The name James Wan is synonymous with horror. Having co-created the SAW and Insidious franchises,
he is also responsible for creating the hugely successful Conjuring Universe. Most look at James Wan as one of the great modern horror directors of our time and they aren’t wrong. For the past few years, Wan has been focused on producing horror content as well as directing huge tentpole films such as Furious 7 and Aquaman, but after a five-year hiatus, he has returned to the horror realm with his genre-defying film, MALIGNANT.
For the sake of keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll reference the official synopsis: In MALIGNANT, which is co-written by Wan and Ingrid Bisu, based on a screenplay by Akela Cooper, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.
MALIGNANT defies expectation. Fans of Wan’s previous work in the horror genre will need to prepare for something different from the master of horror. The film features his signature style in terms of building up dread, executing jumpscares, and creating the atmosphere to go along with it. But with MALIGNANT, he’s showing that he’s capable of so much more than what we are used to as he grabs from different subgenres to create something new and original. Something we wouldn’t necessarily expect from The Conjuring director.
This film is a passion project for James Wan and you can see that within each frame, with each homage paid to the genre. It’s no secret that just from the trailers alone the film has a Giallo feel to it. MALIGNANT features stylized camerawork and the trademark beats of what is seen in Giallo: the use of red lighting, black gloves, lots of stabbing and blood, and so much more. But that’s not the only place he pulled inspiration. The film also pulls inspiration from David Cronenberg’s work, especially in regards to body horror. On the surface, MALIGNANT feels like a movie that’s a run-of-the-mill supernatural story but, once you pull back the superficial layer and see the exposed, raw pulp at the center, it’s then that you realize this film is so much more than it appears.
Leading the film is actor Annabelle Wallis (Annabelle, The Mummy). As an actor, she’s someone that I would see here and there but never felt much of a connection to her performances. For the role of Madison, she really needed to convince the audience to follow her along on this journey. And, for this critic, she more than delivered. She gives a powerful, physical performance that left me with my jaw on the floor. She embraces Madison and folds herself into the character – we feel for her and the horrific trauma she experiences. If you find yourself questioning her abilities, just wait. You just wait until that prison scene arrives.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Maddie Hasson (YouTube’s “Impulse,” TV’s “Mr. Mercedes”), as Sydney Lake, Madison’s estranged sister; George Young (TV’s “Containment”) as Detective Kekoa Shaw, Michole Briana White (TV’s “Dead to Me”) as Officer Briana White, Jake Abel (TV’s “Supernatural”) as Derek Mitchell, Madison’s husband, and Ingrid Bisu (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) as Winnie, a Crime Scene Tech. Telling you more about their roles would bring me into spoiler territory so you’ll have to forgive me for not going too in-depth on their characters. Their performances don’t stand as tall as Wallis’s, but they do a sufficient job of moving the story along and keeping the audience engaged.
MALIGNANT completely subverted my expectations. I thought I had the whole film figured out and I couldn’t have been more wrong. It may seem like all the pieces of the puzzle are scattered with no rhyme or reason, but this is a Wan film. He’s not going to leave you hanging. For this critic, MALIGNANT has found its rightful place as my favorite horror film of the year. It’s a game-changer, a beautifully deranged work of art that is destined to become a cult classic. It’s a love letter to the genre and its fans. This is Wan at his best.
MALIGNANT will be released by Warner Bos. Pictures on September 10, 2021, in theaters nationwide and on HBO Max for 31 days from theatrical release.