Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
Call this the most unexpected of surprises!
Unfortunately we now live in a current place of movie media where audiences are just as aware of movie’s production schedules and behind the scene affairs, just as, or more, than people in the media. So when reports from Malignant came in of terrible test screenings, where lots of laughter filled the reactions, expectations immediately went sour, and the enormous delay of the film didn’t helped either. So imagine my surprise when I saw colleagues and friends having a blast with this and calling it one of the best films of the year, which made me immediately run to watch it. And well, this is something special alright, for all the reasons I wasn’t expecting it!
As much as I enjoy seeing James Wan going in a different route of his common self and venturing in big pop-corn action and blockbuster spectacles in the likes of Furious 7 and Aquaman, he better meets his own when focusing on his clear passion genre that is horror, taken here in Malignant towards new heights where he manages to completely outburst his profound dreams and deepest addictions.
Is funny to think that James Wan's horror movies in the last couple of years, made under Warner productions launched million dollar franchises, from the Saw years, the Insidious movies and The Conjuring franchise that formed its own horror-verse. But Malignant doesn't feel or look like none of those at all, thanks to the carte blanche made of platinum of creative freedom that Warner granted him after so many years of working in their studios, he goes out here to make a complete artistic expression in the form of a mainstream horror production.
Though still much like the first two Insidious and the The Conjuring films, Wan follows the same vein in Malignant of making an assumed exercise of the genre, bringing over so many stereotypical recognizable clichés and recovering classic elements, and going on to giving them new strands for a modern audience already tired of recycled conventions within a genre that hardly seems to reinvent itself today, but far more ambitious and pure in its pretentious of mocking and exalting the genre he’s so clearly in love with.
The plot itself surrounding the character of Madison (Annabelle Wallis) and her strange visions of murders occurring around her life and seem to be connected to her, reunites almost an amalgamation of all the usual plot-drama that is present in modern horror, revolved in grief, trauma, sexual abuse, troubled pasts and likely psychological disturbances, effects of repressed memories standing behind all the “malignant” evil antagonistic presence. Something that in the hands of A24 would so easily try to turn it into “high art” by-product!
But then the first appearance of the antagonist, Gabriel appears on screen in the form of a slimy black figure and hairier than Kayako from The Grudge, looking like a ghost from a 2000s Asian horror movie. And it looks so out of place that you find yourself not knowing what to expect from this evil presence or the unfolding terror and what lies behind it. Initially, the movie barely bothers to explain the plot in a chewed-up way, and ends up creating a real line of intrigue and mystery that leaves you scratching your head in curiosity to see how far all the craziness goes.
The movie even begins as your average Wan ghost-house movie, with some demonic presence lingering in the air, with the house being composed of a well-orchestrated staging, where you know where each room is and the space brings a false sense of claustrophobic comfort, invaded by something that shouldn't be there. Where Wan’s usual camera play has its bits of fun dancing around the screen without barely cutting, or adopting creative angles, all to mislead you into thinking that this will be yet another haunted house story of his.
But from the moment the film reveals one crazy thing after another, it turns on the crazy turbo mode, and barely ever ceases. If it starts as a haunted house movie, it evolves into a home invasion flick, then carries echoes of a Rosemary’s Baby kind of villain; then suddenly becoming a serial killer procedural with a 80s slasher flair, but met with a COMPLETE Giallo self-awareness elegance.
Which reminds me, when James Wan said that his next film would be a Giallo based horror, I wasn't expecting it to be THIS wide open! Not only in the villain characteristic compositions, wearing leather coat and gloves; a beautiful murder weapon made out of a trinket; standing faceless for most of the time; having a creepy squeaky voice; Joseph Bishara's beautiful soundtrack carries synthesized music dictating a death cadence; the creature/killer's own hairy look seems to highlight an evil rock heavy metal inspired energy.
But also in the staging around it, covered in gothic mists that appear in certain scenarios without any explanation, surreal touches that prevail in certain confrontations near the end that even carry a classy theatrical staging, or characters acting completely out of any realistic tone with the movie itself. Just look at the forensics girl Winnie (Ingrid Bisu - Wan's wife and creative partner), she's written to be this character with hots for the cop character with lines of dialogue so CORNY it's absolutely hilarious, and I could swear I saw the same character in one Argento movie!
Or the Love interest relation that the film set between the cop Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Madison’s sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), filled with an awkward humor seemingly belonging to a cheesy 90s film. Even the back and forth between Kekoa and his partner Regina (Michole Briana White) is very reminiscent of, not any buddy-cop film, but the police agents duo of Tenebre, similarly surrounded in quirky lines and behaviors that seem almost purposefully corny and forced.
Anyone from the random mainstream audience watching could just look at this and point the ridiculous bad acting and awful writing, and yes they’re right, and the movie knows that too and it’s having a huge laugh of itself, because it’s not taking itself seriously at all. Even that dialogue at the end between the two sisters, that could easily be a dramatic epitaph wanting to gain some free emotions at the end of any other recent horror movie, and even in past Wan films, rather it seems more like a school play with a soap opera script. It even makes fun of the drama that makes up the narrative, while taking on both humor and drama in a serious and never derogatory way. Thanks to the same self-awareness and level of sincerity perpetuated in all of it, the legitimacy of the story does find its way towards an emotional core!
While you can see how Wan is trying to reinvent himself here. He skips his usual suspenseful anticipation that modern horror movies waste tedious time building, and bets on action and effect. Almost a machine gun of impacts happening successively, making use of the graphic strength of each new death that look like set-pieces created by hand by pure technique, and each one carried with its own feeling of momentum. And the brusqueness of each act that leads to spontaneous laugher that gets you off guard, and pure shock in others, and earns every single one of them!
Each single set location look like fabricated settings, designed for effect of action and stimulate the horror within them: a freaking mental hospital placed in the edge of a cliff as if it were a ghotic castle; the rainy Seattle often look almost ghostly; the killers hideout drenched in shadows, dust and spider webs evokes some gothic dungeon - and is just an freaking attic; the underground tunnels and sewers becomes a world of its own apart from reality as it if a backstage of the past, a melodramatic Opera worthy of an Argento film - used later as the stage of chase scene that seems straight taken out of Fincher’s Se7en; the precinct with its big windows and large main office looks straight taken out of one of those late 90s and early 2000s movies.
He goes on building an entire self universe and its own mythology from the beginning, achieving to interconnect a series of distinct horror subgenres to make the whole thing work. From haunted houses, ghosts, cursed children tormented with evil presences, poorly performed scientific experiments, killers or demons; he plays with everything and more! Following the same school of teach of masters like Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Clive Baker, and others, picks the classics rules and trades of the old, reincorporating them within a more self-referential, free and ironic language towards itself and the limits of the genre, while taking a few from the same!
Plays with some De Palma techniques, the god eye view tracking shots in one earlier scene, and even borrowing element from his underappreciated Sisters; while tackling a bit of 80s Cronenberg in graphic detail; a Sam Raimi taste for grindhouse vulgarity; Carpenter meeting horror with action; a lot from Lucio Fulci, specially A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, minus the erotic flavor, and the demonic spectrum of The Beyond, although it plays most directly in the same basic procedure of Argento’s Opera where the protagonist was too putted in a repressed position of having to witness the graphic brutal murders, helplessly.
But above all, this is a horror movie so purely artificial, using and abusing of computer graphics, CGI, scenarios designed by storyboards. It doesn't appeal to anything close to pseudo-realistic annoyances produced by A24, it’s just crazy, perverse and diabolical, without resorting to cheap scares, being far more interested in the rhythmic and atmospheric construction of the subgenres he mixes, evoking the perfect definition of sadistic entertainment, something that current horror movies seem to forget or simply dismiss because they're afraid they'll sound silly and campy, while Malignant EMBRACES the silliness and campiness.
Throwing quotes like:
“he’s broadcasting his thoughts”
“he was feeding off your fetuses to build himself back up”
"We need to find that missing half" - "Yeah, don't we all."
Having situations like the protagonist being beat up by a biker and a disco dancer that is just as hilariously goofy as it sounds, a woman falling from the attic in the middle of the living room out of nowhere, in what is supposed to be one of the high moments of the film sub-arch of suspense and mystery, and is all just unexpectedly hilarious, and it owns all of it!
It's all very well settled and conducted without ever being forced. Even the twist that could’ve been the most ridiculously idiotic thing ever conceived, which in part it is, involving the fact that the killer is a MALIGNANT cancer, or better a living parasitic twin tumor that has electrical telepathy. And it's chewed into such an amazingly well-written exposition, it's so insane that it convinces you. That leaves to be no longer merely intrusive and out of place, and just further adds to the deeply rooted old-school of its horror.
You could’ve easily see this bunch of expository dialogue back in any classic Giallo and though never really necessary, they add to the escapist mythical side of the genre, elevating the simple idea to a whole other level of importance and stakes. And the only thing you can think of in the middle of all of this is how creepy awesome Gabriel is as a horror antagonist, one ought to become memorable in the current genre!
If the movie initially seems to be avoiding or is too coward to show the splattered viscera of its suggested graphic violence, wait until the final half hour, that is where he shows to have saved most of that just for the sadistic pleasure, it blows up in action freak-show madness that is just gloriously entertaining. Pick the crazy inhuman acrobatics of Wan’s Aquaman meets The Raid martial arts and a big R Rating, it kicks in the door and embraces action as also imperative part of horror in pure display of violence not sparing one single limb or soul.
Is so unfortunate that the film became a poor victim of limited view only at streaming and is barely getting any returns on theaters, so its results may not leave a lasting impression it so much deserved. If this were made in the 80s, that would've definitely turned out at least 5 more sequels! But them again that wasn’t the point of Wan, he really was just seeking to make a horror film only for himself, one that he dreamed off and sought to crank everything he loves and beholds about it into one single entity.
Some may see it as an unhinged lost mess, and this may come off bad for some, not to say weird, but in a way Malignant reminded me of It Chapter Two. That while considered by many a weak sequel, for me it was a balls to the walls insane horror blockbuster, being so passionately over the top and taking all its scares, violence and emotions to a whole other level of over the top. Gaining a real honest purity in its making so ludicrously passionate on the horror craft and the epic limits it could take.
Malignant shares some of that as well, being this movie so rock n’ roll badass with an 80s slasher energy met with gothic giallo classic finesse horror and a grindhouse trash taste. It’s graphical and playful, while commenting on cinema and the genre itself. It isn’t anything visionary, but shows Wan’s greatest strengths in beautifully entertaining ways. He can do any more Aquaman films he wants and explore other blockbuster franchises, but I hope it won’t take long so he can return to the place he does his magic so well and so filled with passion!