“Malignant,” James Wan’s new horror franchise-to-be, is American giallo, an Italian sub-genre of horror thriller that generally includes a few consistencies: bloody ritualistic murders, rudimentary investigative work by so-so detectives, and a vulnerable female lead who serves as the killer’s ultimate target.
Dario Argento is perhaps the greatest of all giallo filmmakers, and his films “Deep Red” (1975) and “Suspiria” (1977) are classics of the genre. In “Malignant,” Wan is the latest English-language director to adapt giallo for American audiences.
Wan should be a familiar name to horror buffs as the director of a number of modern horror…um…classics: one “Saw” film, two “Insidious” films, two “The Conjuring” films, and one “Aquaman” film, which was horrific but in a totally different way. Now, before the arrival of “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” later this year, he has delivered “Malignant,” a nasty little palate cleanser. Wan has faithfully recreated the giallo of old with a film that features plenty of gore, lots of histrionics, and two rather dopey detectives who always seem five minutes behind the action. Plus, there is a genuinely wild third-act twist, and I do mean twist.
Fans of gruesome, bloody horror will be gripped by “Malignant” from the opening credits: a montage of up-close slicing-and-dicing followed by a flashback filled with mangled bodies and a very violent humanoid monster named Gabriel who can control electricity and communicate through radio waves. Some of this is not explained sufficiently, but that’s OK; it’s giallo, and such films are full of similarly unexplained phenomena.
It appears that things will settle down a bit as we move forward into the present with the introduction of happily pregnant Emily May (Annabelle Wallis), but it’s not to be. In short order, Emily is beaten by her alcoholic husband, miscarries her baby, and discovers a bit later that her abusive husband has had his head forcibly removed from his shoulders. The killer? Let’s just say that Gabriel has done some growing up since the prologue and has many scores to settle.
The rest of the film is a very grisly series of killings all motivated by the mistreatment that Gabriel received in the experimental medical facility seen at the start of the film. Much to Emily’s horror, she is somehow connected to these killings in an “Eyes of Laura Mars” sort of psychic way. As each murder occurs, Emily’s reality melts away and transforms into the place of the killing in real-time. Naturally, she is horrified by what she experiences and seeks comfort by reconnecting with her estranged younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson), a struggling actress with plenty of free time. When it’s revealed that Emily was actually adopted as a young child from the same medical facility that housed Gabriel, we’re supposed to be shocked. However, this not-very-surprising surprise is actually a dramatic feint; the true shocker is still to come.
As the bodies begin to pile up, connections between Emily and Gabriel emerge, as do patterns and motives behind the killings. Eventually, Emily is the main and only suspect, although no one really believes she could be the one responsible. And then…
Honestly, the less said about the third-act twist the better simply because it’s so bizarre, outrageous and inexplicable even when explained by the characters themselves. In fact, it’s such a twist that it almost produces temporary amnesia that would lead one to forget the 90 rather boring minutes that preceded it. But not quite. What one is left with is a bland and bloody dinner followed by one heck of a dessert. If that’s your idea of a good meal, dig in.
Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by James Wan
Rated R (language, gruesome images, strong horror violence)
Now showing at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia; streaming on HBO Max
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.