Earlier this year, I started seeing a trailer for a horror movie I won’t name (since I still haven’t seen it). I thought the concept was interesting, but ultimately, it was hard for me to gin up excitement about seeing it. I thought there was no way they’d be able to pull off the concept in a manner that would be satisfying. The trailer for Malignant gave me a similar feeling. I know where this is going, I thought. But as you’ll find out from my review of the movie Malignant, oh, I did not.
It’s Not a Tumor: The Plot, As It Were
image via Warner Bros Pictures
It is impossible to discuss the wild places this movie goes without giving away a large chunk of the story. Half the fun of the movie is in its bold surprises, so I’m not going to spoil too much. I will tell you, instead, just about as much as you can glean yourself from the trailer.
Annabelle Wallis, whom I just found out is my birthday sibling, stars as Madison Mitchell. Maddie lives with her husband Derek (Jake Abel) in Seattle. He’s not a nice guy. But that’s not the biggest problem Maddie has.
Maddie has started seeing murders. It’s like something transports her to the victim’s house, where she’s forced to bear witness to these awful crimes. After the first one, she hesitantly contacts the police. As you might expect, though, the detectives, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), find it hard to believe her. In fact, only her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) has her back. As the story gets weirder, and more bodies drop, Maddie only looks more suspicious. She claims she’s seeing these murders, but isn’t that awfully convenient? Then there’s the troubled past, as well as other details the detectives uncover.
The Invisible Elephant in the Room
As you’re watching the movie, it might remind you of something. James Wan directed this movie, while Akela Cooper wrote the screenplay based on a story by Wan, Cooper, and Ingrid Bisu. However, Wan is probably best known for his collaborations with Leigh Whannell. And if you read my review of The Invisible Man, Whannell’s film, then you can guess where I’m going with this.
image via Warner Bros Pictures
Both films, after all, follow women who find themselves in bad relationships and then even worse trouble. In addition, they find themselves the focus of suspicion regarding that trouble. And while they protest vehemently that they’re not responsible, all the evidence piling up only makes them look worse.
While all of this is true, that doesn’t mean that the movies are the same. While they can play as variations on a theme (or a fun idea for a double feature), in practice they diverge like roads in a yellow wood. One of them is a fairly straight-forward tale and the other? Hoo, boy.
Malignant Movie Review
In case you haven’t guessed, this is the one that goes roaring off the tracks. As I started it, again, I felt like I knew what to expect. The killer is Maddie’s imaginary friend, who’s somehow found a way to become real. Or maybe he was always real all along because he was a demon or mostly ghostly. The dead speak, etc.
In my meager defense, it’s easy to assume this kind of thing. For most of the movie–in fact, I’d say the first two-thirds–it moves like a pretty standard horror-thriller. You’ll notice, by the way, that I don’t say just “horror.” That’s because it owes more of a debt to giallo thrillers than any other genre (outside of maybe David Cronenberg’s oeuvre). It’s all there in the pieces–the paranoia, the alienated and unwell female protagonist, the dogged detective, and of course, the stylistic choices.
Unfortunately, though, it can be kind of a drag for that first two-thirds. Maddie sees the murders happening in real time, but is literally paralyzed in the vision, unable to prevent the carnage. Audiences may feel the same sense of detachment, as they watch the story play out exactly like they expect. Murders happen, Maddie watches them, and so on. And again, you know what to expect. You know what’s coming. They’ll reveal the demon or the imp or whatever and it’ll vaguely threaten a secondary character in the climax and then comes the denouement, where somebody says something like, “Gosh, I’m sorry we didn’t believe you” or whatever.
That did not happen. Instead, Wan and that screenplay unleash one of the most bananas plot developments I have ever seen in my life. I will not call it a twist, as other critics have done, because it really isn’t one. In retrospect, the film telegraphs all this nonsense from the beginning. But chances are, unless you’re thinking of a few specific influences, you just would never dream of putting the puzzle pieces together like this. Why would you? It’s absolutely bonkers, a word that comes up a lot in Malignant movie reviews, because the English language is too limited to express the audacity of something like this.
And that’s what makes it work. Wan and company lean in all the way, which is absolutely vital to this kind of story’s success. If they had half-assed it or been too hesitant, a plot this ambitious would have collapsed. Instead, it erupts, spraying the audience in blood and viscera. And I mean that–this is no timid PG-13 horror. This is full R, baby, as in “Really amazing way to use that Aquaman money.” Or “Really, a film that has to be seen to be believed.”
Finally, speaking of things that are unbelievable, it’s also a tribute to the power of sisterly love. (But no way in hell will I see this with my sister, the Question Haver. I couldn’t even begin to find answers for this.)
Malignant is now in theaters and streaming for a limited time on HBO Max.
Will you see the madness of Malignant? Tell us in these comments or on our social media.
featured image via Warner Bros Pictures
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she’s not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she’s working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we’re pretty sure she’s a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Malignant Movie Review: Ah, Humbug