Malignant is director James Wan’s first original film in nearly a decade. Since 2013’s The Conjuring, which in my opinion is the best film he has ever made, Wan made two horror sequels in Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring 2, and two huge blockbusters within major properties in Furious 7 and Aquaman. Though I enjoyed this run of movies from Wan, I was itching for Wan to make another original horror movie as he did with Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring.
Malignant is everything I wanted it to be and more. This is a movie that reminds you of all the movies Wan had made in the past but also shows him growing as a filmmaker and storyteller. Wan gives us the detective thriller of Saw, the action set pieces of Aquaman, and the terror of The Conjuring, while also diving into deeper themes of trauma and dabbling into psychological and body horror.
Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is a pregnant nurse who has already suffered three miscarriages. Her heavy-drinking, scummy husband Derek (Jake Abel) likes to remind her of this and is abusive to her, though Madison tries to keep quiet about it. One night, Madison finds Derek dead in a gruesome manner and is then attacked by a dark and mysterious figure. Unknowing of what happened or who attacked her and Derek, Detective Shaw (George Young) and Detective Moss (Michole Briana White) are assigned to find this mysterious attacker.
But following her return home from the hospital, Madison begins to have visions of gruesome murders that put her right at the scene of the crime, only for her to wake up the next morning screaming in her bed. Madison soon realizes that these visions are realities and must figure out the connection between her and these visions before more people are murdered.
Those going into Malignant expecting the relentless horror we saw from Wan in Insidious and The Conjuring should temper their expectations. Malignant has more on its mind than that. But don’t worry, there are plenty of scares throughout the film, both in terms of perfectly timed jump-scares and horrifying images that will haunt you long after you’ve left the theater (or turned it off on HBO Max). This is Wan’s most violent movie to date, which is impressive coming from the director of Saw, a film that launched the modern era splatter horror genre. There are several violent and bloody set pieces, all featuring Wan’s infamous swift camera moves and angles, with the most stunning being the jail cell sequence that features a skull getting crushed in, a hand going through a person’s torso, and numerous necks being broken. It’s brutal to watch but expertly crafted.
What Malignant really wants to focus on is its detective story and themes and, thanks to a fantastic screenplay by Akela Cooper, I could not have been more satisfied with the film going in this direction. You never know where Malignant is going or what is going to happen next. You might think you do, but Cooper and Wan know that you think you know what will happen and take the film in a totally different direction. The film is part murder mystery, part psychological horror, and part body horror film, all while Cooper slips in some sly humor and interesting themes. The mystery is gripping from the first time we see the dark and mysterious figure attack Derek. Who is it? What is it? What does Madison have to do with all of this? The longer the movie goes, the more you are invested in the characters and the mystery at hand, and when the third act hits, the movie hits hyper-drive and doesn’t slow down. There is a third-act revelation that made me audibly gasp in the theater. I could not believe what I was watching. It is a bold, twisted moment but one that elevated Malignant to horror greatness.
This is also the most emotional film in Wan’s filmography and his most character-driven. Wallis is sensational as Madison, a woman who has tried her best to suppress past traumas, only for them to now come back to her in horrifying ways. Reminiscent of Essie Davis’s performance in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Wallis wears trauma, fear, and exhaustion on her face and in her shoulders to convey the pain Madison is feeling while also belting out screams of terror. Cooper also adds in themes of loss and the effect of losing something and someone you love into the film to make for a more emotional richness than we are used to seeing in Wan’s films.
Though we waited eight years for another James Wan original horror movie, the wait was worth it. Malignant is one of the best movies of Wan’s career and one of my favorite movies of 2021. It is a bold, bloody, captivating film that shows Wan is a true master of horror while also continuing to push himself to try new tricks, new genres, and new themes. You’ll be gripped by the mystery, shocked by the twists and violence, and watch in amazement as one of the best filmmakers working today makes his most ambitious film to date.
Did you see Malignant? What did you think? What’s your favorite James Wan movie? Sound off in the comments below!