In the past, I’ve stated numerous times that I tend to go easier on streaming releases. If I watch a movie on a streaming service that I’m already paying a monthly subscription for (and without any $30 upcharge for a premium release because fuck that noise), then I’m not paying upwards of $12 for a ticket. If I’m watching the movie at home, then I’m not trying to fit the schedule of my local multiplex — plus the commute to that local multiplex — into the flow of my day. If I’m free to pause and rewind, fine-tune the brightness of my screen, adjust the volume, turn on subtitles, or even stop watching altogether with no consequence, then I’m not locked into a static viewing experience dictated solely by the filmmakers or the projectionist.
Going out and seeing a movie on a big screen costs more, it’s less convenient, and of course it still carries certain COVID risks. (Though it’s much safer with proper precautions, so get your damn shots already.) So of course I’m going to hold movies to a higher standard when they’re released in a proper theater, and I’m going to go easier on a movie when it’s released for home viewing at practically zero additional cost.
Though Malignant did get a theatrical release, it also got a day-and-date release on HBO Max, and I made the choice to watch it on the streaming service. And even taking the more lenient standards into consideration, this movie’s a piece of shit.
We open during the ’90s, in which the Simion Research Hospital — a grimy and underlit facility that could only be described as a mad science laboratory — is attacked from within by someone or something named “Gabriel”. The performances are melodramatic, the scares and kills are overdone, and we already know we’re in trouble with this one.
Also, the opening credits helpfully inform us that Gabriel was somehow capable of controlling electricity and speaking through electronic means (such as phones, speakers, etc.). I give the film points for including a plot-specific reason for why all the kills take place in total darkness and nobody can turn on a light. Then I take those points right back because most of the characters are too stupid to even try turning on a light. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Cut to the present day, and our stage is set somewhere in the Seattle area. Specifically, the plot unfolds at a rustic and isolated house that practically screams “haunted”. This is where we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman stuck in an abusive marriage with violent asshole Derek (Jake Abel). I might add that Madison has had something like three miscarriages in as many years, which doesn’t do much to help Derek’s anger management issues.
Shortly after Derek slams Madison against a wall (Yes, the film does show domestic violence in graphic detail, so CONTENT WARNING.), subsequently causing another miscarriage, Derek ends up brutally slain. Madison is the only possible suspect, but nobody can find any possible explanation as to how a pregnant woman with a concussion could’ve mutilated her husband so terribly, so no charges were filed.
A couple weeks later, more killings keep happening. And Madison starts to see visions of the murders as they’re happening. Meanwhile, a woman gets kidnapped and Madison starts getting flashes of her old childhood imaginary friend, named Gabriel.
If you’re wondering what’s going on, you’ll have to keep wondering until about 80 minutes in. I get that the film is supposed to be a mystery and we’re not supposed to know everything until the big reveal at the start of the third act, but there are numerous reasons why that doesn’t work here.
To start with, the characters are shit. Annabelle Wallis is a wonderful actor, but she’s got nothing to work with except for Madison’s all-consuming trauma. Our male lead (Det. Kekoa Shaw, played by George Young) has all the charisma and intelligence of a kale salad. The detective’s partner (Det. Regina Moss, played by Michole Briana White) is the resident skeptic, which naturally means she’s twice as stupid and stubborn to boot. Madison’s adoptive sister (Sydney, played by Maddie Hanson) is the pretty blonde comic relief/moral support.
I could keep going, but they all amount to the same thing: This is a cast of archetypes. Every character is a cliche. The plot glides on rails and everyone is only there to keep it moving forward. There is not an ounce of personality or intelligence or anything even remotely unique or memorable (except maybe the big twist, which I’ll address later) to be found anywhere here.
It’s so bad that the
climax entire plot could only make sense if every last cop in all of goddamn Seattle was incompetent beyond all hope. To list one spoiler-free example, there’s a sequence in which our male lead detective is injured in the dead of night, yet he continues to pursue our killer through the Seattle underground. Without any idea of where he’s going. Into any number of blind corners and potential traps. Without calling for backup or telling anyone where he is. Folks, I can’t even begin to count the number of times this movie failed the “You fucking idiot!” test during that sequence alone.
I had no reason whatsoever to care about these characters or what happened to them, thus the scares fell totally flat. It also didn’t help that — as stated before — the scares are hopelessly overdone. The music stings are overblown, the flickering lights are overused, the performances are comically heightened… there’s simply none of the subtlety or nuance that effective horror needs. I’m supremely disappointed in James Wan — I don’t know if his established schtick is getting old or something, but he should be much better than this.
Then there’s the big reveal. To put this as spoiler-free that I can, the answer that should’ve explained everything doesn’t explain nearly enough. Suffice to say that Gabriel is a character who could only have worked in a paranormal or supernatural context, but the filmmakers chose another direction and didn’t go nearly far enough with it. Thus the killer’s extraordinary methods and superhuman abilities — most especially his ability to control electricity — make not a single lick of any goddamn sense.
That said, the big reveal is appropriately fucked up on the face of it. The basic premise of the killer, the notion of a protagonist who sees the unfolding murders in her dreams, the nature of the connection between the two… It’s all quite brilliant in theory, especially when the film finally settles into a groove. Moreover, the film has a lot to say about childhood trauma and the nature of family, all of which might have worked elegantly and creatively if it hadn’t been crammed in at the last minute.
Purely in theory, Malignant should’ve been the James Wan cinematic tentpole to replace the creatively bankrupt Conjuring superfranchise. The killer was a great idea, the film had a strong visual hook with Madison’s visions, the central themes of guilt and family ties are perennial favorites that might have fit superbly in this new context, and who knows what other monstrosities might have come from the Simion Research Hospital?
In practice, alas, these few good ideas are buried under a heaping mountain of cliches, inconsistencies, unquestioned answers, unanswered questions, and enough horseshit to fill most shopping malls. I can keep repeating myself all day, but the fact remains that the characters are so bland, the plot is so unremarkable, and the scares are so pitifully ineffective that I’m left with basically nothing to say about this movie. If there was anything this movie might’ve potentially done well in theory, it was botched in practice beyond all hope of repair.
There is literally no reason to see this movie while Candyman (2021) is still in theaters and Last Night in Soho is around the corner. Don’t even bother.