In September 2021, Warner Bros. dropped Malignant rather unceremoniously into theaters and on its streaming service HBO Max. I say “unceremoniously” because its story is co-developed by director James Wan who’s the co-writer of Saw (2004), who crafted the story for The Nun (2018), was the director of The Conjuring (2013) and Furious 7 (2015) and not to mention a little film called Aquaman (2018) whose sequel he’s currently in production on. Wan is involved somewhere in the creative process of several modern horror franchises, yet Malignant felt like it came and went. Of course, if you spent any time online among horror or general film channels, you heard about it in distinctly binary terms of good or bad. Thing is, the people that loved it, *loved* it. But where the people that hated it seemed to dig in with malice, those who loved it recognized its failings and loved it all the more for it. Now Malignant is on home video with the scarcest of bonus features. Will it find the audience it needs to feed upon and prosper or will it starve on the vine?
In the early stages of pregnancy, Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) returns home early from work as her co-worker was agitated and Madison wasn’t feeling well. Unfortunately for her, her husband Derek (Jake Abel) was in a bit of a mood when she got home, resulting in an altercation that left her bleeding from the back of her head and him sleeping on the couch. The next morning, however, her bleeding skull will be the least of her concerns when she discovers Derek’s body brutally disfigured. Seattle PD has her pegged as the lead suspect until other horrible murders begin to occur around town. With her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) leading the way, the truth of Madison’s connection to the murders will come to light and may just bring the devil along with it.
FYI: Like other home release reviews, moving forward, there will be spoiler-talk.
If you’ve been blissfully unaware of the odd war that raged between those who loved Malignant and those who didn’t: congratulations! It’s a movie and, therefore, like all art, is judged by each audience member subjectively. That said, from the opening scene on, I was hooked. As the film went on, I was locked in on what can best be described as a rollercoaster ride. Malignant doesn’t lack sincerity in the slightest; rather, it’s overflowing with a lack of self-seriousness. In the sole featurette, the 14-minute “Malignant: James Wan’s Visions,” Wan mentions that he was inclined to make a film like the horror joints of the 1980s. On this, I feel, he succeeds magnificently. It’s uncomfortable at times, disquieting at others, is action-packed and gross. Does this not sound like House (1985) or House II: The Second Story (1987)? I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Malignant as Wan’s interpretation on giallo considering the lack of sexploitation, but it does hit several other hallmarks like uses of the supernatural, mystery elements, and crime thrillers. Additionally, his direction and the cinematography from Michael Burgess (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) don’t evoke such works as Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Suspiria (1977), or even the Greek interpretation of the genre via Nico Mastorakis’s Death Has Blue Eyes (1976), but feel right at home within the Conjuring Universe and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see them overlap at some point. To be clear, though, when I say that Malignant utilizes supernatural elements, it’s not ghosts, goblins, witches, and specters, but aspects inspired by real science amped up. The end result is the kind of entertainment that made carnivals the place to hang out in order to see the strange and unexplainable. Malignant is also far more ethical as a fictional entertainment than those carnival shows ever were. The point, if I may, is that Malignant successfully hits the bullseye as long as you buy-in early, recognizing that screenplay writer Akela Cooper (Hell Fest) took the story from Wan and writer/actor Ingrid Bisu (The Nun) establishes firm rules for the story that are never broken, inspired by the kinds of tales that have garnered cult followings in the years since release.
There are a lot of moments within Malignant that seemed to set the doubters off, but none as greatly as the reveal that killer is Madison’s parasitic twin, a twin that Madison had forgotten about due to electro therapy (among other things). Not only is this reveal based in actual science, the script made sure to leave crumbs through the whole film. The film itself includes a moment where lead researcher Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) reacts with shock that Gabriel (voice actor Ray Chase,), the twin, is speaking through the radio. That bit is scary on its own (and is never really explained), but it alludes to something living that requires assistance speaking. Shortly after the time jump, the conversation between Madison and Derek implies that not only has she had several failed pregnancies, but that people around her are behaving abnormally. Later, the sleep terror/paralysis moments where Madison can observe but not engage with the murders implies a direct connection. Sure, we’ve seen that Gabriel has other worldly powers, but it’s far more grounded to suggest that there’s a physical connection between the two, which the parasitic reveal confirms. From start to finish, each rule that Malignant sets forth, it follows. I’ll admit that it skirts logic quite a bit (sister Sydney should’ve had several internal organs crushed by that hospital bed), but it doesn’t really break any of the rules it establishes. Instead, it just expounds upon them until the audience is lifting their arms with glee as the narrative’s various curves, bumps, and dips pick up speed on the track down to the conclusion.
No stranger to horror, composer Joseph Bishara’s (Insidious; The Conjuring; V/H/S Viral; and more) score unsettles as it titillates, signaling that what we’re embarking on is an adventure into the wild and weird. In part to Desma Murphy’s (The Suicide Squad) production design and Jennifer M. Gentile’s (The Doom Generation) set decoration, the home in which Madison lives looks like a house audiences might see in a late ‘70s – ‘80s horror film, generating a sensation of someone stuck in a period of their lives, unable to break free (the film takes place roughly 2023).
Regarding the solo featurette, if you enjoyed Malignant, “James Wan’s Visions” will take you through everything from story concept, stunts, practical effects, shooting secrets, and more. Keep in mind that everything covered within “Visions” will be brief in order to discuss or show off a variety of aspects, but what you learn will enhance the viewing experience. For instance, you get to watch and hear from contortionist Troy James (Hellboy, 2019) and performer Marina Mazepa (The Unholy) in how they brought the character of Gabriel to life on-screen regarding how their physicality shifted the presentation of Gabriel and how Wan directed them to create the necessary performance. Or, in a personal favorite on-screen moment, Wan explains the use of the robotic camera used to shoot a one-take sequence at the Seattle police department building. It’s one of the better stunt sequences I’ve seen in 2021 and it usesa piece of equipment similarly used by Leigh Whannell in his 2020 adaptation The Invisible Man. We are not only given a walkthrough how the robotic camera works by Wan, but we get to see the stunt people in action, as well as compare the rehearsal footage against the final cut. While there are several stand-out moments for me, one of them has to be the reveal of Gabriel for the first-time. The presentation and use of the prosthetic application elicits the kind of reaction that’s a combination of revulsion and joy. This featurette includes a focus on that scene, as well as an explanation of how the creative team came up with the look of Gabriel from concept to real-life creation.
Ahead of the home release, I was a little surprised that WB wasn’t offering Malignant in 4K UHD. The folks who’d seen it (and loved it), enjoyed the look of it and much of the marketing leaned on the giallo-adjacent visuals. The Blu-ray is quite lovely and the sound is crisp. Even at 1080p, Malignant looks good and DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound comes through wonderfully. This may not be the high-def physical package fans of Malignant wanted, but there’s nothing to be disappointed by.
In the end, Malignant is everything audiences should expect from a Wan horror film. Based in real life, Malignant exaggerates the truth to create a new and, yes, compelling villain that we’ll likely see again. I’m not entirely sure how it could work in a way that wouldn’t require repetition, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Wan and his creative partners.
Malignant Special Features:
- Malignant: James Wan’s Visions (14:11)
Available on digital October 22nd, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD November 30th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.