‘Malignant’ review: James Wan’s bold and batshit haunted house horror

The scary movie maestro returns, in some style, to the genre that made his name

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    If you’re reading this review, chances are you’re either planning to see Malignant – the new offering from Saw and Insidious director James Wan – or you’re undecided and are looking for a little extra push. Either way, let us give you a few words of advice. 1) Do see this movie. 2) Read as little as possible about it before you do. 3) Be patient with the movie’s inconsistent pacing and tone, it’ll be worth it in the end. 4) Prepare to have your mind blown.

    With the aforementioned movies, but arguably more so with The Conjuring, Aussie director Wan has had great success with creating modern horror movie franchises. In recent years, and due to his enormous success, Wan has diversified somewhat. He directed Fast & Furious 7 in 2015. In 2018 he helmed DC’s Aquaman. But horror is James Wan’s calling – for better or worse, his first ride out with 2003’s Saw brought about an extreme shift in the genre, defining its tone for at least a decade after. Not very clever, very base, very effective, often very enjoyable, much like Jason Blum and his Blumhouse stable, Wan makes uncomplicated horror movies that fill cinemas. Right?

    Malignant
    ‘Malignant’ sees horror maestro James Wan hit top form. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

    Based in Seattle – though filmed in LA – and concerning a woman (a physical, star-making performance from Annabelle Wallis, previously seen in 2014’s Wan produced Annabelle) who is first attacked, then a witness to, then framed for a succession of gruesome murders, the genius of Malignant is that for the lion’s share of the film it plays out generically. Someone is in the house! The lights are flickering! Wan’s big book of horror gimmickry is more dogeared than ever! This portion of the movie isn’t without merit – it provides effective, jumpy accompaniment to popcorn munching. And yet, just as the movie begins to sag, something happens that is so batshit – so un-James Wan – that what subsequently plays out positions Malignant as the leading contender for the most fun, silly, exciting, unsettling, creative horror movie 2021 has seen to date.

    With hindsight, the clues were there in plain sight. When early on in our viewing we questioned whether the acting was very bad, or why the grimy industrial music was so overbearing, what was really happening was the movie was establishing its tone. Because when the movie does erupt, it’s impossible not to have a bloody great time. Like Venom meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Face/Off meets Bad Taste; Malignant‘s melange of genres makes it the strangest movie in your local off-licence that has forgotten to clear the VHS cassettes it used to rent in the ’80s. A film that is utterly absurd, horrifying, hilarious, brilliantly stupid, unlike anything you will see in a cinema this year, next year, or perhaps ever. All credit to Wan, his wife and collaborator Ingrid Bisu and screenwriter Akela Cooper for conceiving the very good idea that the whole movie hangs around (no spoilers here).

    Malignant is a trojan horse – a cinema experience whereupon you came to see what you know, but one where you left knowing nothing. It’s the best horror film of the year so far. And it’s the film that shows us what James Wan is truly about.

    Details

    • Director: James Wan
    • Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young
    • Release date: September 10 (in UK cinemas)
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