It’s probably best to equate James Wan as that of a conductor of fear. As you watch films like Insidious and The Conjuring, it becomes easy to picture the director standing in front of the screen as though it were an orchestra, baton in hand — both guiding the stings of each violin, but also the general rise and fall of tension, and maybe even the predatory movements of the camera as it slinks around corners and races into petrified close-ups. It’s perhaps equally easy, however, to also imagine Wan firmly coaster-side, pulling the lever to shove a few cars of screaming teens up a rickety track. He strives to makes music from the lowly jump scare, at times turning multiplexes into funhouses in the process. He conducts horror. By either definition, that takes some chops, no matter if the end result exactly soars.
Wan’s latest, Malignant, is much more of a ride than a symphony. But it’s a ride that won’t let you forget about it. The film returns its director to his original genre wheelhouse after a stint in the VFX waters of comic-book cinema. The opening frames make that lurch back onto land, literally, as we skim the surface of a choppy sea to find a surely haunted hospital looming on the cliffside above like a Transylvanian manor. Over the two hours that follow, Wan will riffle through his bag of tricks with a renewed sense of diabolical purpose: zooming through peepholes, leering from the inside of washing machines, ripping down hallways, pushing invasively into the pale faces of his actors. When a gust of wind blows back the curtain of an open window, revealing the towering specter it was previously concealing, you can almost see the superimposed skeleton grin of the director, cackling through his rudimentary gag. Inside that medical facility, glimpsed in the violent prologue and returned to for much expository purposes later, lurks a croaking phantom — a poltergeist with the knifing habits of Jason Voorhees, the limberness of Ray Park, and the phone records of a serial killer taunting the authorities. A couple decades after slashing through the hospital workers, the shadow-cloaked “Gabriel” has reemerged to start hacking and slashing again. The ghoul’s killing spree begins in the home of one Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), who loses her unborn child — the latest in a line of miscarriages — along with her abusive husband in the attack. From there, she’ll be sucked into a sleep-paralysis psychic bond with the killer, her consciousness forced to helplessly witness each of the brutal slayings that follow.
The trembling Madison rather quickly telegraphs what any savvy viewer would put together immediately: that beauty and the beast have a history. Could it have something to do with Madison’s true family background? Or that horror-movie habit of kids making not-actually-so-imaginary friends? For a while, Malignant seems just a inch left of Blumhouse boilerplate in the story department. The supporting characters have all the dimension of Halloween decorations: the stock skeptical detectives; the nerdy CSI agent; Madison’s devoted actress sister (Maddie Hasson). We think, for a while at least, that we’ve inhaled the musty air of this crypt before.
But Malignant has surprises up its sleeve. It gets nuttier and gnarlier as it goes, the script weaponizing an audience’s assumed familiarity with the haunted-house tropes Wan helped re-popularize. Our reward for the healthy helpings of backstory, delivered via long scenes of characters watching grainy VHS tapes, is a fiendish reveal that shifts the movie’s lunacy up several notches. Malignant does more than redirect talents squandered on green-screens-turned-oceans. It also liberates Wan from the Sunday school of his more elegant Conjurings. This is not a movie with any pretensions of Catholic seriousness. It’s more unhinged in its tactics, pulling the filmmaker out of the wacky cons of the Warrens and reconnecting him with his bone-piercing-skin roots as the father of Jigsaw. There’s a touch of giallo here and there, but a lot of the film moves to the forefront the Sam Raimi influence that’s lurked like a repressed memory in the halls of Wan’s style. What is his endlessly ambulatory camera, after all, but a less caffeinated version of that demonic POV ripping at warp speed around The Evil Dead’s neck of the woods?
Regardless of one’s math on the ratio of fun to dumb in Aquaman, there’s no way to watch this deranged follow-up and not conclude that Wan’s back where he belongs. Still, a little of that time in the superhero trenches seems to have crept into his supernatural comeback. Malignant is a zany mess that, here and there, veers into gory action hilarity, as though Pazuzu had taken over the body of a Batman movie. Around the midway mark, one of those archetypal sleuths bolts after his parkouring demon perp — a chase that leads down a treacherous fire escape and into a warehouse space, where the cop runs right into… a carriage like the one that took Harker to the Count. Confirming that some of the best rides make some unexpected turns on the way to the next drop. Though at times overwrought in its messy camp, Malignant‘s genuine sense of all-out nuttiness finds ways to overpower the hodgepodge quality of its surroundings.
Malignant is available in Theaters nationwide and on HBO Max