Some people will try and tell you that “Malignant” is good: don’t let them. The newest offering by 21st-century suspense maestro James Wan, the film feels like a rough first draft with stock sitcom characters plugged into all roles as placeholders to keep things afloat until its wild third act. To Wan’s credit, he does give the audience a gory finale that is almost enough to justify the previous 90 minutes. Yet, even this can’t keep “Malignant” from collapsing under the strain of its internal tonal struggle, where it suffers a fate worse than any of its on-screen victims.
The story revolves around Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a Seattle resident who has a vision of her spouse’s murder one night after a brutal domestic violence incident. When Madison wakes, she learns that the vision was no dream but, in fact, a real event, with local police detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) interested in her recollections of the evening in question. However, the killing doesn’t stop with Madison’s husband, with Shaw and Moss catching more bodies in the following days that seem to fit the same murder profile.
The slayings are tied together by more than just the killer’s M.O., though: Madison keeps getting visions of the murders, witnessing each in a hypnotic state that seems to almost put her in the room. Madison reconnects with her estranged kid sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), and begins to piece together memories from her childhood to get closer to her connection with the killer, even enlisting the help of the skeptical cops along the way. And while the ultimate “who” of the central mystery remains hidden until the desired reveal, everything leading up to it is painfully rote and ham-fisted.
The script by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper doesn’t populate this world with anything resembling a real human being or words that might be expected to come out of their mouths. Madison lives in a neoclassical Seattle mansion that would cost literally millions. Yet, her source of wealth is never explained, nor are any elements of her personality outside of what’s needed to lube the gears of the story. Likewise, Shaw and Moss read less like real people and more like sitcom cut-outs of cops, and similar to Madison, have no real personality or pathos outside of their script-mandated schtick.
Watching “Malignant,” one gets the sense that working on “Aquaman” seems to have broken Wan’s tonal compass. A film can take itself seriously and still be outrageous in the superhero genre because that tone is baked into the fabric of the text. By side-stepping annoying contrivances like character development for the bigger picture, characters can play to a broad archetype in that world because the spectacle is the objective, with all other considerations secondary to making the extraordinary possible. You can’t get away with this so easily with suspense-horror, however, where the audience needs to believe in the world and get scared right alongside the protagonist(s).
With “Malignant,” Wan’s direction and the script want the audience to buy into the dread of this menace, yet it’s hard to do that while ignoring the cartoonish absurdity of the world they’ve built up around Madison. Because the movie hasn’t set any of these characters up beyond the basic structural foundation of their role in the central mystery, it’s hard to care if Madison or anyone else, really, dies. Indeed, in the rush to get to the unveiling of the mystery and the admittedly fun finale, all other considerations seem to have been sidelined.
Some people will gleefully fist-pump this film’s ultra-gory final act with the same enthusiasm they cheered on an octopus playing the drums back in 2018, and while the mileage on a person’s enjoyment of “Aquaman” may vary depending on their enjoyment of underwater superhero shenanigans, there’s little to buttress “Malignant” in this regard. The characters and tone flirt with the comically simple, which might have excused the lack of investment there, yet Wan never lets anyone in on the joke, keeping everything deadly serious. This works for a time in the early action sequences but returns with diminishing returns as the film progresses, finding no help in characters that aren’t allowed to develop or comment on the absurdity of it all.
In other words, if Wan had gone full tongue-in-cheek, selling out all other considerations to execute his insane concept and finale, that might have been fine; conversely, if the movie had developed its characters and created a real-world setting for this mad-cap lunacy, it might have passed that sniff test. “Malignant” does neither, going sort of halfsies in each camp, resulting in a film that isn’t especially scary or interesting. The gore is top-notch, and things take a turn for the better in the last 25 minutes, yet it’s not enough to save the movie, which is decidedly not good, no matter what the octopus drummer-lovers in your life might tell you. [D]