Producers: James Wan and Michael Clear Director: James Wan Screenplay: Akela Cooper Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jake Abel, Susanna Thompson, Christian Clemenson, Jean Louise Kelly, Ingrid Bisu, Amir AboulEla, Mckenna Grace, Zoë Bell and Marina Mazepa Distributor: Warner Bros./New Line Cinema
One can’t demand absolute logic or plausibility in a horror movie, but sometimes the effort to provide a novel explanation for the diabolical goings-on is so ridiculous that it defies even the most willing suspension of disbelief. That’s certainly the case with James Wan’s “Malignant,” although its deployment of the usual tropes displays the director’s customary stylishness.
Of course it’s possible that the screenplay, written by Akela Cooper from a story by Wan and his wife actress Ingrid Bisu (who also appears in a small role as a forensic investigator), is intended to be taken as a gag, an ultra-absurd send-up of genre excess. But it doesn’t come off that way, especially in view of of the picture’s laboriously convoluted construction, which nevertheless fails to keep one in the dark about what the basic solution must be, although its precise details aren’t clear until they’re clumsily spelled out at the close.
You might compare the narrative trajectory to the unpeeling of an onion, with the removal of each layer revealing a bit more of the “truth.” In a prologue set in the nineties at a gloomy institution perched atop a seaside cliff like a vampire’s castle, a group of researchers led by Drs. Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) and Fields (Christian Clemenson) are compelled to take drastic action against a murderous patient with some extraordinary powers.
Cut to the present in Seattle, as pregnant Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Willis) is assaulted by her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel), who slams her against a wall. Shortly thereafter they’re the victims of a home invasion by a mysterious contortionist-like figure that kills Derek and leaves Madison seriously injured, having suffered another in a succession of miscarriages. She becomes the focus of care by her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), whom Derek had excluded from their lives.
Meanwhile Madison’s mysterious attacker is busy, kidnapping and torturing a woman (Jean Louise Kelly) who serves as a guide to underground Old Seattle and then killing Drs. Weaver and Fields, as well as their colleague Dr. Gregory (Amir AboulEla). The strange and horrifying thing is that Madison experiences visions of the murders as they happen, and starts to receive messages from the killer, who calls himself Gabriel. All of this suggests to Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), the detectives on the case, that Madison is somehow implicated, though in precisely what way remains obscure.
The unraveling of the “how” involves a dive into Madison’s complicated childhood (McKenna Grace plays her in flashbacks as an adolescent, in deep conversation with what’s taken to be an imaginary friend), information provided by her mother Jeanne (Susanna Thompson), and pursuit of Gabriel by sympathetic Shaw and skeptical Moss, not to mention the sleuthing of Sydney. Eventually it all ties into that opening sequence in a fashion that amounts to a particularly sick joke dressed up in pseudo-scientific gobbledygook and lurid horror-movie conventions. But, after all, the title points you in the right direction.
If you try to parse the plot of “Malignant” after the fact, you can’t help but dismiss it as utter hokum, with numerous lapses of logic and leaps into absurdity that are blithely overlooked. What will justify it for genre aficionados is its wildly extravagant style, with its allusions to giallo-inspired gore and bloodletting. Wan exults in this stuff, and his tech team, headed by production designer Desma Murphy, cinematographer Don Burgess and editor Kirk Morri, abet his imagination with glee: hyperkinetic montages abound, and some of the set-pieces—the frenzied opening, a chase through the bowels of Seattle’s underground, and near the end a zonked-out slaughter at a police station—are visual tours de force. Joseph Bishara adds a background score that’s equally over-the-top, and the effects are too, if sometimes deliberately phony-looking.
In the end, though, absolutely none of it makes a lick of sense. Whether that matters to you will be a matter of taste, or lack thereof: some will find the excitement of the ride sufficient, even if in the end it goes nowhere, or maybe somewhere it shouldn’t. The cast, of course, are just pawns in this game. Wallis and Hasson provide scads of zonked-out emoting, and Marina Mazepa does a physically creepy turn, but the rest are purely functional.
Ultimately, though, what distinguishes “Malignant” is a meanness of spirit that makes it pretty unsavory. The fact that it’s all done up with such perverse zest makes it all the more so.