It can’t be understated how much James Wan has impacted horror as a genre since Saw was released in 2004. He’s defined theater horror with The Conjuring universe and impacted sound and hauntings with the Insidious series. And now he’s back to horror with Malignant, an original film that manages to stand as a testament to all of Wan’s work that came before it. Directed by Wan, Malignant features a screenplay from Akela Cooper and a story by Wan, Cooper, and Ingrid Bisu. Additionally, the film boasts a cast of Conjuring universe veterans and new stars alike, including Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, and Ingrid Bisu.
With a strong cold open that moves directly into a credits scene befitting of the early 2000s, Malignant starts strong with a patient murdering attendants at the ominous Simion Research Hospital and using his powers to do so. The opening is loud, fast, and violent, setting the tone for the rest of the film. The main focus of Malignant, though, is Madison. Set 28 years later, Madison is a woman living in Seattle and stuck in an abusive relationship. After one particularly violent night, Madison begins dreaming about visceral and terrifying murders that reveal themselves to be true and not just figments.
This is where Malignant pushes the genre. Blending traditional slasher elements, superpowers, a supernatural connection, and more, Malignant is a film that could have had an identity crisis. But, instead, woven together with a sharp strings score, the film manages to find a balance between subgenres with elements of both feeding the other.
As a slasher, Malignant offers aggressive kills with aesthetically strong weapons and more than enough blood while also using the classic Giallo elements that push mystery. That mystery is also picked up by detective characters that add another level of genre-blending. Madison’s connection to each murder on the supernatural front pushes a thrilling element—an almost helplessly voyeuristic look into violence. She’s stuck watching the murders, unable to act, and stuck connected to a man without knowing why. Additionally, family and connection are key to Malignant. While it isn’t explored deeply or with much weight, Madison’s need for connection serves as the force that pushes her visions into an unsettling space. Not to mention, the film’s look at motherhood is interesting—if only it had been pushed farther center of the narrative.
For the supernatural of it all, Wan utilizes otherworldly greens and fog and morphs the rooms that Madison is in as she transitions into a dreamscape that forces her to watch the murders. It’s clever manipulations of the environment that make those moments in the film work. In fact, the movement from one set to the next pushes the viewer to question reality as Madison does.
Visually, Malignant is striking, with Wan’s signature use of color, framing, and light. Even the ordinary seems supernatural at points, and the film’s ability to seem timeless. The costumes, the architecture, the make-up and hair, everything looks like it can exist at any modern time period with only the use of technology like smartphones dating it. That said, the use of every stereotypical costuming that spans decades in the jail scene in the film’s third act is something that the film could have gone without.
Dead Silence, Insidious series, and the Conjuring franchise are visible in Malignant. And that isn’t a knock; no, it’s a testament to Wan’s ability to not only pay respect to his past work but rather pull elements together and showcase a new path. Malignant marks a strong return to horror for Wan and, more importantly, an original one. Despite aesthetically using elements from Wan’s work, Malignant is something new. It stands on the foundation of the other horrors before but ultimately can’t be compared to them.
Malignant won’t be everyone’s favorite film, but it’s damn strong and will make any fan of Wan’s work happy. It’s dark, it’s a genre-blending, it’s original, and it’s just out there. Malignant is a thrill ride with stunning visuals that change over time. 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. Malignant is everything. It’s weird and gruesome and somehow just a fun ride to be on.
Malignant is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now.
Malignant won’t be everyone’s favorite film, but it’s a damn strong film that will make any fan of Wan’s work happy. It’s dark, it’s a genre-blending, it’s original, and it’s just out there. Malignant is a thrill ride with stunning visuals that change over time…Malignant is everything. It’s weird and gruesome and somehow just a fun ride to be on.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.