RUNNING TIME: 111 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
1993; Dr. Florence Weaver and her colleagues Victor Fields and John Gregory are treating a hugely deformed psychiatric patient at Simion Research Hospital who has special powers like controlling electricity and broadcasting his thoughts via speakers. One night, he turns violent and kills several staff members. The present day: Madison Mitchell is trapped in an abusive marriage with Derek, whose violent behaviour terminates the latest of several unsuccessful pregnancies. She begins to dream of a shadowy figure named Gabriel committing murders which then take place for real, the first victim being Derek. Detective Regina Moss suspects Madison while her partner Detective Kekoa Shaw thinks there’s more to the case. For a start, it seems that Madison had a very tough childhood which she’s blocked out, a childhood where she had a supposedly imaginary friend named – Gabriel…
I had a discussion with a fellow horror-leaning film fan in my workplace last week about James Wan. He considers Wan to be a genuinely great horror director, I don’t think he’s there yet and certainly doesn’t deserve to be listed alongside the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. For me what limits his work is his foregrounding of the jump-scare method above all else, a device which, when used well, can work brilliantly but also a device which has been way overused in recent years and has become too representative of the genre in my view, a view that probably explains why Dead Silence is still my personal favourite from his output even though it’s probably not his best. That film showed the distinct influence and love of Mario Bava; Malignant delves into similar waters, at times being something of a throwback to the giallo, so Yours Truly had a ball when what was happening on screen was recalling all those bonkers murder plots featuring black gloved killers while the style was turned up to eleven. It’s full of sequences that seem to deliberate echo those in a variety of horror films, as if Wan is taking the opportunity to pay tribute to some of his favourites in the genre, though the referencing isn’t usually too in your face which is something that can get annoying. But more than anything else it’s a thinly disguised semi-remake of a low budget gem that’s a cult favourite of many from the first half of the ’80s – I won’t say any more because it will give too much away. Saying that, I unfortunately worked out the essence of what was going on quite early on, if not the precise details, so it’s possible that you may too from this review. But then somebody on one of the movie forums I frequent has been complaining that some reviews say what that ’80s film is, so I shouldn’t really feel guilty.
One admirable thing about Malignant is how it successfully achieves a balancing act between semi-camp, where the general feeling is one of heightened melodrama and hysteria, and being properly unsettling and emotionally involving. It’s a very hard thing to do but only once does Malignant not pull it off and that’s at the beginning. We start in the hospital when Gabriel is, and the feeling is already a bit – though not ridiculously – over the top what with the frantic filmmaking style and a woman saying “we need to remove this cancer NOW” right into the camera,. Indeed, despite the brief glimpses of the patient which suggest something quite hideous indeed, it almost gives the impression that all of the film will be like this. However, after the opening titles, which it may be a good idea to close one’s eyes during because the accompanying montage might get you thinking a bit too much about what the story could be, we cut to a scene of domestic threat which soon features violence as poor Madison is blamed for her previous three pregnancies not happening and then has her head bashed against a wall, after which she locks herself in the bedroom. This kind of scene is never funny and almost always unpleasant to watch, so the shift is rather sudden. However, things are much smoother from hereonin, and we soon get a good example of Wan’s ability to create tension and anxiety inside living spaces even though we’d probably like something bad to happen to Derek, seeing as he’s so nasty. Of course the first time he’s killed it’s a dream but the killing that’s for real could be a scene straight out of one of the Insidious movies, with the death not being seen but Madison waking up to find Derek dead and this indistinct, long-haired and agile being standing over him, though I don’t remember any of those films featuring a corpse in as grim a condition as we see here, it’s neck bent really horribly. The killer then attacks Madison, rendering her unconscious. She wakes up in a hospital and is informed by her sister, Sydney, that her unborn baby didn’t survive the attack.
After being interviewed by Detectives Shaw and Moss, Madison returns home, but that same hour, the killer kidnaps a woman running an underground tour of Seattle where this film is set. Now I don’t know if this is true or not, but we get the quite wonderful idea of the current Seattle having been built on top of an old, abandoned, perfectly preserved Seattle, an idea that makes for some really atmospheric scenes set underground. But the majority of the first half of the film is taken up with Madison constantly in fear and murders that might be real or not. There’s a beautifully creepy shot of the killer being glimpsed from Madison’s bedroom window standing in the road shrouded in fog; one kind of wishes that there were more horror moments like this, moments that didn’t rely more on sound and fury, but Wan is not that sort of a director. Repetition does begin to set in a bit though, and we start to get the impression of a one-trick pony until the investigation side of things takes over with some highly convenient discovery of video tapes among other things. Shaw and Moss discover a photo of Madison as a child in a murder victim’s house, the killer – who calls himself Gabriel – unlocks some of Madison’s memories, and Madison and her sister Sydney pay a visit to their mother who we know is going to full of secrets. It’s hard not to be amused, for example, when the camera pushes in to our two detectives as Madison explains that “the killer said he was Gabriel, my Gabriel”, the strings going crazy on the soundtrack. Moss shakes her head while Shaw’s head takes up a third of the screen and is out of focus as he asks “Wait, you’re saying that the killer is…your imaginary friend?” To be fair, others may feel differently and just find it bad, but I think that we’re intended to laugh at this deliberately overwrought and corny handling. And the number of revelations that we get is almost too much for one film, yet we remain compelled by the increasingly dark and even disturbing plot.
