James Wan’s ‘Malignant’ is a benign, happy piece of trash

click to enlarge Annabelle Wallis in Malignant.  - Warner Bros. Entertainment
Warner Bros. Entertainment
Annabelle Wallis in Malignant. 

Shooting closets like parlors and police stations like opera houses, director James Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess work to distinguish Malignant, their newest work to hit HBO Max, primarily through a sense of scale. Though the trappings of this new horror are familiar — oversized Edwardian homes, traumatic memories, police investigations of murder, gaslighting of well-meaning victims — the pair's work here establishes itself less by moving against the grain of what audiences might expect than by furiously going with it. From start to finish, scripting to action and performance, Malignant is a movie that really goes for every single thing it's doing, owning and loving even its most outrageous parts.

Starring Annabelle Wallis as Madison, an addled and domestically abused Seattle health care worker considering a split with her boyfriend, she finds her sense of relative stability upended by a series of visions, or dreams — making her witness to a series of murders as they happen, and spurring her to try to capture the killer. After enlisting the aid of her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and a pair of snarky, skeptical cops, Malignant's careening plot pits Madison against the whirling, knife-slinging figure, who's quickly identified as Gabriel: a once-confined fleshy, monstrous, humanoid thing of unclear origin who exerts some kind of control over and speaks through electronic devices. Moving with bizarre, loping feats of acrobatics and capable of sadistically ripping through his former captors as easily as armed crowds, Gabriel haunts Madison not only through visions but for his apparent roots in her family history. Introduced in an opening rife with grotesque medical horror and high-camp line deliveries ("You've been a bad, bad boy, Gabriel," taunts his doctor), Gabriel is treated mostly as a problem to be solved — and ideally done away with: a reputation he clearly resents.

Like most gothic family plots, this one gets rather baroque, albeit more intimate and grotesque than most — though I'll work not to spoil it here. But it's driven less by suspense than a sense of pace to match its bombastic scale, which finds the film's lead actors chasing Madison's successive visions in desperate attempts to prevent more bloodshed, trotting about Seattle at a fairly desperate sprint to prevent harm from coming to any more victims who might find themselves in Gabriel's way.

Over the film's course, Wan and Burgess capture each well-coached actor's face most often with wide-angle lenses, which serve to amplify already cavernous rooms and leave space for the film's eccentric but authoritative stunt work. Blocking out even the most intensely choreographed scenes with an air of practiced ease (Wan's resume includes not just Saw and the mainline Conjuring movies, but Aquaman and entries in the Furious franchise), he gives his action and the film at large a broad, theatrical canvas even as it lacks any major stars. If the film's crew was ever asked whether to go bigger (tonally, architecturally), the answer here seems always to have been "why not," an air which may have something to do with the film's serving as a palette-cleanser, or a low-stakes aesthetic experiment shot between franchise installments (in this case two Aquamans for both Burgess and Wan).

Even so, the film's style — indebted as much to the Wachowski sisters as to old movies from Universal horror's golden period — feels firmly balanced no matter which obscene direction the plot spins off in, not least for its having a sense of humor about its own wild proceedings. While the intermittently cresting score at times underlines the silliness of the often expository words spilling from characters' mouths, what precisely viewers should make of the tone here is a bit unclear as well as unimportant, though the film feels absolutely sturdy and true unto itself. This fine sense of form extends from the film's shooting to its tight, unfussy construction and even its CG-based effects; everything hangs together in building up Malignant's version of reality.

The characters, likewise, seem credibly to share a world, the actors proving able enough to convincingly play things straight, with any sense of irony not relying on any winking interruptions or fractures in the fourth wall. Realism isn't the point here — and it wouldn't be a match in a film so outlandish — but the cliches being swapped here are part of a language we all speak and understand. (Viewers, too, tend to accept grander or more theatrical formal work in the horror genre than they will in most, partly because the experiences depicted are so subjective). Wan and Burgess grasp this, and by amplifying the film's best-trodden aspects, they find a tone and style to match their premise, rich enough to contain a range of eccentricities. Together, they push what might have in less inventive hands been a more subtle family-centered horror (albeit one with an outrageous twist) into the only territory it could really make a proper home in: that of the gleefully absurd.

Despite its heightened treatment, Malignant's not without some nuanced subtext. Though not overserious about it, the film's themes largely concern Madison's ability to assert control over herself both in body and in mind (it's worth noting she's pregnant at the film's opening) — and her ability to win some sense of peace back from the men who would wrest it from her. While other threads as far as gender, family history, and identity run lightly through what's here, the film is less devoted to making meanings via story than toying with its own shape and form. While it's perhaps healthiest to ask for more of things, the sense of play in evidence here, combined with the film's high-wire management of its own plot and tone make it feel quite full, outstripping its attention to any sort of cause or even theme. Malignant feels made, for all its crassness, on what scan as modest, workmanlike terms: for the sake of pleasure and of craft.

In being willing to be gross, occasionally shocking, and rightly histrionic in its delivery — and in balancing so itself well — Malignant finds an unlikely path to revivifying and defamiliarizing a goodly number of cliches. By simply pressing its outlandish case, it makes for a wild, if not shattering, quite happy piece of trash, and a good-enough canvas for an able group of artists. While not a revelation, it's certainly fun — and, at the very worst, benign.

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