Malignant Review: Wan’s take on giallo is the best horror movie of the year
As a huge fan of Saw and a major appreciator of The Conjuring universe’s impact on the horror genre, it’s been immensely fulfilling see director James Wan breakout of the horror genre and succeed with mainstream franchise entries like Aquaman and Furious 7. It’s been great to see his unique vision be a part of big non-horror franchises, but a return to the horror genre for him was long, long overdue and his latest film, Malignant, is the grandest of return.
For one thing, Malignant stands as proof that Wan has become a notable, trusted name in the industry as he was given complete creative freedom and a reasonable budget to make whatever he wanted. He landed on making his own take on a giallo, an Italian subgenre that blends thriller mystery fiction with slasher horror elements. It’s certainly interesting to see him take a stab at a subgenre that’s made the likes of Dario Argento legendary, and the result is a modern giallo that’s mixes iconic elements of the sub-genre with Wan’s suspense-building excellently within its mind-blowing mystery.
The film follows a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) attempting to piece together her connection to a dark serial killer she sees in visions. A major part of a giallo’s DNA is a killer mystery that hooks viewers from the start and Wan and co-writers Akela Cooper and Ingrid Bisu do that and so much more. As Madison experiences these gruesome visions, you’re constantly left intrigued by excellently laid out breadcrumbs that get your wheels turning without giving everything away. Even when you learn pieces of information like Madison associating the name Gabriel to the killer and her repressed past, there’s always a bigger, unseen connection building in the background leading to some genuinely mind-blowing reveals.
Gabriel’s master plan coming together is incredibly thrilling to watch and there’s an amazing twist with the location of a woman he’s captured that’s absolutely jaw-dropping. Malignant is also a unique film visually for Wan he incorporates giallo imagery and style with his trademark elements of suspense. Big chase sequences are captured through unique perspectives making them more visually engaging, the red tint and lighting evoke integral visual components of giallo films, and it all mixes incredibly well with Wan’s patient direction that creates some great scares and unsettling suspense. The scenes that shift reality are definitely one of the most iconic visual elements of Malignant as Madison being frozen in place is incredibly eerie and the visuals for the shift are just plain creepy.
Although Wan is incredibly strong and ambitious in directing the story, there are some aspects of Malignant that do fall flat. The dialogue can definitely have its corny or clumsy moments that usually stem from it trying to have more light-hearted humor. There are some unnecessary romantic connections between a couple characters that go nowhere and serve no purpose. While Joseph Bishara’s score can have effective moments, it’s a little too in your face and a tad too goofy. Honestly, outside of Madison and Gabriel (voiced by Ray Park/played by Marina Mazepa), none of the other characters really leave an impact on anything outside of keeping the plot in its desired direction. There’s also a little too much handholding and unnecessary reiteration of plot points from characters and while it’s a little understandable given that Malignant tells a pretty wild story, Wan could’ve trusted his viewers a little more.
Malignant’s shortcomings are easy to look past though since it all leads to one of the most enjoyably insane third acts I’ve ever seen. Frankly, I don’t even know where to start Malignant’s big final act turn because there are so many amazing things that come out of it. Gabriel is no longer stuck in the shadows and his grotesque true form comes out with some awesome effects that create Wan’s most terrifying antagonist to date. Up until the third act, the kills definitely showed off Gabriel’s sense of brutality, but once he’s unleashed, he legitimately paints the screen red with the unstoppable bloodbath he causes that’ll make even most gore-friendly viewers cower in fear. Mazepa is unbelievably amazing as a performer and really makes Gabriel the stuff of nightmares.
Even better is that Malignant’s big third act turn does wonders for the story as the revelation of Madison and Gabriel’s connection adds richer stakes. There are always subtle hints of Madison and Gabriel sharing a deep connection, but the answer is undeniably shocking and one of those twists that suddenly makes other puzzle pieces click together. Madison and Gabriel’s unseen connection is the true glue of Malignant and sets up a thrilling conclusion with some powerful empowerment themes that work incredibly well in Madison’s arc. Given that we meet Madison are her absolute lowest when she’s emotionally scarred from an abusive relationship and the multiple miscarriages she’s endured, it’s immensely fulfilling to see her be given such an empowering arc that sees her regaining control. Wallis really shouldn’t be overlooked for her performance as it makes Madison powerlessness in the beginning cut deep and the strength she gains in the end stoic and meaningful on so many levels. It’s one of the most satisfying and emotionally rich sequences of a protagonist fighting their demons within that I’ve seen lately.
Malignant might be easy to overlook in Wan’s already impressive filmography, but it really shouldn’t because it’s easily one of his bests and a testament to where he is as a filmmaker. His take on giallo exudes confidence and untethered creativity that results in an incredible story that’s full of great twists and an unforgettable third act that delivers one of the most powerful characters arcs in all of Wan’s films as well as one of the most inventive and frightening killers in Wan’s rouges’ gallery.