HBO Max Thriller 'Malignant' Has the Year's Wildest Horror Movie Ending
The delightful new movie from 'The Conjuring' and 'Insidious' filmmaker James Wan is stranger than it looks.
The killer in James Wan's new horror freak-out Malignant, a gleefully bizarre blend of slow-burn supernatural suspense and gory slasher excess, uses a pointy trophy to kill his unwitting victims. As a deadly weapon, the golden prize makes sense: It's sharp, easy to wield, and makes blood spray everywhere when properly jabbed in an artery. The funny part is that the sinister-looking trophy, an award for "Excellence in Surgery" from the Northwest Medical Research Association, is displayed prominently on a bookshelf with other awards in the office of a surgeon in the same way an athlete might show off their medals. The shot revealing the trophy and its shape, a comical close-up accompanied by a menacing jolt of music, should give you an understanding of Malignant's self-consciously cheesy sensibility.
Malignant, which came out in theaters and for a 30-day window on HBO Max this past Friday, deserves some sort of trophy: Most '90s Villain Outfit, Most Outrageous Series of Twists in a Row, or Excellence in the Deployment of an Overused Pixies Needle Drop. The latest horror film from James Wan, the director of Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, and—don't forget!—Aquaman, offers up a tale of sleep paralysis and cancer research gone haywire, but there's a far more sinister, far stranger other movie lurking underneath its skin. Though the project received a noticeably minimal promotional push from Warner Brothers and only scared up $5.8 million at the box office this weekend, earning a "C" CinemaScore rating from moviegoers, it's clearly already found a small, cult-like online audience eager to follow every death-by-pointy-surgery-trophy. All weekend I saw horror fans in my feed freak out about this movie—and with good reason.
The twists, which arrive in quick succession over halfway through the movie's 111 minute runtime, are pleasingly bizarre in ways that the film's marketing only hinted at. Following a madcap prologue in a hospital, the story jumps to present-day Seattle, where Anabelle Wallis (who, confusingly enough, played "Mia" in the Conjuring spin-off Annabelle) plays Madeline, an eight-month pregnant woman with a cruel, violent husband (Jake Abel). After he attacks her, the jerk of a father dies a mysterious death at the hands of a shadowy monster, and Madeline wakes up in the hospital, where she finds out that she's lost her baby. The set-up for a heavy, morose haunted house narrative is there, but writer Akela Cooper's script is up to something else, pushing the movie into a tonal zone far beyond the familiar psychological melodrama of so-called "elevated" horror.
So, what exactly does Malignant become? As Madeline attempts to find out what's happening in the house, a pair of detectives straight out of Wan's Seven-inspired Saw franchise appear and start working the case. The monster is still on the loose, claiming victims and tormenting Madeline, who experiences many of these kills as quasi-hallucinatory waking nightmares. (Unsurprisingly, Wan uses these sequences to combine digital trickery and ambitious camera moves, including a delightful overhead shot of Wallis running through her house as we track her from above.) Eventually, Madeline begins to suspect that the killer is actually "Gabriel," a conjoined twin that was medically separated from her at birth. Then, we learn that Gabriel was not exactly separated—no, the little guy (with his cute arms!) was living in the back of her head all along, just waiting to unleash some bloody mayhem.
In the final stretch, as Madeline attempts to gain control of Gabriel, Wan practically out-Venom's Venom. In two unceasingly brutal action sequences, Madeline/Gabriel takes out a jail cell packed with prisoners and a cavernous police station full of unsuspecting cops. It's like someone mashed together a slick, big-budget superhero film with the grimy, gothic menace of a late '90s or early '00s studio thriller, and tossed in a little Cronenbergian body horror for kicks. Even when it shouldn't work, it works—as long as you're on its wavelength. There's enough sly touches and playful asides to remind you this is supposed to be fun, but it never devolves into outright comedy even if some of the line readings and dramatic reversals inspired shocked laughter at my screening.
Positioned by Warner Brothers as a "back to basics" project for the perpetually busy Wan, currently hanging with a buff Patrick Wilson across the globe on the set of Aquaman 2,Malignant has the infectious, reckless energy of a classic "one for them, one for me" film. How did Wan convince Warner Brothers to drop $40 million on his over-the-top tribute to filmmakers like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Brian De Palma? If he sold them this as another potential franchise-spawner like Insidious or The Conjuring, then hats off to him. In a perfect world, the Malignant-verse will grow bigger and more absurd with each passing year. May its mantle be filled with deadly trophies.