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‘Malignant’: James Wan’s next cult classic?

| Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Makayla Hernandez | The Observer

From start to finish, James Wan’s new film “Malignant” pushes further into insanity through textbook scares and exemplary body horror. With great reveals, a bizarrely bombastic score and creepy action-set-pieces, this film achieves what every 90s horror flick wished it could be. Even the most absurd feels par for the course in its comically double-downed severity, serving to be one of the many corkscrews in this terrifying thrill ride.

On paper, the story appears familiar in all of its scares and concepts, but the plot twists it all backwards, starting with what would be the final showdown in any other horror film as the inciting incident. Any preconceptions of where the plot was going are thrown out the window in the first ten minutes, and from that point on, it is a visceral experience unlike most supernatural, murder-mystery films. It constantly evolves into something new every scene, building the audience’s curiosity in a seamless flow. Each question raised comes crashing down in an avalanche of realization right at the climax, engulfing you into the very center of the action.

In relation to the murder-mystery classics, this film is definitely missing the grit and texture necessary to feel the tension. The drone-shot b-roll of Seattle is glossy and vibrant, with shots of police cars sliding through clean streets in sunny weather. In multiple parts of the film, as soon as the sun rose, I felt safe enough to recline back into my seat — which should never happen in a horror film. The atmosphere completely falls apart to this bizarrely quirky detective subplot that never gets its hands dirty. There is no sense of corruption or bureaucracy, just two detectives solving the standard case. 

It might be a stretch, but I do think it has a place in the film. When this part of the story sinks into the night, there is a feeling of intrusion in the room, as if Wan built this safe space for us to unclench, only to rip it from us in the third act. The idea succeeds in a glorious action scene, similar to his camera work in “Aquaman,” yet my excitement struggled to connect it back to the true soul of the film. It is effective, but for a majority of the runtime I was stuck wondering why it was happening at all.

Whether this film is trying to say something or not has me stumped. There is a lurking theme of how mothers and motherhood can poison or save children, while also paralleling one’s free will to control their own body. There are multiple scenes of abuse and childhood trauma that feel authentic with emotional stakes, but is it culminating to something meaningful, or is Wan exploiting these motifs of domestic violence as a timely avenue for scares? For me, the craft of this film feels too clean to hide such a cheap ploy. If anything, Wan is well known from his “Saw” franchise to dance over the line on what to film and what not to film, and I think “Malignant” is his new attempt to find the next controversial body horror; this time, though, with a bigger budget, and a studio-polished execution behind the camera.

The quality of “Malignant” can be best described as the full potential of popcorn horror. Extra butter and cheese. On the one hand it feels like a hidden gem you would find with your roommates, late at night on Netflix — even though this film in particular is on HBOMax — while on the other hand it has the calculated reveals and shock factor to best be experienced in a crowded theater, laughing and shouting all together. I made the mistake of watching it alone with headphones, and in return had a very sleepless night before Monday classes. Please, heed my warning and find the biggest watch party possible — for when you press play, even if you are by yourself in your room, you will not be watching alone.


Title: “Malignant”

Director: James Wan

Starring: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young

If you like: “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Basket Case”

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5

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