I sold the latest James Wan horror to The Boy by reading him part of Joe Bob Briggs’ review (“4 stars! Check it out!”) which emphasized the bat-guano elements of the plot, and he said if he had any particular surprise in the film, it was how it was basically just a solid slasher flick. Which, if you’ve seen the movie, tells you something about how far the bat-guano meter has to be pegged to register around here. And it’s true, if you’ve seen—oh, let’s say for no particular reason at all—Frank Hennenlotter’s 1982 cult classic Basket Case, this may seem tame by comparison.
The story here is of a troubled woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who becomes the focus of a crime investigation when her abusive husband—no spoilers here but if seeing a pregnant woman get beat is a deal broken for you, consider the deal broken—turns up dead after an apparent home invasion. Not long after, doctors who all worked on the same remarkable case 30 years earlier start turning up dead, another woman goes missing, and Madison seems to have a psychic link to the murderer.
Sure we’ve seen it before! But have we ever seen it with…uh, wait, yeah, we’ve seen it with just about everything. Wait! Seattle! Have we ever seen it set in Seattle?! (Probably.)
What sets the movie apart is what you might call “the third act ask”. At the beginning of the third act (or the end of the second, depending on how you parse these things), the nature of the killer is revealed and it’s really, really silly. And a little cheat-y, though really only in the ordinary sense of horror cheats. That is, you aren’t being asked to accept anything that isn’t standard for the genre—just a lot all at once. It’s kind of a horse pill of horror. That said, it’s also basically the only possible non-mundane resolution of the issue, so the Boy and I embraced it wholly—and it’s probably why the $40 million dollar movie flopped and has let’s-call-them-“mixed” reviews.
The thing is, this feels like a real movie. We all sorta enjoyed Free Guy, by contrast, but that movie feels like a series of programmed sequences, possibly generated by the world’s dumbest AI, with as little human interaction as possible to screw it up. Wan, on the other hand, can have a black female detective (Michole Brianna White) who feels like a real character, who isn’t perfect, a dumb blonde little actress sister (Maddie Hasson) who flirts with the male detective (George Young) and gets excited when she thinks the police are using psychics but who’s also true-hearted and brave, a cute nerdy CSI gal (Mercedes Colon) who’s also crushing on the detective.
I mean, the thing is, whatever else you might say about it, it felt like the director gave a damn and took some risks.
Apart from the budget, Malignant is like Wan’s other unsuccessful post-Saw projects like Dead Silence and Death Sentence. The former took a crack at the ventriloquist-dummy genre (pioneered by the silent Gabbo, probably most famous now as the source for a setup on “The Simpsons”) and the latter squarely in the vein of post Death Wish revenge horror flicks. As a horror guy, I’ll take any of them over Furious 7 or Aquaman.
The 3rd Act Reveal is followed by a “empty the precinct house” slaughter similar to The Terminator though really reminding me of Maniac Cop 2. That went a little long for my taste. Also, I didn’t super care for the sequel set up, though I don’t suppose there was any other way to do that. I guess we won’t have to worry about seeing a sequel, at least. We could always just watch Basket Case 2, I suppose.