Malignant is a movie misunderstood by so many who desperately want to like it, or maybe they’ve simply been underexposed to what truly constitutes the macabre and strange in modern filmmaking. James Wan, the horror maestro who brought us Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring, has gifted us thirty minutes of entertaining mayhem preceded by seventy-five minutes of dull, derivative genre tropes.
I credit Wan for concocting an idea here that, while not exactly “bonkers” as so many have labeled it, is certainly more ambitious and outré than your average horror flick. And if the entire movie had been made in such a vein, Malignant would be an exceptionally enjoyable movie. But the first three-quarters of this movie are merely a hodgepodge of mediocre ideas, most of which are cobbled together from every horror film of the last twenty years. Wan combines the foreboding ennui of a haunted house thrill ride with the trashy mid-aughts tone of a Saw-style police procedural, not to mention everything from VHS imagery a la The Ring, evil, stringy-haired women a la The Grudge, and the tried-and-trope imaginary friend conceit. The latter could be considered a subversion were it not for the self-serious tone Wan adopts when tackling villain Gabriel (in the early stretches anyway), a character who is at once a ghost, a demon, and a superpowered being who can control electricity in a manner not dissimilar from 2016’s Lights Out. He is all of these until the moment when he’s not, and Wan reveals what he’s been cooking for ninety minutes. Though “twist” is a stretch given the opening credits scroll and what it portends, the final stanza of Malignant is at least fun and furiously committed to something new. Still, the absence of humor is telling. Annabelle Wallis isn’t talented enough to either earn our empathy or elicit knowing laughter if what her and Wan were aiming for was true satire or high camp.
If the goal here was to pay homage to DTV 90’s horror, I fail to see the point as Wan neither embraces the era’s rickety techniques nor does he commit fully to comedy or commentary. Paying homage to an era without winking only works if the era is worth reviving in the first place. Malignant isn’t good enough to be a worthy horror entry nor bad enough to enter the realm of “so bad it’s good.”
P.S. When he’s fully revealed, Gabriel IS an iconic villain. I tip my hat to that.