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MALIGNANT (2021) Review

J-L reviews Warner Bros. MALIGNANT saying James Wan “manages to maintain surprise and intrigue.”

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Malignant (Warner Bros.)

Malignant is in cinemas now from Warner Bros. Pictures. If you are in the US then you can also stream the movie now via HBO Max.

Synopsis

In the film, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is paralysed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.

Review

After a venture into DCEU territory for Aquaman’s solo outing, James Wan returns to familiar turf with his latest film, Malignant.

In fact, it was reportedly the success of Aquaman and the desire of Warner Bros to keep Wan on board for subsequent projects (like the upcoming Aquaman sequel) that provided him with the blank cheque to make a new horror flick.

Widely known for his work on Saw, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2, Wan returns to the horror genre with a new original piece. The film is centred around Madison (played by Annabelle Wallis), a woman with a seemingly troubled past, who begins to see terrifying visions of occurring murders, setting out to uncover the mystery killer and her connection to the visions.

Even if certain facets will not work for everyone, the film at the very least undoubtedly offers stunning camerawork – arguably some of the best amongst horror films in recent years – with numerous impressive approaches and techniques. From the inside of a VHS player and a washing machine, to the top-down of a house walkthrough sequence and the point-of-view of a monster climbing stairs, even things as simple as simultaneous camera movement during generic panning shots keep the viewer engaged. All of these techniques work to maintain the constant threat felt by Madison, vulnerable from all angles. The lighting too feels dynamic and fresh.

An interesting tidbit in relation to Malignant’s cinematography is that the film was shot by Michael Burgess – the son of Don Burgess, who was the cinematographer for Aquaman under Wan. Michael also worked as a camera operator on Aquaman and has served as the DP on three films prior, all in the horror genre: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It; The Curse of La Llorona; and Annabelle Comes Home.

However, it does genuinely baffle at times how a film so absolutely brilliant at visual storytelling proceeds to undermine that with such weak, unbelievable and often expository dialogue that treats the audience as if they are stupid and fails to develop much empathy with the characters at times. In spite of this, Wallis’ central performance is largely strong, although certain moments are weaker as a result of the inconsistent screenplay. Furthermore, several of the supporting performances fall pretty flat, failing to elicit their desired response. These were certainly not helped by the inconsistent script, but the actors also did themselves little favour.

There are around three or four very obvious and unnecessary expositions in dialogue that take the viewer out of the experience. Whilst the pointed nature of these expository lines and the cringey dialogue elsewhere border on self-aware campness, they teeter on a fine line between deliberately cheesy and downright disastrous, and the fact that it is almost impossible to discern the intent of the director is worrying. At times, you have to just accept it all and go along for the ride.

The blaring needle drop of Pixies’ Where Is My Mind? is a frequent occurrence throughout; although initially feeling out of place, cheesy and like it was plucked straight from an episode of How To Get Away With Murder, as time goes by, you come to accept it and it actually kind of works. Indeed, “as time goes by, you come to accept it and it actually kind of works” applies to basically every aspect of the film.

Perhaps a result of the starkly contrasting tones, some of the best dialogue is the handful of comedic quips dotted throughout: “So I’m putting out a BOLO on Sloth from The Goonies?” did garner belly laughs from the entire auditorium.

The film does suffer from some pacing issues, particularly in its middle portion. The viewer is thrown right into an action-packed, engaging introductory scene which is followed by the contemporary rarity of a full but nonetheless intriguing opening credits, yet the film fails to capitalise on that initial energy.
The parallels with Aquaman are rather clear; the cinematography and camerawork are great, whilst the majority of plot points are slightly weak, the dialogue is not groundbreaking and the film feels slightly too long in parts. In both cases, Wan clearly knows how to capture action sequences, though.

Verdict

Ultimately, whilst falling into some cliches, tropes and other predictable elements at times, especially with dialogue and character actions, Wan also manages to maintain surprise, intrigue and somewhat subvert the supernatural genre in interesting and exciting ways with some (literally) killer visuals.


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