Malignant is easily one of the weirdest movies James Wan has ever made. Fans of his supernatural horror Dead Silence will especially appreciate the wild, unpredictable nature of this story but that isn’t to say Malignant is without the smooth camera movements and goosebump-summoning suspense that has come to define a James Wan horror flick.
If you’re a fan of genre mash-ups you’re in for a treat with Malignant. It’s an evil imaginary friend horror, a sleep paralysis chiller, a haunted house flick, and a cop procedural all rolled into one. That sounds like a lot to juggle but Wan and his writing partners, Ingrid Bisu (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) and Akela Cooper (Hell Fest), blend all of those elements together into one of the year’s strangest (and scariest) original stories.
“…a supernatural sleep paralysis cocktail, but with a twist of a serial killer savagery for garnish”
When we first meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), she’s recovering from the loss of her abusive husband and the loss of their unborn child. The police aren’t entirely convinced that she had nothing to do with her husband’s death but she’s determined to pick up the pieces and take control of her life again. After a sleepless night in the empty house, however, Madison realized that she is not alone. A haunting figure from her past has come back to terrorize her and use her for its own sadistic purposes.
This overbearing figure is known only as Gabriel, and after some digging into her forgotten past, Madison learns that this isn’t her first encounter with…whatever Gabriel actually is. He was once her imaginary friend, but he has somehow found a way to materialize in the real world to wreak havoc. He appears to Madison as a dark shadow with no recognizable features, forcing her to bear witness to his vicious murders through a paralyzing psychic bond. It’s like a supernatural sleep paralysis cocktail, but with a twist of a serial killer savagery for garnish. And it’s one hell of a strong mix too!
As each day passes, Gabriel’s body count continues to rise, hacking and slashing his way straight toward Madison. With the help of a very skeptical detective duo (played by George Young and Michole Briana White) and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), Madison must race to find out exactly what Gabriel is and how to stop him before he has her in his cold, cruel grip. And let’s just say that Gabriel has a pretty good track record for smashing people’s faces in, snapping bones like twigs, and disappearing into the dark network of underground tunnels underneath Seattle’s city streets.
As a horror movie villain, Gabriel is really unique and his contorted movements make for some super fun moments of mayhem. Initially appearing only as a dark figure hiding in shadows, Gabriel soon jumps into the real world in all his mangled glory. His arms and legs bend at impossible angles, like a long-haired human-spider that escaped from wherever it is that nightmares are made. He wears a long, black trenchcoat and (like any self-respecting villain) he hides away in a dusty old lair with an industrial wall fan that slices through the moonlight pouring in. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was Dark Castle surplus leftover from that wonderfully high-contrast era of early 2000s horror, or a ghost haunting the set of a Nine Inch Nails music video.
“[the villain is] like a long-haired human-spider that escaped from wherever it is that nightmares are made.”
Wan himself described Malignant in a recent roundtable interview as the kind of throwback horror movie that you and your friends would find hiding in the back of a rental. Cool cover art, an undeniably catchy title/tagline, and the promise of a wild, weird night. And to his credit, it is exactly that. You think you have a good idea of what the movie is going to be but it shocks you at every turn. In a time when original stories are getting harder and harder to come by, it’s downright impressive to see a movie take so many risks and really dive deep into the insanity of its premise. The film will not be without its detractors, but it’s not afraid to leave you slack-jawed and wide-eyed when it pulls the rug out from underneath you.
Admittedly, Malignant is a little heavy-handed with its exposition at times but it’s a move right out of the Hitchcock playbook. He’s playing to the back of the house, but only so no one gets left behind in trying to sort through the complicated bits of its wild narrative. If ever you found yourself confused or you’re worried you missed something in an information dump, just wait a few seconds and someone else on-screen will fill you in on everything you need to know. It’s a choice that’s bound to get a few eye-rolls, but it’s an essential move for a movie with so many moving parts.
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As a villain, Gabriel casts a sinister shadow on what is already one of the darkest stories in Wan’s filmography. Not since he burst onto the scene with his breakout hit Saw has Wan tackled something with shades of evil beyond the good and evil forces at play in The Conjuring films. Malignant may be one of his strangest movies to date but in many ways, it’s also the perfect distillation of Wan’s entire catalog. His foray into superhero movie-making no doubt helped in building Malignant‘s violent fight sequences, and there’s no denying that the man has made a career on meticulously crafted scares. The key to those heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat setpieces is always sound design, and you’ll find no shortage of crisp, crepy audio to rattle your bones here.
Because of its bold, and downright bizarre choices, Malignant is bound to be a polarizing film. But that’s the beauty of original stories! They are unpredictable. Regardless of whether or not you accept the movie at its strangest, you’re still going to quietly mouth “what the fuck!?” at least once, and I think we could all use a little more WTF in our movie-watching diet. You’ve likely seen a few imaginary-friend-turns-evil movies before, but Malignant is a strange breed. It plays by its own rules but it’s a scary good time with a funky villain and wall-to-wall weirdness.
“[Malignant] plays by its own rules but it’s a scary good time with a funky villain and wall-to-wall weirdness.”
From Warner Bros Pictures, James Wan’s Malignant hits theatres on September 10. Be sure to let us know what you thought of this imaginary friend turned murderous foe over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.
Because of its bold, and downright bizarre choices, Malignant is bound to be a polarizing film. But that's the beauty of original stories! They are unpredictable. Regardless of whether or not you accept the movie at its strangest, you're still going to quietly mouth "what the fuck!?" at least once, and I think we could all use a little more WTF in our movie-watching diet. You've likely seen a few imaginary-friend-turns-evil movies before, but Malignant is a strange breed. It plays by its own rules but it's a scary good time with a funky villain and wall-to-wall weirdness.