Cinema Dispatch: Malignant

Malignant and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by James Wan

I’m pretty sure I saw exactly one trailer for this before it was dropped on HBO Max, so I guess we’re getting to the point where Warner Bros isn’t pushing their SAME DAY RELEASE stunt as hard; at least until Dune finally comes out.  Still, I’ll take almost any chance Warner Bros wants to give me to not spend fifteen bucks to see one of their movies and James Wan has a pretty good track record across several different genres (ESPECIALLY horror), so hey!  It’s right in my wheelhouse… and I guess technically my ACTUAL house as well.  Is it a fun horror film to pad out HBO Max’s already impressive library of movies, or are they just doing a favor for the guy who brought over a BILLION dollars to the studio with a DC movie NOT starring Batman?  Let’s find out!!

Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) is not in a particularly good place right now with her abusive husband (Jake Abel) who is constantly belittling her despite going through a rough pregnancy and even smashes her head against the wall after an argument over nothing.  She locks herself in the room to deal with her splitting headache and her unborn child, but something goes bump in the night and she dreams of a dark figure that has killed her husband and chases her up the stairs.  It turns out a lot more of that was real than she expected as she wakes up in the hospital to find her husband dead and sadly suffering from the after-effects of a miscarriage.  Her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) tries to help her though this, but Madison prefers to be alone to deal with her grief.  A few days after returning home however, she starts to see visions of a mysterious figure killing people, and every vision turns out to be true which catches the attention of the officers assigned to investigate her husband’s death (George Young and Regina Moss), and questions just keep piling up as to where these visions are coming from and what connection Madison may have to the dark figure committing these crimes.  Is there something (or someone) in Madison’s past that connects her to the recent string of victims?  Just what is this dark figure that Madison is seeing, and does it have a terrifying plan for her as well?  Do those terrifying plans involve a make-over; because whatever it is, its idea of fashion died in the late nineties.

Nice duster, dork.

I am ASTOUNDED by just how much of a pleasant surprise this movie was; so much so that I kind of both love and hate the marketing which did a great job of making it look like a stylish but still run-of-the-mill entry in the overcrowded sub-genre of Paranormal Horror.  It’s not just that it keeps its biggest secrets close to the chest, but it manages to subvert a lot of tropes of the genre in ways that made it feel incredibly fresh and addressed some of my personal bugbears with these kinds of movies.  The overuse of an unreliable narrator, an antagonist with no relatable personality or motive, vaguely outlined world-building that allows anything to happen so why should we care when it does; very little of these tropes end up in the movie, or are at least used in concrete and effective ways, which give it a firm ground from which they can build from and do something genuinely interesting!  It’s not going to be to EVERYONE’S taste as the final reveal is just as hilariously absurd as it is genuinely clever, but there was no point in the movie where I was rolling my eyes or just passively taking it all in like I do in far too many movies like this, and that counts for a lot in my book!

Hey, I’m as surprised as you!

There are a lot of things that separate this from other paranormal movies, but I think its sheer directness is the starting point from which everything great about the movie branches off of.  There’s a consistency and clarity to the “rules” of the movie that is refreshing, and the lack of overt trickery to try and keep the audience off-kilter means that they have to put in extra effort in other areas of the movie to keep it suspenseful and engaging.  Our main character is not compelled by vaguely defined powers to act outside of themselves, and so this means that they have more room to BE themselves and genuinely react to the situations they end up in.  Something happening in one scene may or may not be “real” in the most literal sense, but there’s a definite chain of action and reaction involved which means that outside of VERY few moments here and there (mostly the first horror scene after the opening credits) you always know WHY something is happening and what it means for the rest of the story when it does.  We can’t just fill out a boring scene with some ghostly vision in the background or a jump scare because if that were to happen in THIS movie it means that something ELSE must be happening to, and that restraint means that everything has weight and meaning behind it.  That consistency also means that the movie evolves as it goes along; morphing genres and progressing in a way that few films like it have done.  It ends up being less of a CAN YOU SURVIVE THE GHOST movie and more of a Hannibal style dark procedural which is FAR more my jam, and the film does manage to craft an interesting mystery around what would otherwise just be A GHOST DID IT narrative.  Heck, there’s even a chase scene in this movie that I found to be quite entertaining; so even if it’s a pretty sizable deviation from what is normally expected in this genre, it’s by no means an unwelcome change and allows it to stand on its own in unique and fun ways.

