Earlier this year, when Warner Bros. Pictures announced that as a result of the pandemic, in addition to releasing their movies in theaters this year, they would simultaneously become available to subscribers of HBO Max at no additional charge for 30 days, it understandably caused a lot of consternation among theater owners. So far though, with only a couple of exceptions, it has become painfully obvious just why Warner’s seemed willing to walk away from so much potential box office revenue, as the quality of this year’s slate from the studio has been shockingly subpar (the excellent Judas and the Black Messiah and the entertaining if stupid Godzilla vs. Kong aside). It would seem at first glance that a new project from writer / director James Wan, who has launched the Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring franchises would be a safe bet to turn things around, but instead it has proven that even the best odds can still end up with a loss.
The movie opens at the Simion Research Hospital in 1993, which is the sort of building that no one who has seen a horror movie would ever trust to be involved in ethical medical science. Inside, Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her colleagues are in a panic as one of their patients appears to be causing the lights to explode and threatening voices to emerge through the radio. Things go from bad to worse as the deformed figure, glimpsed behind a curtain, begins killing security guards before Florence herself manages to subdue it with a tranquilizer dart. Flash forward to the present day where we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who is expecting a baby with her husband Derek (Jake Abel), who is quickly revealed to be physically abusive. After he assaults her she locks him out of their bedroom, leaving him exposed to the evil presence that appears that night which can seemingly control the electrical appliances around the house, something which is never explored further outside of flickering lights and ominous radio broadcasts. Derek’s death sees detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) zero in on Madison as the prime suspect, and causes her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) to arrive to offer support. More victims begin appearing around the city, and Madison is having visions of the murders as they happen, though the killer is always hidden behind a mask, and together, they all need to figure out what exactly is going on before one of them is next.
In story, tone, and style, Malignant owes a lot to the Italian giallo films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, most notably those of Dario Argento. While the story hews heavily towards some of his more ridiculous tendencies, the movie itself is lacking nearly everything else that made those movies work in their own weird way. The dialog at times feels stilted and absurd, and isn’t helped by some surprisingly poor performances in which the actors seem to be unsure if they are supposed to be playing the material straight or for camp. Though the director does inject a few stylish shots into the film, and occasionally makes bold use of colored lighting, he proves himself incapable of rising to the unnecessary but grandly over-the-top style that made Argento a name among cineastes, and proves himself surprisingly inept at reproducing his own style as well, barely generating any suspense and only getting the audience to jump with the help of loud noises from the score. Speaking of which, while being memorable is something most modern scores don’t seem to be able to pull off, this one does, but for all the wrong reasons. It is almost aggressively bad, and sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the cheapest of 90’s straight-to-video sequels.
Things pick up a bit in the final third, when the movie shows itself to be almost admirably bonkers, but even then the execution falls apart, with the villain looking almost comical at times. It’s a shame, because there are some good ideas here. A supernatural killer whose imminent appearance is marked by electrical anomalies should generate some really creepy set pieces, and it’s hard not to be surprised by those third act reveals, even if some horror fans will likely have an inkling of where it’s all going. But the litany of bad decisions, both by the characters in front of the camera and the creators behind it make this hard to enjoy. When you finish watching a movie with a twist as disturbing as this one and the thing you find yourself remembering the most is one character’s comically poor choice of parking spots, it’s never a good sign. ★
Available in theaters and on HBO Max through 10/10.
Rated R for strong horror violence and gruesome images, and for language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor