LUKE’S GRADE: D-
James Wan’s latest, “Malignant,” tells the story of a woman who may or may not be haunted by an old, imaginary friend – or an old, imaginary leech, rather. As such, the filmmaker most responsible for “The Conjuring,” “Insidious,” and “Saw” franchises forces his camera into poor Madison’s (Annabelle Wallis) crowded head. Unfortunately, spending too much time creating atmosphere and not enough establishing details or personality, Wan takes his whacky, pulp premise and smooshes it into something that’s simultaneously over-produced and undercooked.
At the start of the film, Madison Mitchell is at the start of her pregnancy. Her impatient husband Derek (Jake Abel), overprotective of “his” baby, doesn’t like it when she goes to work, and as the audience quickly finds out, Derek doesn’t have much control over his impatience. Soon, a mysterious, silhouetted figure gets rid of Derek – who was never going to survive for long – isolating Madison and grooming her into a suspect as he drops more and more bodies.
Madison feels some kind of connection to this murderer. Without ever being told, she knows his name is Gabriel (Ray Chase). But for the life of her, literally, she cannot remember anything else. Thankfully, sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) sticks close by for support, creating enough of a question in the police’s (crimefighting duo played by George Young and Michole Briana White) minds that something supernatural might be afoot.
Wan, across his many onscreen franchises, has explored several effective – and ineffective – scare tactics. In two of his best films, the first two “Conjuring” pictures, he pit the family dynamics of security and love in an uncanny, vulnerable arena. The fear that the mother felt for her possessed daughter informed and heightened that of the audience. It’s a shame, then, that another family-oriented horror movie like “Malignant” is more attune to Wan’s weaker tendencies.
Like “Insidious,” the fright here, what little there is, relies on jump scares and gory gushes. The film makes a pattern out of mixing realities; Madison is propelled, time and time again, into the killer’s world, hers melting and sinking away into a sinister scene. That pattern, though visually striking, marches at too steady a rhythm and feels more dull than it does transformative.
It doesn’t help that Madison, a woman well into a career and her history, has to explain her past to everyone around her. The script, written by Akela Cooper, treats Madison like a psychodramatic punching bag rather than an emotional anchor for the story. Like her long-loved sister, who learns about Madison’s past along with the audience and, in some cases, Madison herself, the baggage pushed onto the confused protagonist comes off as random and nonsensical.
Because Wan and Cooper wait until their hair-raising finale to fully make sense of Madison, most of the film bobs along without any real sense of intensity or intrigue. If “Malignant’s” twist had come earlier in the story, instead of making a mere cameo appearance at the end, the film could have had much more fun with its quirky secret. Instead, “Malignant” feels off balanced, vague, and at times, far too direct.
Sure, Madison has her reasons for not remembering parts of her life, but the script is so obvious in its explanations – and so sure of its largely predictable plot – that it seems Madison has slept walk through her entire life, not just the bad bits.
It’s an especially exhausting experience given that “Malignant” sits at just under two hours in runtime. Watching Madison long for a “blood connection” with someone, seeing all the lights in this world flicker, waiting for the killer who’s so obviously behind door number three, all the build up points of this movie are laughable.
Actually, considering the greatness of the first “Conjuring” and “Saw” movies, both of which Wan brought into being, “Malignant” would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
“Malignant” is now playing in theaters nationwide. It is also available to stream on HBOMax until Oct. 10.
Luke Parker is a journalist and award-winning film critic covering government, schools, crime, and business. To send a tip or question, email email@example.com. For updates, follow him on Twitter: @lparkernews