The usually reliable horror auteur can't elevate an unintentionally funny script delivered by some of the year's worst performances
No matter how much of Malignant’s promotional material you see, there is absolutely no way to prepare yourself for what James Wan’s latest horror offering actually turns out to be. What looked to be a ghoulish, supernatural, quasi-ghost story, akin to his Wan’s work on the Conjuring and Insidious series is instead an utterly bonkers and hilariously brainless thriller that plays like an even more ridiculous version of the Resident Evil franchise.
Malignant follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis, face lost behind a rat’s-nest black wig of truly cavernous proportions), a domestic abuse survivor who finds herself psychically linked to an inhumanly agile serial killer, who forces her to look through his eyes as he kills. Wan shoots the kills themselves with an excitable flair, his hyper-mobile camera flying through walls and ceilings, which makes the murders enjoyably kinetic, but also swiftly robs them of any real scare power, never lingering anywhere long enough to unnerve or chill you.
It’s also hard to be scared for characters who are among the dumbest the horror genre has produced in, at least, the last decade. As Madison, her sister, and the police hunt for the killer and try and establish his connection to Madison, the witless script has them constantly making the worst possible decisions with the flimsiest possible justifications. So much of the dialogue and exposition lands with a unintentionally funny clang that it’s hard to believe that Malignant isn’t trying to be a parody of itself, a feeling compounded by the across-the-board awful performances.
Even as the body count piles up, Wan never manages to actually make the stakes feel all that high, with a lot of scenes building to dull anti-climaxes, where we either cut away from a kill in favour of some more exposition, only seeing the aftermath. In perhaps the most egregious example, at one point Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) visits the now-abandoned research hospital that once housed Madison as a child. Even when you ignore the painfully dumb decision-making (Sydney goes alone, at night, when the police would be happy to explore the place as an obvious lead), nothing scary even happens here – after Sydney hears a couple of creaks in the dark, she finds what she’s looking for without incident and heads home.
Time and again, Malignant sacrifices scares and atmosphere for leaden and poorly acted lore-building. It makes for a film that is constantly pivoting between dull and accidentally funny – the third act is so ludicrous, with a jaw-droppingly bad final scene, that Malignant briefly ascends to the hallowed so-bad-it’s-good territory, but even these laughs at its own expense can’t be maintained.
2021 has already seen an abundance of horror movies that quite simply aren’t scary enough (see: Spiral, Don’t Breathe 2, Candyman), and if anyone was going to correct that balance, you might have put good money on it being James Wan, cutting loose with a low-budget slasher between Aquaman assignments. Sadly, Malignant is another one to add to that fear-free scrapheap, a giant misstep for a usually reliable horror director that, from start to finish, offers far more laughs than gasps.
Malignant is now showing in UK cinemas.Where to watch