Malignant has been advertised as director James Wan’s (The Conjuring, Insidious) return to the horror genre, and that is somewhat true, but there’s more to it than that. The film’s promotional material places a lot of emphasis on images of a leather-clad killer skulking in the background, and a terrified heroine haunted by visions of death and murder. The atmosphere is sinister, tense—promising a horror-thriller that will leave you hanging on the edge of your sofa.
But being a traditional horror-thriller is not what Malignant is here to do. Leading up to the movie’s release, Wan was interviewed by Bloody Disgusting magazine to tease horror fans about what they could expect from his return to horror. Wan said that Malignant was his own take on the Giallo horror genre, drawing inspiration from Giallo masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava to take the genre in “[his] own direction.” The result of Wan’s ode to horror and Giallo? A bonkers, over-the-top triumph of gory camp and melodrama.
For those who may not be familiar with the Giallo genre, here is a quick break-down:
- Giallo are a sub-genre of horror, often getting lumped under the umbrellas of horror-thriller or horror-mystery.
- Creation of the genre is usually credited to Italian filmmakers who began adapting popular translations of pulp-fiction classics into highly stylized and subversive films — which mostly took place during the 1940s-1970s.
- A typical Giallo film may include…
- A masked, leather-clad killer
- Excessive violence; theatric and very bloody murders
- Colorful lighting and surreal imagery
- An emphasis on psychological conflict
- A protagonist who is considered to be an outsider or untrustworthy
- While Giallo are primarily viewed as an Italian filmmaking tradition, certain film historians consider Giallo to be the precursor to American slasher films like Friday the 13th!
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the movie…
Malignant opens on an establishing shot of a gothic-looking hospital towering precariously on the edge of a foggy and moonlit cliff. Almost immediately, we get thrown into the action as Doctor Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her medical staff are trying to subdue a violent and very powerful patient named Gabriel. A guard gets his arm broken like a twig, a doctor is flung to the wall like a child’s toy, and corpses litter the room where Gabriel was supposed to be contained. After tranquilizing the little demon—whose twisted face and tiny T-rex arms we catch a glimpse of—Dr. Weaver yells: “You’ve been a bad, bad boy Gabriel!” before ordering her remaining staff to “cut out” Gabriel for good.
Was this how I expected the movie to begin? Not at all. Was this the “horror” movie I thought I signed up for? It sure didn’t look like it, no. But did this make me excited as hell to see what other twists and turns this film was going to throw at me? Absolutely.
Jumping forward twenty-seven years, the film now follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis) as her life becomes increasingly entangled with a killer stalking the streets of Seattle—whose gruesome killings get projected into Maddie’s head as if she were standing in the room as they happened. I won’t spoil major plot points, but to give you a taste of how the story goes, Malignant’s plot juggles elements of soap-opera-esque melodrama, police procedural, and psychological/supernatural horror all in one. The third act (which I consider the most fun to watch) is a straight-up action movie thriller with a freaky killer tearing through people left and right like he’s the John Wick of Camp Crystal Lake. The main strength of the third act is a strength that the movie possesses as a whole—Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper aren’t afraid to get weird. The central twist revealed by the third act is somewhat predictable, but watching the subsequent bloodbath sprawl out is as captivating as it is playful.
However, this all isn’t to say that Malignant is void of any scares. I won’t say that this film has the power to terrify, but there are moments that certainly unnerve or catch one off guard. The killer’s body language is often unsettling, and there are a few scenes where Wan carefully lingers on his movement to evoke a sense of body horror from viewers. There is one scene in particular that gave me goosebumps—when Detective Shaw (George Young) chases the killer through the underground of Old Seattle, where we can see the killer scurrying across the dusty floors like a spider chasing its next meal.
But these moments of fear are fleeting, because Malignant isn’t really designed to scare you. In fact, the film’s weakest moments are when it tries too hard to be a horror movie. Each killing is appropriately stylish, but the build-ups can feel a bit drawn-out or cliche for my liking. The murderer’s second target gets stalked in his apartment by the shadowy and fast-moving villain — who always vanishes right before the target is able to see him. It’s a competently constructed sequence, but it lacks any real suspense in the context of the silliness and absurdity that is the entire rest of the film. Malignant is at its best when it acknowledges that it only wears the trappings of terror, but exists as something else altogether.
Ultimately, Malignant is a bloody joyride, filled with dazzling color palettes (Wan is sure to flood certain sequences with spades of crimson light), bizarre drama, and a campy tone that (mostly) doesn’t take itself too seriously. James Wan’s take on the Giallo genre is exciting and unexpected—something that the current Hollywood landscape could sorely use more of.