The name of director James Wan’s latest production, “Malignant,” comes with a built-in sense of dread and doom. Even the slightest connection to the evil of cancer is enough to create fear and nightmares.
Sadly, that is the scariest part of the movie.
“Malignant” is a beautifully crafted movie where Wan uses camera angles that create high anxiety and stages fight scenes like a bloody version of a “Matrix” showdown. If all a movie had to do was look good, then this would be a masterpiece.
There’s that pesky problem of a script that starts with potential but eventually gets to such a silly level it rivals the B-grade horror films of the 1950s. It’s hard to hide your eyes when you are holding your sides from laughter.
One of the most evil moments comes at the beginning. A very pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is dealing with her waste-of-air husband. His tendency toward domestic abuse finally reaches such a critical level it awakens a deadly beast.
This leads to a series of grisly murders that haunt Madison because she can see the bloody deaths as they happen. Even the Seattle police detectives (George Young and Michole Briana White) – who look like rejects from a failed Dick Wolf procedural TV show – realize that the deaths are all connected.
Madison begins to recall the early years of her life that have been blocked. The murders appear to be the work of Madison’s imaginary friend, Gabriel, who has been taunting her for years. Madison’s only support in her battle with this demonic force is her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hanson).
The best horror movies feature characters at the center who are developed enough that it is easy to relate to them when they face the things that go bump in the night. The original “Halloween” would have not become a classic without the strong performance by Jamie Lee Curtis. Her character became the conduit for the viewers and helped make the terror feel real.
If you look at all of the horror films Wan has directed, his best work is with “The Conjuring” franchise. A major part of why those movies have worked so well is the work by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the married couple who investigate supernatural events. Their strong core elevates the horror to a high level.
The cast of “Malignant” offer such plodding performances it suffocates any real chance at horror.
From Wallis to the usually strong Susanna Thompson, this cast embraces being bland like a badge of honor. No performance resonates with even a drop of reality but comes across like two-dimensional players. When there is more believability in a creature that is one step above being a sock puppet, then it is obvious the cast is lacking.
Akela Cooper’s script sets up an interesting idea in regards to whether the killer creature is real or just part of a broken mind. That situation makes for an interesting element for the story as the audience is left to ponder what is real and what is illusion.
Then the story goes off the rails with the reveal that is more pathetic than scary and more comical than terrifying. There are moments that look like a bad “Saturday Night Live Sketch.”
Once that reveal happens, all that’s left is blood and gore. Wan never hesitates in racking up the body count with death blows delivered with the blood splatter of a national parks geyser. The moments between the gruesome deaths are killed with chopped off arms, broken limbs and assorted acts of torture.
Wan does a great job in choreographing his ballet of blood but by that point the movie has lost all of its terror elements. All he is doing is trying to shock with the explicit acts of violence.
“Malignant” should have been a better movie. It is shot beautifully and many of the transitional special effects are solid. When it comes to scary movies, it is not just enough to look good.
There needs to be at least one character played with enough acting intensity to draw the viewer into the story. And then, the story has to deliver on the terror in a way that can be outlandish but not ludicrous. These elements are not to be found in “Malignant.”
1 1/2 stars
Cast: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hanson, George Young, Jean Louisa Kelly, Susanna Thompson.
Director: James Wan
Rated: R for extreme violence, language, gruesome images
Running time: 111 minutes.