In 2004, newcomer James Wan shook up the horror scene with the inception of the “Saw” franchise. Six years later his rapid ascent to the throne began with the “Insidious” films followed by the creation of The Conjuring Universe. His name became synonymous with the genre.
With a mix of frightening images, heavy CGI effects, real tension, and a few jump scares, Wan created a successful formula that was used and abused by almost every horror release over the last decade. Eventually, the genre became stale relying on cheap computer-generated special effects and bogus frights.
It’s been five years since Wan helmed a horror film — stepping away from the genre and into the “Fast & Furious” franchise with “Furious 7” and the DC Universe for “Aquaman” — and while he has taken on several producer and executive producer credits over the years, “Malignant” marks his return to the genre behind the camera but with a surprise up his sleeve.
Gone are the director’s signature trademarks. No CGI demons, ghosts, or nuns. Everything from frequent collaborator Joseph Bishara’s score, which playfully hints at John Carpenter’s “Halloween” soundtrack, to the film’s tone, overdramatic performances, gory bone-crunching practical effects, and a lead character named Kekoa (which is Hawaiian for “courageous”), “Malignant” feels like an early lost Wan film recovered in an 80s archive.
At times the film recalls cult classics including Frank Henenlotter’s “Basket Case” and Tobe Hooper’s “Lifeforce” but also science fiction from the decade. “Total Recall” comes to mind with memorable Martian resistance leader Kuato — sure it was released in 1990 but close enough — and Rob Bottin’s wonderful work on Carpenter’s 1982 film “The Thing”. There is also a heavy Giallo vibe as “Malignant” blends gruesome horror with a crime thriller.
Annabelle Wallis (“Annabelle”) plays Madison, a disturbed and pregnant woman who lives with an abusive husband (Jake Abel). She begins having visions of a murderer with a deformed face who kills his victims with a weapon forged from a former trophy. Wan uses signature CGI effects to make the walls appear as they are melting as Madison is transported to the crime scene, paralyzed, and forced to watch the killings.
All we know about the mysterious assailant is that he goes by Gabriel and uses electronics to throw his voice turning a cell phone or radio into a spirit box. Is it a coincidence that Madison had an imaginary childhood friend with the same name?
Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Rena Moss (Michole Briana White), two characters who appear to be straight out of a “Saw” film, are assigned to the case. He’s quiet and easygoing while she’s brimming with Wanda Sykes attitude. Maddie Hasson plays Madison’s supportive younger sister Sydney who develops a crush on Det. Shaw. She plays a major role in the film’s final reel and McKenna Grace of “Annabelle Comes Home” appears in flashback scenes as a younger version of Madison.
The camp factor was high in many of the beloved 80s horror classics, and it is a major part of Wan’s film, like a 2-hour Geico commercial featuring the teenagers hiding in the killer’s lair instead of jumping in a running car. If nobody made dumb choices these films would be over in 20 minutes. The scenes are played straight by the cast no matter how absurd the situation gets and that’s part of the film’s charm.
For the first half-hour, I had my doubts. I thought this is bad but then I realized I had been conditioned by today’s horror films, thanks in part to Wan’s contributions. As the film continued memories of all those B-movies that I loved decades ago came into play and I realized that “Malignant” with its gory prosthetics and exaggerated performances was exactly what I loved about horror films from that bygone era.
Once the film entered the final chapter Wan’s ingenuity became apparent with a climax that’s so wonderfully absurd that only fans of old-school horror will appreciate its brilliance. I also must give it up to Annabelle Wallis for just going with the flow and committing to the challenging role.
This generation may be shocked by “Malignant” especially if they’re expecting another “Insidious” but for true aficionados of the genre, the film represents that hidden gem you discovered at the video rental store, probably chosen by the cover art, that went on to become a cherished cult classic.
Opens in theaters today