I mean where’s the fun in being a mysterious evil presence if you’re not gonna take a few hostages now and again?

Where the movie will split audiences right down the middle is when we get to the final twist which I’ll do my best not to spoil to ANY degree, but we will be talking about certain aspects of it here so read at your own risk.

We good?  Alright, so for me the twist is brilliant for a lot of the same reasons that the rest of the movie manages to work; by putting a lot of effort behind it and not hand-waving more than it needs to.  Yes, the “science” behind it is total nonsense, but if you’re willing to go with it THAT far, it’s clear that everything in this movie was painstakingly planting the seeds that built up to this moment.  There’s no ambiguity or IT’S SCIENCE-MAGIC beyond what was already established earlier in the film to explain how this final twist works and in doing so crafts an antagonist that is far more compelling than any number of restless spirits or evil demons we’ve seen in countless other movies like it.  The villain has a personality, they have recognizable human drives, and there are points where they are desperate and have to exert effort or be extremely clever to get what they want!  That’s what always feels missing to me in most ghost stories; that the ghosts themselves are so beyond our comprehension and understanding that they seemingly have no struggles of their own and doing a scary face in a mirror is just as strenuous as ACTUALLY killing someone!  The evil entity in this movie by contrast interacts in a very human way with the people in the movie; even having conversations with characters throughout which only goes further to reveal their personality and make them feel like a fleshed-out character as well as an integral piece to the larger themes at play.  Rage, jealousy smugness, bitter sarcasm, all are engaging traits that lend a degree of depth to this character and makes the push and pull struggle of our protagonist all the more compelling!

“YOU talk to him. I’ve had enough of his nonsense!”

For everything that this movie does right, there’s only one part where I feel that it stumbles and it’s mostly a tonal issue.  There’s a scene in the movie that takes place inside a drunk-tank that is so absurd in a lot of ways that it took me out of the movie.  It’s almost cartoonish the way that certain characters act and appear in this one holding cell as if we somehow stumbled into an entirely different movie, and the only thing that I can think of as to why it’s SO exaggerated here is that PERHAPS they thought the lurch between the more serious serial killer investigation side of the movie and the big twist that sends things into ludicrous overdrive was just too stark and they needed a little absurdity sandwiched between them to kinda soften the blow.  If that WAS the reason, I’m not sure I agree, as they really did work VERY hard to build up to the twist and make it fit perfectly within the narrative as well as the mysteries in the rest of the movie, so I feel like I would have bought the silly twist even without a goofiness-buffer.  On top of that, you could also argue that as a horror movie it’s not THAT scary.  It’s enjoyable all the way through and does SO many things better than most horror movies, but when I think of what I consider to be pinnacles of the genre like the works of Robert Eggers, this doesn’t GRIP my or catch my breath in the same way that those movies did.  Perhaps something that grabbed me in that way would have ACTUALLY been too much of a tonal dissonance with what we ultimately get at the end of the movie, but it’s definitely something I was admiring and having fun with rather than absorbed in and terrified by.

“They did NOT just do that!”     “I think they just did!”     “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?”

Sure, the big surprise at the end is going to turn a lot of people off, and even with that it doesn’t exactly bring a lot of scares to the table, but the way that it works around many of the problems that I’ve had with this sub-genre of horror films makes it stand out and shine brightly in an overcrowded market.  I love it when horror movies can blend genres like this and find ways to retain its identity while still doing something completely outside of the box, so if it wasn’t clear already, this thing is getting a HUGE recommendation from me!  See it at home on HBO Max or see it in theaters if you want the big screen experience and it’s safe for you to do so!  Either way, this is not a horror movie you want to miss and I highly doubt it’ll be one you forget anytime soon!  Seriously, James Wan!  WHERE DO YOU COME UP WITH THIS STUFF!?

4 out of 5

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