In the lead up to the release of Malignant, director James Wan spoke of his love for Giallo cinema, and revealed that his new film would be his ode to the infamous sub-genre that many horror fans cherish dearly.
Giallo is a sub-genre of Italian cinema that is crafted with as much love for vibrant colours as it is for smartly crafted bloodshed and mystery – with strong emphasis on smartly crafted. Giallo combines brains and beauty with enough sleazy exploitation to stand on its own, and James Wan’s Malignant declaration was an intriguing one. But, truthfully, Malignant is the furthest thing from a Giallo movie.
The film follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), or, as many around her prefer, ‘Maddie’ – a pregnant woman who finds herself a victim of despicable abuse and violence from her husband. When Maddie’s husband gets his fair dues thanks to a fatal encounter with a sadistic home invader, she finds herself a victim of miscarriage and begins experiencing a series of strange premonition-like visions that end in ravenous bloodshed and constant overly shocked expressions. Without giving too much away, Maddie finds herself linked to a gnarly serial killer and his sinister intentions that unearth Maddie’s forgotten past.
If movie openings are an indicator of what’s to come, Malignant has a seriously rocky start. Performances verging on spoof command the opening minutes, with a number of doctors discussing a course of action needed to prevent a very bold boy from doing very bold things. It’s schlocky, with some truly terrible performances, but that can be easily overlooked given it’s the early stages of Malignant’s runtime. From there, however, Malignant undergoes a massive shift in tone and style, so it’s confusing as to why Malignant starts so strangely – but we’ll get to that . . .
The mix of supernatural schlock, run-of-the-mill exposition scenes and sequences of brutal carnage just repeats over and over. In between all of that, superficial nods to the Giallo genre are sprinkled here and there in the form of vibrant colours, strange set pieces and the black gloved killer motif. But it’s all used so minimally that, by Malignant’s end, you can’t help but question if it had any purpose. And, being brutally honest, one thing Malignant is not is smartly crafted.
Pretty much every character and performance in Malignant reeks of amateur-hour execution. You have Annabelle Wallis’ abysmal performance, ranging from overly shocked to super overly shocked. Then there’s a James Wan police detective lookalike, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) – a detective who isn’t particularly good at detecting stuff – who seemingly is insatiable to every woman he meets, particularly Ingrid Bisu’s (who happens to be married to James Wan) unbearable Winnie.
Even minor characters are either super cheesy and over-acted to the point that it verges on spoof, or you have characters like Kekoa’s partner, Regina (Michole Briana White), who are wound so tight and so serious in every line reading that you just want to shake them profusely and watch all the nuts and bolts collapse to the floor.
Maybe the only bearable performance is from Maddie’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), but even she becomes a victim of poor screenwriting and mismanaged tone, which fittingly sums up the majority of Malignant. Is it camp? Is it poorly acted and played entirely serious? Or is it just badly written by all involved? I’m personally leaning towards the latter two of those three admissions.
In regards to the bloodshed and the plot’s mystery, there isn’t anything in Malignant that hasn’t been done before and done far better. Bar the impressive use of a trophy called ‘Excellence’ as the killer’s signature weapon, Malignant is everything you expect from a run-of-the-mill slasher mystery for most of its runtime. One victim is murdered in the bathtub and another is stabbed through the throat while in their comfy bed. Nothing here is particularly stylistic or original, and unfortunately that follows through for the reveal also – because Malignant wouldn’t be a James Wan movie without some sort of twist or reveal.
When the film does eventually reveal who this serial killer is and why he is doing what he is doing – you simply can’t help but laugh. Wan has disguised his flick as a Giallo homage but truthfully, Wan has wholeheartedly committed to plagiarizing Frank Henenlotter’s greatest works, and it’s easy to see through it all.
This doesn’t mean that the reveal isn’t impactful given how left-field it’s executed. But this reveal is ripped straight from another source material and without a single ounce of respect shown. It simply comes across as an example of a strange product that people wouldn’t flock to see unless it had a unique selling point. And here, that selling point is to disguise Malignant as a Giallo flick when it’s not at all.
And even after the body horror styled reveal, Malignant becomes a complete farce to watch. Poor CGI and silly Marvel-styled action become the meal of the day in the latter stages of the runtime, and it just comes across like Wan gave up entirely. All logic goes out the window too, with glaring plot holes that make zero sense, special abilities that are unexplained and are present just because it looks “cool”. It’s a strong example of an idea needing a few rewrites and a confused execution not matching the material in the slightest.
Ultimately, James Wan’s Malignant wants to be a superbly crafted, vibrant Giallo nightmare. But realistically, it’s is a copy-and-paste of several other movies meshed together.
I have no doubt Malignant will resonate with fans of the ‘so bad, it’s good’ ilk. But, at the end of the day, folks, just watch Frank Henenlotter’s far superior cult classic Basket Case (1982) instead.