Few directors get to create even one successful movie franchise--but James Wan has so far managed three. Wan kickstarted the Saw series back in the early 2000s with Leigh Whannel, and a decade later the pair created the spooky Insidious movies. Wan's 2013 blockbuster The Conjuring gave him the biggest success of his career to that point and has since spawned an entire interconnected universe. Since then Wan has gone on to make blockbusters such as Fast 7 and Aquaman, but for many fans, horror remains the genre with which he is most closely associated.
Malignant is his first horror movie as a director since 2016's The Conjuring 2. Wan has never been shy about displaying his genre influences--from the Seven-style serial killer thrills of Saw to The Conjuring's mash-up of The Shining and The Exorcist--and Malignant is similarly overt in homages to past movies and sub-genres. The difference here is that Wan doesn't stop at just one or two similarly-themed influences. Malignant is a wild, unpredictable collision of multiple ideas, tones, styles, and story beats. It's a horror cocktail that doesn't always work but is sure to keep genre-savvy audiences happy; it's a horror movie made by fans for fans.
Annabelle Wallis plays Madison, a woman married to an abusive man named Derek; one night he is murdered in what seems to be a home invasion incident. This is just the start of Madison's problems--she starts experiencing strange visions, putting her at the scene of brutal killings elsewhere in the city, carried out by a monstrous hooded figure who can seemingly control electricity. Madison was adopted as a child and has no memory of her early years, yet all the victims seem to have a link to her past, leading her and her sister Sydney to start investigating the dark truth about her childhood.
Throughout Malignant, Wan delights in defying our expectations about what sort of horror movie we're watching. It opens with a '90s flashback sequence set in a medical facility that is filled with ludicrous dialogue and hospital gore and could've been directed by Re-Animator's Stuart Gordon. From there we get a tense home invasion thriller before the supernatural element is introduced and we're suddenly watching a telepathy-themed slasher movie reminiscent of 1978's John Carpenter-written The Eyes of Laura Mars or the underrated 1990 thriller Fear.
But that's not all. There's dizzying Brain De Palma-esque camerawork, gaudy lighting influenced by Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and then--in the absolutely demented last 30 minutes--a sudden shift that lands the film between several other much-loved '80s horror movies that we won't mention so as to avoid spoilers.
Spotting the homages is great fun, but the movie wouldn't work if that was all there is. Luckily, Wan is very skilled at blending his influences with his own style as a director and storyteller. No matter how ridiculous Malignant gets--and it gets very ridiculous--he approaches the story with a straight face, and his cast fully commits to the increasingly outlandish nonsense the script (written by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper) throws at them.
Wallis is very impressive in a role that goes from being scared to terrifying everyone else, and there's solid support from Maddie Hasson as Sydney plus George Young and Michole Briana White as two increasingly mystified cops trying to solve the murders. The characters often do things that would make little sense in the real world--the moment that Young's character jumps out of a very high window while chasing the villain is particularly dumb--but the pace and verve of the movie stop us from questioning too much.
If there's one thing lacking from Malignant, it's actual scares. Insidious and The Conjuring showed that Wan knows how to creep out an audience, but here the focus is more on giving them a good time than actually frightening them. It's certainly gory--the last 30 minutes, in particular, is a crowd-pleasing splatterfest--but there's never really a sense of dread or that much tension. It doesn't particularly matter who lives or dies either, because we're guaranteed a cool, bloody demise for those characters who don't make it out alive.
Malignant is not a movie for fans who only like their horror serious, scary, and relatively grounded. It's a big, sometimes messy, often stupid celebration of the trashier side of the genre, that also works as a mystery thriller and frequently feels like some long-forgotten straight-to-video gem from the 1980s. It revels in its absurdities, while also showing genuine love for the genre--and sometimes that's all you need.