions of creativity to come down the pike in ages. Even if, once all its twists and turns have been revealed, the viewer may be moved to cackle so loudly their lungs want for air, it's all executed with such verve and delight that it cannot be denied. 

Judging a book by its cover

In "Malignant," a pregnant woman named Maddie (Annabelle Wallis) is consumed by the ever-present specter of death. When we meet her, she's had multiple miscarriages, seemingly the result of her dirtbag husband's relentless physical abuse. But when she loses her baby this time, she wakes up to find her spouse murdered, before becoming haunted by visions of other brutal killings. These nightmares are so vivid, it's as if Maddie is there in the rooms they happen in, even though she wakes up alone, confused, and tormented.

As a pair of detectives (George Young and Michole Briana White) try to solve this grotesque series of murders, Maddie has only her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), an actor, on her side, as her strange connections to the case beg questions no one seems to have the answers to, leading down a narrative path that suggests some otherworldly explanations. But without heavily spoiling "Malignant," because this is a movie best experienced as blind as humanly possible, "otherworldly" doesn't come close to encompassing the sheer, unadulterated insanity of the film's revealing second half.

Put simply, it will shock you how wrong you probably are about where this movie goes. Oh, for sure the most eagle-eyed and cinema-weary among you will, after a few choice dominos begin to fall, put the puzzle pieces together and stay one step ahead of the film, accurately guessing at least one key piece of the movie's twisty third act. But even if accurately reading the tea leaves brings you close to spelling out what Wan and company have in mind, the likelihood you'll be able to anticipate how refreshingly gonzo the film's brash execution becomes is as slim as the chances of this balls out, bloody screed somehow not birthing a litany of sequels.

"Malignant" is like an ornately decorated trojan horse, promising the most rote of scary movie experiences while deceptively housing some of the most ridiculous genre-blending madness anyone has brought to the multiplex in quite some time. Whether it's good or bad feels beside the point. Your mileage may obviously vary depending on whether you collect VHS tapes of obscure splatterfests or how tolerant you are of cinematic ideas so profoundly stupid they become indistinguishable from high art. 

But what really matters is that a director as big and successful as James Wan, someone whose past successes have afforded him the opportunity to play his cards close to the vest and ride out a maintainable brand, has decided to give into reckless abandon and light the screen on fire with a raw and incendiary energy that's more affecting and enlightening than any plot particulars that may get dunked on by the film's inevitable detractors.

As a man in a bowling shirt might exclaim at a powerful jazz solo, "he's off the map!"

Setting that very same book ablaze

When discussing "Rebel Without a Cause" director Nicolas Ray within the pages of "Cahiers Du Cinéma," Jean-Luc Godard once remarked, "if the cinema no longer existed, he alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to." Swap "cinema" for "bloody gorefests" and the same could be said of Wan. With both "Furious 7" and "Aquaman," he's proven he can deliver the goods outside the horror genre, but rather than leave his roots in the dust, he repeatedly uses his enhanced bonafides to return over and over, each time finding new ways to capture audiences' fears in a bombastic, endlessly re-watchable way.

But "Malignant," it must be said, is less scary than it is awe-inspiring. It's a caffeinated, high-concept synthesis of so many of Wan's biggest influences, with Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, and Sam Raimi each coming to mind at different frenetic points in the film. This is bravura filmmaking at its most unhinged, with cameras that whip, zoom, and crash in on exponentially more contrived and confounding plot developments with freakish glee. Joseph Bishara's synth-driven score is so ostentatious in its throwback energy that it makes the film literally feel like it's pulsing to the beat of a cyborg's heart, a movie that feels like it was plucked straight out of the bargain bin of a video store from an alternate dimension. 

There is so much blood, so much bone-crunching incredulity in the way the story unfolds, that once the closing credits finally arrive, it'll be easy to wonder if you just dreamt the whole thing.

It's difficult to articulate exactly how special "Malignant" feels, but in a world where every new trailer feels like the entire movie made miniature, a two and a half minute summary sped up to the rhythm of a Tik Tok, dropping a movie this bold and frantic after the feint of its samey marketing feels like a feat. You expect a certain level of sublime absurdity when a friend shows up with some weird cult movie on DVD with cover art straight out of a Fangoria back issue, or hitting up a midnight showing at your local rep house. But getting that same energy from an important piece of a major studio's release slate, from one of its most successful filmmakers, coming off making a billion dollars on a movie about a himbo who talks to fish?

That's rare.

"Malignant" must be seen to be believed. Who knows if you'll actually like it or not. But you absolutely must experience it.