Part of James Wan compensation for the $1B success of Aquaman? It’s Malignant, a return to horror for the Insidious, Saw, and The Conjuring creator. A mish-mash of all three, the film leans heavy on gore, demon possession, and even haunted house thrillers for inspiration but, shockingly for Wan, fails to conjure up (pun intended) much presence of its own, but at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a lot of ghoulish pleasure to be had for those who decide to venture out and see it in a theater, or on HBO Max where they can cuddle up with someone on the couch with the lights out.
Based on a story concocted by Wan and his actress/wife Ingrid Bisu (The Nun), Malignant begins ominously, and violently enough, in one of those stormy psychiatric wards where everything can be cured with a healthy dose of electricity. It’s there that Dr. Weaver witnesses one of her patients murder the staff, then rip the arm of an armed security officer. “Time to cut out the cancer”, Weaver says as she and the remaining crew prepare to do something so ghastly even Wan doesn’t want to show it. Cut to a credits scene with enough scalpels cutting through skin to make any doctor squeamish.
In the present, Conjuring-verse vet Annabelle Wallis (of Annabelle, actually) plays Madison, a pregnant woman with a history of miscarriages, probably caused by her physically abusive husband (Jake Abel). He attacks her again, slamming her head against the wall so violently that she bleeds pretty much throughout the entire movie. Soon after, he is grotesquely murdered and displayed right there in their own home. The cops, one a dogged stick-up-the-butt type and the other not-so much (Michole Briana White, George Young) think Madison’s gone looney, and probably is the murderer. What they won’t believe is that she’s seeing visions of a twisted serial killer who is on a rampage against some familiar faces. The attacker calls himself Gabriel, also the name of Madison’s childhood imaginary friend. Oh gosh, might there be a connection?
The ridiculous premise lends itself to a campy horror full of increasingly outlandish deaths, and a central character so clueless she demands mockery. To her credit, Wallis nails Madison’s wide-eyed terror as she catches up to the obvious long after the audience does, while Wan creates an atmosphere that invites her over-the-top performance. What Malignant lacks is a clear identity that puts it in the same pantheon as Wan’s other genre hits. While there’s some perverse fun to be had, without a memorable boogeyman or protagonist Malignant can only spread so far.