MALIGNANT (2021) – James Wan Knows How To Make a Horror Movie But His Latest is Uneven

MALIGNANT (2021), the latest horror movie by director/writer James Wan, the man who brought us SAW (2003), INSIDIOUS (2010) and THE CONJURING (2013), opens with a campy pre-credit sequence that’s an obvious nod to RE-ANIMATOR (1985) but then pivots into a slick action horror movie that gets better as it goes along until it stumbles with a weak conclusion.

I’m not a fan of RE-ANIMATOR (gasp!) so the ridiculous over-the-top pre-credit sequence with its laughable dialogue nearly turned me off to the point where I almost turned the movie off. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because for the most part I enjoyed all that followed.

MALIGNANT opens with a pre-credit sequence set in the 1990s at a medical facility where a patient who seems to feed off electricity is going haywire attacking everyone, and the doctors are struggling to control him. Finally an exasperated Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) cries out that it’s time to cut out the cancer, and at the moment the title credits begin.

The action switches to present day where a pregnant Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) is struck hard by her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She locks the door to their bedroom, and Derek spends the night on the couch. He is awoken by some strange noises in the house, and as he investigates, electrical appliances turn on and off. A demon-like figure emerges and attacks and kills Derek. The next day Madison discovers her husband’s dead body, and then she is attacked by the mysterious demon-figure as well, but she manages to escape.

When the police investigate, the two detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) upon learning that there are no signs of forced entry, and that Derek used to beat Madison, consider Madison their primary suspect. Later, when a prominent doctor is murdered and Madison sees the murder as if she is there in the room, she goes to Shaw and Moss along with her younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) with this information, which to the detectives seems farfetched and only fuels their suspicions of Madison. The mystery deepens when they discover that when Madison was a child she was once treated by the murdered doctor, a time that Madison can’t remember, as the years before she was adopted by Sydney’s parents are all blank.

The investigation continues, as do the murders, and the victims are all doctors who worked at the facility where Madison had once been treated.

As stories go, the one told in MALIGNANT is actually really good. While the big twist at the end is fairly obvious, I liked the fact that this one told a story that wasn’t about your typical demon or devil. The hints are all there, and at times it seems like this one may go that route, but it doesn’t. So, the story was fresh, and the mystery compelling. And while you may see the big reveal coming ahead of time, it still makes for quite the shocking revelation. It’s the kind of scene that I could easily see generating lots of screams and gasps from a crowded theater audience.

So the screenplay by Akela Cooper, based on a story by James Wan and Ingrid Bisu, scores high marks for its innovative plot. It does struggle with dialogue at times. The campy dialogue in the film’s pre-credit sequence is laughable, and while that may have been on purpose, it doesn’t really fit here, since the rest of the movie isn’t campy at all. And some of the lines during the film’s conclusion are just flat out bad, pure and simple.

Also the police in this movie aren’t very smart. Most of the answers to the mysteries in MALIGNANT are discovered by Madison’s sister Sydney. Detectives Shaw and Moss don’t seem to know how to follow leads and often make decisions that seem foolish.

Akela Cooper was also one of the screenwriters who wrote the horror movie HELL FEST (2018), a film about a masked killer terrorizing a Halloween-themed amusement park that I liked a lot. Interestingly, HELL FEST shares a similar problem with MALIGNANT in that it also had an opening sequence that was badly written but it… just like MALIGNANT— got much better. Hmm, maybe Cooper has something against opening sequences!

The best part of MALIGNANT is the work of director James Wan. He’s at the top of his game here. The film looks fantastic and is visually superior. There are many haunting scenes, the murders are violent and gory, the mysterious murderer is frightening and weird, and there are some excellent action scenes here as well. The chase scene where Detective Shaw pursues the murderer on foot is right out of a James Bond movie. Visually, MALIGNANT is a horror movie treat.

While I’m not a fan of SAW, I loved both INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, and while both those movies are scarier than MALIGNANT, their demon stories aren’t as fresh as the one told here in this movie.

I’ve been a fan of Annabelle Wallis since her days on the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS (2013-2019). She also starred in ANNABELLE (2014) and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), as well as in the Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017), a film I wish I could forget I ever saw. Wallis is solid here as Madison, who for large chunks of this movie is either frightened or in a dreamlike state forced to watch grisly murders. She eventually rises up to become a heroine.

George Young is also very good as Detective Shaw, and as previously stated, he gets one of the best sequences in the film, as he chases the murderer down a treacherous fire escape into the dark streets of underground Seattle.

Speaking of underground Seattle, the plot point in MALIGNANT where the killer hides in those forgotten streets reminded me of another horror classic, THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), the sequel to THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and the second time we got to see Darren McGavin play reporter Carl Kolchak. The killer in THE NIGHT STRANGLER also resided in underground Seattle.

MALIGNANT also sports another energetic and effective music score by Joseph Bishara.

While overall I enjoyed MALIGNANT, taken as a whole, it’s a bit uneven for me. After its out of place campy opening, it gets better, and the bulk of this film is really well done. But it doesn’t end strong, as its conclusion isn’t all that believable, and as a result, I found the final reel disappointing.

Still, James Wan knows how to make a horror movie, and for that reason alone, I recommend MALIGNANT, even though it doesn’t entirely work for me.

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