As was the case with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, a referent absolutely no film should want included in its review, the first two-thirds of Malignant feel like the setup for a punchline that never gets told. Well, it never gets told by the people who made the movie. Many jokes have and will be told by bewildered audiences trying to reclaim the lifespan Malignant thieved from them.
Writer/director James Wan’s latest is an intentional homage to very bad horror movies. That can be a good thing, as when Jordan Peele riffed on C.H.U.D. with Us. Malignant is not a good thing. Cheeky winks to trashy cinema are fine, provided that your winks don’t feel like seizures and your cheeks aren’t flapping out a breeze.
Talking about Malignant’s plot is difficult because most of it falls into spoiler territory despite very little actually happening. Making it hard for respectful critics to lambast the extensive sins of the film may well have been the cleverest thing Wan did. What can be safely told is this: The very pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) gets roughed up by her douchebag husband, Derek (Jake Abel). Madison then has a dream that a dude version of Baba Yaga (Bro-ba Yaga?) kills Derek. She wakes up to find hubs totes deadified.
Cops get involved, dream murders that turn out to be less dream and more murder keep happening, and the whole thing gets linked back to the film’s mad scientist prologue. That prologue, by the way, is so spectacularly, unfathomably hilarious that it all but promises a third-act reveal that the preceding events were all a “movie within a movie” or “someone telling a spooky story” or “a soft reboot of Punk’d.” The actual third-act reveal is more “indecent exposure” than “Hitchcockian twist.”
If only more could be said without “ruining” something that’s intentionally pre-ruined… Look, the ending could have been pretty fun. The bogeyman is a throwback (pun intended) to monster make-upped, ridonkulous, 80s/90s, Pumpkinhead-y/Freddy Krueger-ish practical creature features. When none of the actors are making words happen, and it’s all just noises and referential cinematography, Malignant is something approaching watchable. But that’s maybe 30 minutes metastasizing inside two full hours of otherwise draining, upsettingly disinteresting material.
Because literally everyone does bad acting here, Wan clearly demanded a particular “affected” kind of performance. Instructing a cast to be aggressively anti-charismatic is nearly as indefensible as stretching out what is basically a bonkers whacko campfire tale into “prestige drama” running time. Can we go back and give Nia DaCosta’s Candyman the half hour that Wan’s Malignant didn’t deserve?
The fact that Wan spent his Conjuring and Aquaman cred on this profoundly silly and gory kerfuffle is borderline admirable. But only borderline. Because the whole thing comes across as arrogant somehow, as if Wan anticipated brushing aside every critique as either failing to understand the intent/references or as a choice to be desirable only to a certain kind of horror connoisseur. Neither defense effectively conceals the truth.
You can set out to make an intentionally bad movie and do a bad job at making that intentionally bad movie. Malignant is bad, both intentionally and accidentally. The Happening was a better time, which is the first film fight that turd ever won. If campy is your thing, pitch a tent elsewhere.
Grade = F
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Amanda Mazzillo at Incluvie says “Malignant is a roller coaster ride of slow-build scares, moments of wonderfully absurd camp, and explorations of autonomy.”
Emmanuel Noisette of The Movie Blog says “Malignantis a boldly innovative idea that ends up being nothing more than a run of the mill, horror B-Movie. The cringe-worthy dialogue, and overacting gave the impression that this was a ‘made for TV’ movie.”
Kate Sánchez at But Why Tho? says “From strong slasher to vibrant supernatural, to just stomach-churning body horror, all of them sing together and make for a film that just works, especially as the third act devolves into hyper-violence and otherworldly fight choreography—yes, this somehow becomes a Giallo action film and works. “