In fact things only properly take a wrong turn in the final act which becomes more of an ultra-violent action film than a horror. Perhaps that’s to be expected seeing as Wan has helmed two major league actioners and also, don’t forget, made the highly underrated Death Sentence quite early on in his career. And if you’re a bit of a gore hound and felt that Candyman mostly just hinting at its carnage was the equivalent of a cock tease, then you’ll love [as long as you’re not bothered by typically unconvincing digital blood though some grisly practical effects can be seen elsewhere] the sight of Gabriel dispatching people left, right and centre with so much of the red stuff being spilt and so many gory deaths that you may also question the logic of the BBFC in giving the film a ’15’ rating. “Bring me backup, get me the National Guard” orders one character in a moment reminiscent of Gary Oldman crying “bring me EVERYONE” in Leon. But the shift is jolting and no longer is Wan trying to scare us, though he and co-writers Ingrid Bisu [Wan’s wife] and Akela Cooper ensure that the final confrontations hinge as much on emotion as action, something that was also a feature of Marvel’s latest Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings. Could there be a slight shift going on, based on the principle that us caring about a film’s participants is more important and impactful than whatever the computer wizards can throw at us? One can hope. Matters finish with at least two question marks [but then horror really is the genre of the sequel and has been for nearly a century] and the realisation that, at its heart, this tale is about female familial love and advising mothers that they give up their children [don’t worry, this isn’t revealing the half of it] at their peril.
Many of the influences and references will only be picked up by those who truly are movie-mad, though most people who’ve seen Wan’s mate Leigh Whannell’s impressive take on The Invisible Man may notice some repeating of shots which seems to me to be a nice nod – or maybe I just focus on technical things too much and don’t pay enough attention to things like character development. Madison’s predictions seem to be quite clearly inspired by the ones Jennifer O’ Neill had in Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic, replete with an elaborate version of that film’s ripple effect when its heroine temporarily moved forward in time. One of the scenes in the Seattle underground is hugely similar to the Kolchak TV movie The Night Strangler. At least two Brian De Palma efforts are a clear influence here and there, as indeed is a certain David Cronenberg movie which I sometimes think is his crowning cinematic achievement. What Wan adds to all this is an overall look that indeed seems to be partly inspired by ’80 music videos [check out all that dry ice], and partly by Italian genre cinema, yet which also adds its own elements and is it’s own thing. For example there’s a tremendous high angle shot that takes in most of the downstairs floor of Madison’s house as it moves from room to room. This is probably the kind of thing Dario Argento would have wanted to do when he was in his prime but wouldn’t have had the technical means to achieve it. The blue that dominates so much was not just something that Fulci did several times but was also a feature of many early ’90s thrillers and horrors of the low budget kind, but here it’s not just in the tinting but many objects, right down to pens, being blue. Wan and his cinematographer Michael Burgess employ it so often it almost gets too much. But then they add another colour -usually red so we’re recalling the Italian influence again – at certain instances,.
There’s some occasional sloppiness in the editing which I’m sure was not intended, such as, during a trip to a hospital, it suddenly going from afternoon to pitch black. But the almost constant use of the score was clearly meant to be as another throwback as well as a good natured jibe at the days when movies were often score-heavy, Wan’s usual composer Joseph Bishawa obviously having been asked to write much more music than usual. It underlines everything and I’d imagine that it tells the story of the movie separated from it just like, for example, the Star Wars soundtracks. An orchestral scraping sound seems to recall a similar one in Riz Ortolani’s score for Don’t Torture A Duckling. Now one thing that tends to weaken Wan’s work is iffy performances, revealing that he’s not really a good director of actors, but Malignant doesn’t majorly suffer from his. George Young and Michole Briana White have good chemistry as the bickering and just slightly flirty detectives, and Annabelle Wallis’s essaying of the part of Madison surprisingly – subtle. Rather than bursting out with rage, it’s more interior, and therefore provides a strong and sober centre to a film which threatens to err too much on the side of pastiche and going overboard. But I feel that it’s Wan’s most personal effort. Given a sizeable budget to do what he wanted, he seems to have revealed what he really likes, what his true sensibility is. The various components could have resulted in a disastrous, uninvolving mess, but some alchemy prevented this from happening. He’s still not at all a great horror director – but parts of Malignant certainly take him one step closer to being one.