Eric’s Review: Malignant (2021)

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Annabelle Wallis in Malignant (2021)
★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Malignant is the sloppy drunk Auntie of horror movies. It meanders along confusingly for the first two thirds of the movie, and then goes preposterously entertaining for a brief spell, and then closes with a logic defying conclusion. It is a hot mess of a movie but it has some redemptive high points.

Directed by James Wan

Annabelle Wallis in Malignant (2021)

This is one of the more difficult movies for me to rate. At its peak value, it is probably a ★★★★ movie, but at its core, it is much closer to a ★★ movie. Truth be told, James Wan, the director, and creator of Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, and Aquaman, his brand has become a reliable standard, and honestly, this comes up a bit short. The movie is not short on imagination and gumption, but it is in bad need of a tighter edit.

Imagine you are at a large family gathering. There in the corner is a likable relative you haven’t seen in a while, mumbling in the corner, making random pronouncements? This poor soul seems rather off, eager to connect, but incoherent. You don’t understand them very well, but you put up with their odd stories because maybe it will lead to a great nugget of family wisdom. And just when you’re about tired of nonsensical stories going nowhere, they erupt into an entertaining paroxysm of their big insight, their grand proclamation that in their mind, sets everything in place. Do you see what I mean? YOU SEE?? Then they collapse again after exhausting all their big idea. And they puke in the corner. Well, that’s Malignant. It’s your hot mess relative movie.

The 1992 opening pre-credit scene is in a Transylvania-worthy towering Simon Research Hospital, where a surgeon, Dr. Florence Weaver (Jaqueline McKenzie) has been running some experiments on a mysterious patient named Gabriel. Gabriel, it appears has powers: electrical control and the ability to broadcast his thoughts. Weaver is interrupted one evening in a violent outburst from Gabriel, and he is restrained, and drastic measures are in order.

“It’s time to cut out the cancer.”

Dr. Florence Weaver

Roll (some very gory) Credits!

We are then introduced to the very pregnant Seattlite, Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), who has returned home from a long shift at work and is complaining to her deadbeat and abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) about her hard day. When she tells him to turn down the WWE fight he’s watching (never a good look for a responsible dad-to-be) an argument erupts, where he claims he doesn’t want another dead baby and ends with him punching her so hard in the gut that she flies back, smashing her head into the wall. So, rooting interests are firmly established. This guy is an asshole, and his actions just triggered a number of events.

That evening, while being forced to sleep on the couch, he is assaulted by a thin, hairy, and very moist specter of a being, and it twists Derek like a rag-doll. Madison comes down after hearing a commotion, and she panics and flees from the unseen attacker where she gets knocked out. When she comes to, she awakes to the news that Derek is dead, and that her baby was also lost due to the assault, and has been removed from her.

Maddie becomes a recluse, holing up in her slightly creepy Victorian home, and is nursed and assisted by her plucky younger sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson). Soon though, Maddie becomes tormented by visions of the brutal murders of the medical staff of the Simon Research Center. And, when she goes to the police to find out that the murders had actually happened, the story begins to stitch itself to the introductory scene.

It so happens that Maddie is an adopted child. She apparently had been abandoned by her birth mother and was left in the care of the now-abandoned Simon Research Hospital, which helped to rehabilitate orphans, and children with physical, mental, and emotional needs. Also, it turns out that Maddie had an imaginary friend named Gabriel.

When the pattern of the killing of the doctors is established, a handsome young detective on the case, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) responds to try and protect one of the doctors, only to encounter Gabriel, who besides being gnarly and hairy, boasts crazy athletic parkour skills. Oh, and there’s a mutilated corpse to deal with. When Gabriel flees, detective Shaw chases this entity through the Seattle Underground tunnel system but loses him.

Maddie Hasson and Annabelle Wallis in Malignant (2021)

To wit, all the ingredients have been provided for a classic set of tropes.

  • The imaginary friend, who might be real, or at least leaves indicators for mental disturbance.
  • Clairvoyance and visions suggesting that Madison might have telepathic powers and or a psychic bond from beyond.
  • The potential for Maddie herself to be the killer.
  • The potential for an unknown sibling, maybe an evil twin.
  • The potential for Gabriel being a monstrous lab experiment escapee from the old Hospital, perhaps with a psychic link from close exposure.
  • There is a side-plot involving Madison’s mother that comes into play, questioning her role in this mystery. So many plot threads to chase.

The answer? Well, Malignant answers all of these possibilities with one big mashup. The movie to this point has dragged on for quite a while, establishing all of these potential options, and leaving this audience member trying to frustratingly connect the loose thread plots. The story feels longer than it should be. There are lots of gaping plot holes, and when these holes get filled in, they seem all too convenient. In many ways, this feels like Wan took a trip down the Shyamalan rabbit hole. He was setting up a big twist and wanted to keep the mystery alive as long as possible.

The movie hits its peak at about the three-quarter mark in the film when the truth behind Madison, Gabriel, and all the circumstances leading up to the moment is resolved in one phantasmagoric body horror extravaganza. It truly is one of the great “Holy Shit” moments in horror movie memory, but it took a lengthy and convoluted plot to get us here. I have to admit, the moment may make this movie worth seeing despite numerous shortcomings.

Unfortunately, the closing chapter of the story does not successfully resolve the movie in an appropriate horror movie fashion. Instead, it opts for an action movie ending, and I would make a solid claim that it was a mistake to make Gabriel so athletic and powerful. The ending also provides a false ending that robs the film of some of its power and feels like a studio nod to an audience reaction, leaving the conclusion of the film feeling rather watered down.

No doubt, this movie will be remembered for the awesome twist. The acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Annabelle Wallis is an appealing central figure, but most of the surrounding cast are cardboard cutouts. The dialogue is fine, and not surprisingly the gory violent parts are punchy and effective. I think this movie really could have used a hard edit. The movie found itself too often trying to answer questions that didn’t need to be asked. There are a number of characters who were either underutilized or unnecessary to the plot, so you never cared if bad things happened to them. The action scenes seemed gratuitous. And most importantly, we know James Wan is capable of having a tighter script. The Conjuring I and II were both excellently crafted. Saw‘s logic puzzles really paid off.

Next time, James. I’m glad you’re back in the horror game. I think you tried just a little too hard with this one. Tighten the belt a little on the next one. Control that plot.

Malignant is rated R for horror violence, gruesome images, and language. It is in national wide-release and is also available streaming now on HBO Max. (Which will certainly damage its ability to have a sequel, since the same day/date streaming release program has been deadly to the box office returns of other similar movies.)

Review by Eric Li

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