“Malignant” is a return to director James Wan’s (“Aquaman,” “Saw,” “Conjuring,” “Insidious”) horror habits, after a brief bout of candy-colored comic-book movie fun. But “Malignant” isn’t entirely a throwback; Wan’s superhero sojourn is baked into this new film’s genetic material.
Like “Aquaman,” “Malignant” just wants to have fun; it has a brash, balls-to-the-walls attitude and isn’t afraid to embrace the camp. Like “Aquaman,” in trying to be fun and embrace said camp, it is often very dumb (I like to call this the octopus drummer effect). And, like “Aquaman,” it’s kind of a superhero origin story?
The film stars Annabelle Wallis (“The Silencing”) as Madison. Madison is pregnant, she’s got a wacko abusive husband and she lives in a sufficiently lonesome, spooky house with the sort of street lights that eerily flicker against windows as they please. Suffice to say, the scene is set. Throw in Ray Chase (“Justice League Dark: Apokolips War”) as a vaguely simian, “Ring”-esque figure shrouded in darkness with a penchant for slishing and slashing, and bam — you’ve got your horror flick.
This slish-slasher is a super-strong parkour god, has weird electricity powers (and maybe invisibility powers? and maybe telekinesis powers? The film is touch-and-go when it comes to things like “clarity”) and loves to dress up in a slick black outfit and stab people with a fancy DIY gold knife. Add a couple of gonzo twists and an inscrutable connection to our protagonist Madison — she can see the murders as they happen, her surroundings dissolving and morphing in a visually fetching fashion — and bam, you’ve got your superhero flick? To elaborate would spoil the film, but essentially, Madison and the murderer are something of two peas in a pod.
“Malignant” is a lot of things. It’s got those ’80s horror vibes that people now refer to as “like ‘Stranger Things.’” It’s got chintzy fight scenes straight from the most high-octane action blockbusters. It’s got the buddy-cop crime serial mixed in there and a strangely heavy dose of super-heroics. This sickly sweet, totally bombastic and definitely dubious mélange is both the film’s highest selling point and greatest downfall.
On the one hand, the film is only kept afloat by this all-in approach. The earnestness, the complete commitment — it makes the movie fun. The weirdly amped synthy score, the Victorian stylings, the randomly extravagant fight scenes — it’s all indulgent, but sometimes one likes to indulge. Without a knowing wink to be found, there’s something special, a simple pleasure, about watching a super-powered contortionist in a trench coat ludicrously swing and catapult himself about.
On the other hand, you get bumbling side characters that shout “it’s as if he’s drinking electricity!” and “he’s broadcasting his thoughts?” without a tinge of self-awareness, while the do-or-die characters stare into the camera and self-seriously stammer, “It’s time to … cut out the cancer.”
Clumsy dialogue aside, many characters have a terrible habit of acting like they’re in a horror movie. Which, they are, but one can’t help but roll their eyes when Madison’s sister (Maddie Hasson, “We Summon the Darkness”) ventures into an abandoned sanatorium alone and at night. Or when the dogged detective (George Young, “A Bread Factory: Parts 1 & 2”) just refuses to demonstrate any sense of self-preservation and instead doggedly dives into weird holes and doggedly dances through subterranean cities in dogged pursuit of a literal monster.
So, y’know. There’s a give and take.
You jump when you’re supposed to jump, you laugh when you’re not. James Wan is a master horror man, after all, though at this point anyone familiar with even an iota of his work may find themselves unsurprised by the well-worn arsenal he employs to tingle your spine. But, much like “Aquaman,” sometimes things just happen, seemingly unmoored from any causal chain of events, which either means comical superfluity or a cheap contrivance to move the plot along.
Does the film get by on its unabashed earnestness alone? Maybe, maybe not. It’s certainly not poetry. But bananas, popcorn fun? Absolutely.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.