Malignant (2021)

Malignant film review

⭐⭐⭐½ (3½ stars out of 5)

Malignant (2021) Directed by James Wan

Naturally hyperbolic, deliberately absurd and aggressively eclectic. There is no precise definition for this compulsive exercise in exploitative retrospective styles set forth in this wrathful experiment in gialliesque and slasheresque cohesion. Thus to give a defining specificity to this new horror production from hyper-nostalgic filmmaker James Wan would be to stumble upon a paradox.

Malignant is many things simultaneously, ingredients that rave in unison but are not necessarily working with the same essence as the extraordinary ideas that are provocatively released at the same pace as a histrionic parody. It is quite possible that this amorphous, actively kinetic and semi-comic production is just as conscientious as its formal meta-execution, i.e. it has its priorities in place, and knows intensely well that the general ridiculousness and premeditated excesses are part of a deft scheme ready to seduce genre lovers and give them a pure act of undiluted indulgence.

Director James Wan’s explicit longing for the fevered horror film eras of the past is outrageously manifested here in all its glory. However unbridled, discombobulated and heterogeneous it may be stylistically speaking; the reckless impetuosity of the narrative leaves in voluminous appearance its aesthetic inclinations gravitating to the most intrinsic of the explosive personality contained within the juicy genres to which it pays tribute. This makes it very easy to discern the filmic purposes of this interactive homage to the most bizarre physiognomy of Giallo cinema. Consequently, once internalized, understood with absolute acceptance of what it is and what it intends to achieve with total intransigence this riotous exercise, that is when the film brings out its best version of itself and is vitalized with choleric entertainment and sinuous energy providing an exacerbated yet amusing vision of wanton terror.

The compartmentalized substance of its narrative categories prompts me to think that preferences are stubbornly placed on instrumenting multiple contrivances to densify the gimmicky but frenetically dazzling dramatic twist of the last act. Blatantly, it is a plot that has an anticipatory foundation, the gaudy drama opens the doors to deceptively paranormal dimensions and establishes an atmosphere that appears at first glance to be a film that follows the clichéd patterns of supernatural cinema; yet these utilitarian ingredients are nothing more than a massive prelude to the apotheosic act. An abusive flaw or a strategy brimming with shrewdness, whatever it is, in my perspective this contrived style of filmmaking draws a very tempting horizon, once we cross the barrier of its implausibility and simply let ourselves be carried away by its maddening dynamics is when the film metamorphoses its erratic moments into something addictively entertaining and something symbolically tailored for the delicious delight of devoted fans of the genre.

If the bizarre aesthetics of the gialli have shown us anything, it is that their formal hyperactivity and hyper-stylized violence carry in their molecular properties an absolute immortality. In filmic terms, we could say that the narrative verve and swirling nature of Italian exploitation cinema shapes do not age, and their influence on a plethora of contemporary styles only proves this argument with refreshing veracity. James Wan honors the expeditious impulses of those visceral forms of filmmaking, and here in Malignant the hypertrophic use of that unerring paraphernalia is ostentatiously astute.

This audacious muddle of a film will not have the most optimal measures to ensure a seamless transition of acts and a linear uniformity in the narrative, yet its steadfast constancy in managing to assault us with its powerful climactic turning point in a way that feels unforeseen and shocking is what makes this journey hellishly memorable.

The volatile plot inevitably hangs by a thread due to the punctual and singular construction it has to swiftly approach the sinister and blood-soaked dramatic twist, and has more awry spaces than perfect ones, yet amidst its own maelstrom of illogical storytelling it has a quality worthy of pinpointing in this writing. And that is that this is a film with a very expert facility in making its multifaceted form interact with a system that evidently responds to a spectrum of 70’s and 80’s styles. It has a vicious interactive splendor between an anarchic use of primary colors and quirky camera angles that inherently correspond to the heteroclite execution of a slasher film with a wild aesthetic appearance of a giallo. Hard to resist when you have such an invigorating design.

Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is a pregnant woman who lives in Seattle with her partner (Jake Abel). One night, after an argument in which he ends up banging her head against the wall, strange phenomena begin to happen in the house. From that moment on, Madison has visions of macabre murders taking place in the city that are somehow connected to a past she no longer remembers. Becoming the main suspect in the eyes of the police, Madison will search for the answers to all the questions with the help of her little sister (Maddie Hasson).

Malignant encompasses a whole absorbing homage, which any exploitation film enthusiast and connoisseur will love to pieces. Usually the exclusive patterns of giallo cinema in the past followed very complex peculiarities to classify in influences, clearly mystery cinema, the Poliziotteschi cinema and the Hitchcockian tricks influenced tremendously in the total formation of this exploitative genre, but just like the endless and debatable discussion that until today is held about the exact Noir terminology within the cinematographic circle, it remains and will surely remain in a vague and unclassifiable definition. The gialli likewise belong to a very subjective meaning.

Malignant brilliantly attempts to be the most supercilious and boisterous materialization of a neo-giallo, it flaunts its hazy meanings and alluring textures; it is a tribute to the irrational of the genre and James Wan has a phenomenal time manipulating each of the bombastic devices that this abstract genre has and has immortalized throughout the history of cinema.

Intricately, the plot meanders between being a compelling allusion to domestic violence or a potent psychoanalytic metaphor for the traumas of a disturbed innocent child who upon reaching adulthood accidentally awakens the lethal and dark dangers of the past. Because its expectant, twisty narrative is the zenith of its effectiveness it would be a mortal sin for cinephilia to delve into the details of this nightmarish hallucinatory tour through the referentially schizophrenic and anatomical abnormalities. So the less you know about the strangeness contained in the plot the better, go into its uncanny confines with your expectations wide open, it is an idiosyncratic freak show that only makes sense in the spectrum of the genre.

The film has an ego-maniacal confidence in what it aims to achieve, it is not necessarily a good horror film per se, nevertheless it is so invested in a specific space-time of that final act that at the end of the bumpy journey no flaw matters, you are just subjected to the energetic sensory stimulation that this film offers you with voluntary fanaticism. Pure horror movie dopamine for those who religiously praise this type of misunderstood subgenre, that’s what Malignant is.

Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.