Malignant ★★★★½

Abnormal psychology being taken to an extreme is the basic idea that propels numerous horror films, but writer-director James Wan takes it up a notch by entering the realm of abnormal biology and stretches it to the point of disbelief. Thus, polarity is inherent in “Malignant,” an ambitious supernatural slasher film in which the goal is not to scare but to entertain the audience witless. You either get into its wavelength after some time or you don’t. There is no in between.

It begins like yet another supernatural story where a couple is terrorized by a presence in their home. But make no mistake: this is no ordinary ghost story. What we experience during the first act, for the most part, is a facade of something much more sinister. Ghosts, in this case, come in the form of an unresolved and unhappy past. We learn that our protagonist named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) has had three miscarriages in just two years. Perhaps it has something to do with her husband (Jake Abel) treating her like a punching bag. Prior to the night that will alter the course of their lives, the quick-tempered Derek slams Madison’s head against the wall even though it looks as though she can give birth at any moment. She is living with a monster.

In the middle of this deliciously devious picture, I became convinced that the writer-director would not have been able to make the film in this manner eighteen years ago. The reason is because he is able to recognize and take the more effective elements in his previous works—from “Saw” and “Insidious” to “The Conjuring” and “Dead Silence,” even “Aquaman” and “Furious 7”—and make a movie so confident in what it wants to be that even though it belongs under the category of horror, it is a complete joy to sit through. Wan’s experience and confidence radiate through every moment. For example, I was stunned by how it is able to alternate between horror and action with seeming ease.

Bodies start to pile up. We know their common thread, but the story gets nowhere near boredom. Because the point, you see, is not the corpses that hit the ground nor the blood spatters by the bucketloads. No, not even the style in which victims are murdered in cold blood. Our interest is reliant upon Madison’s strange ability to “see” the murders as they occur. Why is it happening? How? When did it begin? What can be done, if any, to stop such terrifying visions?

And then another layer: Are these the sort of questions we should be asking because they fit the particular story being told or is it because we have been groomed by so many sub-standard horror stories, that the only way to wrap our heads around what’s happening in front of us is through old fashioned reasoning and plausibility? What about feeling, sensing, instinct? After all, there are a great number of experiments that demonstrate how the brain can be tricked so easily.

Notice that although heavy amount of CGI is employed from time to time, like when Madison’s environment starts to melt away as her body (Or presence? Essence?) is transported to the scene of the eventual crime, it never comes across as cheap or distracting. There is some level of suspense; we know there will be a murder. But can she learn something new? She can see… but can she be seen? Because according to Friedrich Nietzsche, if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

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