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Malignant (2021)

The Third Act Makes the First Two Worthwhile

Score 6/10 - Standard Faire

Posted by Anthony DeRouen | March 13th, 2022

Synopsis - Madison is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

I heard about James Wan’s divisive "return-to-horror" film Malignant and its dark tones when it was released last September to much hoopla. I wasn’t sold on the trailer and waited until RedBox carried it. On a budget of $40 million Malignant pulled in $34 million, which is not what New Line and James Wan’s Atomic Monster were realistically hoping for. To be honest, I was falling asleep during the film's first forty-five minutes. There was very little to latch onto. At times I found myself watching the film simply because it was on, and I was too comfortable on my couch to move. Had I put on my Sunday best and coughed up $12 (plus popcorn and a coke) to see this in theaters my opinion may be lesser.

So let's dive into the film! Madison Lake (played by Annabelle Wallis) is in an abusive relationship. She's pregnant, is still working and needs a break. Her boyfriend has the TV and apparently doesn't want to give it up (what a great guy). After a brief, tense argument, tempers flare and she is thrown against a wall. The back of her head bleeds, and a creature emerges from the shadows to kill her boyfriend to the familiar unsettling strings of composer Joseph Bishara. Even after so many Conjuring films his style of compositions , albeit overused, is still impressive.

So begins a detective mystery helmed by two Keystone cops, one who is laughably aloof while the other thinks she must be on the wrong production set. I think Michole Briana White’s skills would be better served on the set of CSI, or another legitimate true crime narrative, if that’s her calling.

The movie feels listless. We are presented with a film without an engaging story. Lavish set pieces are hollow. And I do mean lavish. The camera exudes immense craft and skills, but, again, where is the story? Madison Lake is treated as a vessel for cheap scares when she should have been the emotional anchor. As the audience I could care less about her plight, hence I could care less if I’m awake. That’s the simple truth of the matter. If Madison’s presence on screen wasn’t consistently leveraged for tacky effects-driven violence we may have connected with her dilemma, and experienced the dangers more fully. Alas, her character serves as a tour guide for CGI gore and jump scares.

James Wan knew the material was dark, and decided to leverage the detectives as comedic relief. On the surface this may work; however, neither character’s actions nor dialogue appeared up to the task. The timing was off, and the situations never called for it. So what did this leave us? A dour film broken up by cheap imitation Super Troopers. But, for all its detractors James Wan delivers on originality and kinetic energy. If you can make it to the third act you’re in for a surprise. The revelation also ties in the first two acts nicely, and makes you ponder how much you missed while dozing off, but it’s not enough to press rewind.

For all its detractors James Wan delivers on originality and kinetic energy at the end.

Beneath it all, it feels as though the screenwriter and director knew their plotline couldn’t pass muster beyond familiar Wan-esque world building: flickering television and phone screens, unexpected faces reflected in glass surfaces, supernatural elements dressed in the latest goth, and so much dry ice fog. We get it: the abandoned underground building is creepy! We didn’t need a rubber mallet over our head to see it. What we needed is character development, emotional attachment that builds tension.

I won’t go into too much detail about what’s in the third act. It can easily be found online elsewhere. Credit has to be given to James Wan for trying something new. I’m a huge fan of his work and will continue to follow his projects. Hopefully the financial return and audience reaction for Malignant doesn't deter him from swinging for the fences again.

PS: If you're a fan of James Wan as I am, Malignant is watchable. Will it stand the test of time as a classic horror masterpiece? No, but the idea behind the film is original and sometimes that's all we need in this day and age.

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