James Wan makes a commendable return to horror with Malignant, an atmospheric sojourn into the unexplored realms of the human psyche. Detracting from his usual directorial style and composition, Wan attempts to make Malignant more cerebral than the rest of his artistic oeuvre, focusing on the literal manifestation of terror amid tangible reality. Drenched in a Suspiria-like red, Malignant has its remarkable horror moments, but ultimately succumbs to a tale that is more style than substance.
At the nexus of Malignant is Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who seems haunted by the burden of a past yet unrevealed, dealing with an abusive partner, Derek (Jake Abel), while being pregnant. As Derek bashes Madison’s head into a wall while reminding her cruelly of the many miscarriages she suffered, something shifts within her, as well as the tone of the film, marking the inception of something sinister. Plagued by horrific visions that turn out to be objectively real, Madison descends into a spiral controlled by the mysterious and murderous Gabriel (Ray Chase), who seems to have a perplexing connection to her mind.
In terms of narrative, Wan’s Malignant does not break any boundaries, as it is rooted in the telltale odyssey of a connection shared by twins, body horror, and the blurring of the self as the other takes over. The murders themselves are delightfully gory, shot in stylistic sequences often drenched in neon-tints, with a momentarily catatonic Madison being witness to Gabriel’s terrifying rampage of rage and revenge. Interestingly, Wan decides to rely heavily on atmosphere, building up tense moments but choosing not to linger, which ultimately imbues the horror thriller with an uneven tone, albeit replete with some truly memorable moments.
Circling back to Madison, who is now the prime suspect for a string of murders that are somehow connected to her, the narrative delves into her past, retold through old patient records and glitchy VHS tapes. The supporting characters — Detective Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) — linger at the edges, playing their parts dutifully to no avail, leaving a trail of oft-touched and then-abandoned storylines and possibilities. While Wan builds up some tense moments in the initial sequences with some masterful overhead shots, and the wraith-like figure of Gabriel skirting around the dark halls of suburban homes, the spell is broken around the time of the big reveal.
The suspension of disbelief shatters, descending into murky territory that is ultimately anti-climactic despite some fantastic and horrific moments. Annabelle Wallis plays a psychologically broken Madison fairly well, and some of her scenes with Gabriel, especially ones in which he climbs over her body to stab a former doctor to a bloody death, stand out in an enthralling manner. However, Malignant lingers on the wrong moments, clinging to predictable dialogue exchanges between the characters and flashy action sequences for dear life, all of which produce an effect that can only be deemed underwhelming.
In essence, Malignant is a key milestone in Wan’s career, one that simultaneously brims with great potential and missed opportunities, leaving viewers with an urge for a better-crafted storyline and climactic finish. As it stands, the horror entry leans into the terror with a story that could have been better developed.