James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ Stabs Through a Silly Premise With Bloody Laughs and Creepy Visuals

What should an established genre director do after launching three successful franchises? In the case of James Wan the choice seems to be indulging in ‘80s-style schlock. After a run that includes “Saw,” the first two “The Conjuring” films and “Aquaman,” Wan apparently got bored of slick productions and has made “Malignant.” His eye for well-composed gothic visuals is still present, as well as a knack for keen casting. Alas, it’s a bizarre gore fest with lots of mommy and sibling issues. Family secrets have always made for good horror. Here they make for some goofy spooks topped off with a screeching soundtrack.

The movie opens on a dark night in the ‘90s, naturally, in a medical facility that looks like a massive castle by the sea. Dr. Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie ) sits in front of a camera and informs us about a patient named Gabriel, who is apparently out of control. Weaver mentions the need to “cut out the cancer.” Opening credits follow with close-ups of surgical procedures and other goodies before we arrive at the present. Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is a pregnant woman who has already endured several miscarriages and is trapped in an abusive marriage to Derek (Jake Abel), who apparently doesn’t like the fact that she’s pregnant again. A vicious fight results in Derek pushing Madison against a wall, knocking her out and sending her to the hospital. She awakens to discover she has again lost a baby. Back at their house, Derek is attacked by a shadowy entity who kills him in gruesome fashion. Once Madison returns home, she begins to feel the dark presence and starts having visions of new murders involving specific targets. Radio and phone messages begin to transmit in a crackling, eerie voice identifying itself as Gabriel. 

Wan is an efficient director and visual stylist, and for the first half “Malignant” works as B-movie fun with vintage zooms, moments presented with the look of worn VHS, and music by Joseph Bishara that continues an ongoing trend of referencing bygone synth scores. The screenplay by Wan and Akela Cooper works best before it reveals its secrets and relies on typical jump scares. We get those moments where Madison looks out at her window and a street light suddenly turns off or a doomed character walks into a kitchen to find that somehow the fridge door is already open. Shadowy killers also work better in these things when they rush the camera snarling, but we can’t see their faces. As the plot unfolds you almost want to give Wan a knowing smirk, as if he must be doing certain things in this movie meant to pull our leg. The ensuing murders feel gimmicky on purpose, as if we’re meant to laugh when a chubby doctor gets plowed with a medical award turned knife by the long-haired, leather coat-dressed assassin. Wan must be grinning when Madison blurts to her sister early on, “Sydney, I’m adopted!” 

Everyone in a supporting role is part of a cliché parade. There’s George Young as Kekoa Shaw, the detective investigating the gruesome killings that litter the movie, his partner Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), meant to be the tougher cop, and Madison’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), who of course is a struggling actress with an instant attraction to the detective. Wan’s spouse Ingrid Bisu is very likeable as a nerdy forensic team member who also crushes on a clueless Shaw. “Malignant” isn’t really about the characters when it enters the wild and off the rails third act. While maintaining the film’s secrets, consider that what we have here is a hybrid of Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” meets the anatomical fantasies of David Cronenberg with a dash of “The Omen,” or any other scary movie involving damned childhoods. If you also have a phobia concerning surgeries, stay away. When the killer’s true identity is revealed and its connection to Madison’s childhood and experiments carried out at the medical facility from the opening scenes, instead of being terrified, you might just feel puzzled and comically entertained. Many of those pesky questions of logic arise, such as, how would this particular body part know how to do that? Can you really hide such a thing in your skull for years and all it takes is one punch to wake it up? How can it communicate via radio? Are they just going to leave that guy bleeding out in the hallway?

“Malignant” borrows much from the old schlocky horror playbook, mostly in confusing gore for real fright. After you get a first glimpse at the killer’s deformed face, which looks like a cross between a snarling skull and a brain, the shock is gone and you yawn at the endless screaming effects. Because Wan is directing, the technical craft isn’t without merit. What we end up with is another curious case of a bad movie that isn’t boring precisely because it’s such a curiosity to behold. Maybe that’s what Wan was aiming at. He’s such a student of horror films, as was evident in the way “The Conjuring” winked at ‘70s classics that he might have just gone into this one feeling like it was time to be really whacky on purpose. “Malignant” is premiering in theaters and HBO Max simultaneously, but the best way to see it might be at midnight, in the grimiest theater you can find in the outskirts of town, with a group of friends and plenty of alcohol.

Malignant” releases Sept. 10 on HBO Max and in theaters nationwide.