Casual awareness of the horror community on social media is enough to let you know that James Wan‘s Malignant (2021) is divisive. Wan’s contribution to the current horror scene cannot be understated – Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring Universe… Wan has had his fingers on the pulse of modern horror, and his name is usually a draw when attached to a movie.

So then, what is the case with Malignant? Is it a misunderstood effort from an artist, or is it a studio film that misses the mark? Based on what I saw, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

James Wan's 2021 Movie Malignant poster
A very eye-catching poster.

Malignant, directed by James Wan, was written by Akela Cooper and adapted from Wan, Cooper, and Ingrid Bisu. The film stars Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hanson, George Young, and Michole Briana White. Warner Bros. Pictures distribute it.

What Worked With Malignant

The Giallo-vibe of Malignant is fairly strong. A gloved killer of dubious supernatural ability bumping off people with a unique weapon feels straight out of the 1970s, and sometimes this is a detriment to the film overall. That being said, it does carry that Giallo-fun. The film involves a woman who, after several miscarriages, finds herself witnessing the crimes of a spindly, disturbing figure who may have a deeper connection to her than she initially realizes.

Imagine Frank Henelotter’s Basket Case (1982) meets Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic (1977), and you can probably guess where the film goes. The problem is, the film isn’t as fun as those – it evokes them, but that is about it.

Michael Burgess’ cinematography is generally effective. The film looks good for the most part, especially when it plays with color. There are, of course, sections where the set design or scene concept can’t be saved by cinematography. The holding-cell that time forgot in the last 30 minutes of the film and the obnoxiously large abandoned hospital are great examples of such strange impulses that can’t be saved by cinematography.

If it weren’t for shots of the Space Needle, you could tell someone this story is set in DC’s Gotham City, and it would make a lot of sense and actually contextualize some of the oddness of the film.

still from James Wan's 2021 movie Malignant
Strange dull color grading and an overly fake-looking holding cell provide unintentional comedy.

What Didn’t Work With Malignant

Malignant is a film that makes a lot of strange choices and at times feels anachronistic. Its logic is in 1970s Giallo, but rather subverting or developing those ideas for modern filmgoers, and it plays this material straight to the point where it becomes ridiculous. As I watched, I kept reminding myself of better films from 1970s Italy. It didn’t help that some of the performances were laughably wooden, and some of the lines were cringingly on the nose.

My greatest frustration with Malignant was how predictable it all was. The major “twist” of the film becomes obvious rather early, and instead of doing anything to really mix things up – the film plays the twist as close to the trope as possible. Compounding this problem is the decision to instead engage in tonally dissonant action scenes. It just annoys rather than provides a genuine thrill. Fans of the film have praised the final 30 minutes or so. While the sequence is fun – it is also incredibly goofy. I found myself laughing far too hard at the ridiculousness of it all.

Another concern, Joseph Bishara’s score feels off a number of times. Again, there is a dissonance between what I expect to be feeling based on what I am seeing, and the score of the film. The score doesn’t really feel horrific and the musical stings seem better suited to a superhero film than a body-horror story.

Still from James Wan's 2021 movie Malignant
Malignant does rely heavily on CGI compositing, which lacks the low-tech charm of a 1970s Giallo.

Bottom Line

Malignant is a labor of love from a horror influencer with no oversight. For every amazing choice made, there are several strange, nonsensical ones. The film is a curious modern Giallo that isn’t self-aware enough to sell the farce and rides tropes so heavily that the film becomes predictable and provides for few genuine shocks. There is a lot to like, still, despite these issues. It’s just a so-bad-its-good type of movie.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

You can see Malignant in theaters or stream in on HBO Max.

Agree or disagree with the review? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to know what you think.

About the Author

David Davis is a writer, cartoonist, and educator in Southern California with an M.A. in literature and writing studies.

View Articles