REVIEW: Malignant (2021)

Madison Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is viciously assaulted by her abusive husband. When she sleeps she experiences a vision of an intruder entering their home and murdering him. When she wakes, she finds her husband dead just as she dreamed it – and whatever killed him now appears to be on a murdering spree, with Madison experiencing visions of every death.

James Wan’s 2021 horror feature Malignant knows what it is doing, and does not appear to care whether you go along with it or not. It is bold and unrepentant. This is horror cinema produced with a sense of reckless, gleeful abandon, and if you fail to gel with its style and sensibilities, be certain it is not the film; it’s you. Anybody willing to take Wan’s hand and enjoy its soap opera antics, ridiculous plot, and gory aesthetics is going to have a hell of a lot of fun. Anybody who wants something a little less outlandish and silly is saving themselves trouble by looking elsewhere.

Wan has demonstrated a particular skill for horror cinema, whether it is through the grand-guignol of Saw (2004), the shock thrills of Insidious (2010), or the creeping supernatural terror of The Conjuring (2013). Malignant offers another excellent and knowing treatment of horror conventions, and once again applies them in a fresh direction. The main inspiration here is giallo, a genre of Italian thriller that combines elements of horror, eroticism, and melodrama. Blood abounds both in giallo generally and in Malignant specifically.

The plot unfolds in a manner that initially seems a little derivative, before a mid-point shift takes it into a mind-boggling new direction. The camera angles and production design are deliberately operatic, at times even resembling the late Joel Schumacher’s deliberately artificial Batman features. Joseph Bishara’s musical score suits the tone marvellously. There is a surprisingly large amount of computer-generated effects involved in key scenes. This is often a death knell for horror cinema, since it rarely looks convincing enough to have any kind of atmosphere. Here it is judicially used in tandem with practical and in-camera works and winds up rather effective. Importantly, much of the film’s weirdest horror element – the unique physicality of the killer – uses a masked contortionist more often than it does CGI.

Part of the enjoyment in Malignant is discovering how its story unfolds for oneself. It is an unexpected narrative, not simply bordering on the ridiculous but fully embracing a sort of outlandish, no-holds-barred silliness. Everybody involved in the production is clearly aware of its excess too, since it is dominated by broad and heightened performances that seem certain to divide viewers. It is not quite a spoof, but it absolutely keeps tongue-in-cheek throughout. It is certainly a wonderful entertainment, and to be honest it does not seem to matter how each viewer specifically receives it. Comedic parody? Earnest supernatural thriller? So-bad-it’s-good misfire? Honestly all approaches feel valid. The important thing to remember is to have fun with it. It seems pretty clear that Wan did,

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