As movie theaters around the country still struggle to replicate pre-pandemic numbers, the horror genre could ironically represent the light at the end of the tunnel. Recent offerings like Don’t Breathe 2 and Candyman both exceeded box office expectations relative to their modest budgets and it’s not hard to see why. Scary films have often appealed to younger crowds, who are the most likely to return to theaters despite lingering covid concerns. There’s also something about leaving the safety of one’s home to go into a darkened room with strangers and experience the unexpected and potentially terrifying together that streaming just can’t touch. After all, how scary can something be when you’re half-watching it behind your smartphone? I didn’t see the new horror movie Malignant in theaters but given these factors, I wish I had.

The film tells the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a Seattle-based mother-to-be who is plagued by graphic visions of gruesome murders following an incident with her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel). She observes these happenings as if she’s in the room when they take place, like a more visceral form of sleep paralysis amid waking nightmares. First, she sees Derek attacked in their kitchen, followed by a woman being abducted in the Seattle Underground. When Madison awakes, she’s terrified to learn that all of these disturbing premonitions are actually events that have already taken place while she was asleep. With more crime scenes piling up, Madison works with her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and a beleaguered detective (George Young) to put a stop to the brutal violence.

Those worried about another rote scare fest should be heartened by the fact that Malignant is helmed by none other than James Wan, the mastermind behind the Insidious and Conjuring franchises. More pertinently, this is the man who made cars fall from the sky in Furious 7 and made a CGI octopus play drums in Aquaman, which mirrors the kind of devil-may-care attitude he brings to his return to the horror genre. Wan’s direction here is reminiscent of the over-the-top supernatural aesthetic pioneered by Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi, who sadly hasn’t made a horror film since 2009’s minor camp classic Drag Me to Hell. I was also reminded of the lesser-known, Ti West-directed The House of the Devil, which chugs along like a mild-mannered haunted house movie until its bombastic finale.

And boy, does Malignant ever have one of those itself. This is a film that dares you to solve what’s really going on in real time and if you’ve seen a horror movie in the past 50 years, there’s a good chance you’ll guess the broad strokes of what screenwriter Akela Cooper has cooked up. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and Wan saves the most outlandish reveals for the third act, paying off some clever bread crumbs of foreshadowing while taking things further than the Conjuring crowd may anticipate. In this way, Malignant has the most in common with another Wan feature that kicked off a mega franchise: Saw. He peppers in loads of visual cues to that surprise 2004 success, from moodily lit shots of decaying bricks to a skulking, trench coat-wearing killer who moves like the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw movies.

As distinct an impression as Malignant leaves in its final 30 minutes, I wish the film had been a bit lighter on its way there. Wan and his editor Kirk Morri could’ve cut off about 15 to 20 minutes from the runtime and I doubt much would have been missed. A movie like this really shouldn’t stick around much longer than it needs to, lest the audience give themselves time to subject the narrative to further scrutiny and uncover plot inconsistencies. There’s also heavy subject material at the beginning, involving miscarriages and child abuse, that is tonally inconsistent with the kind of campy conclusion that Wan is ultimately setting up. Malignant could have used a bit more of a surgical approach to carve out its scares but Wan proves that, even with blunt instruments, he can get the job done well.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is Cry Macho, a neo-Western starring Clint Eastwood and Dwight Yoakam about an ex-rodeo star who is hired by his former boss to kidnap his Mexican son and transport him to Texas.
Opening only in theaters is Copshop, an action thriller starring Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo about a wily con artist on the run from a lethal assassin who devises a scheme to hide out inside a small-town police station.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, a coming-of-age musical starring Max Harwood and Sarah Lancashire about a teenager from Sheffield, England who aspires to be a drag queen.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup