It’s time we cut out the cancer.
I don’t know about you, but the prologue to James Wan‘s Malignant is so tonally over-the-top that I expected the title screen to fade away and reveal it was a soap opera on the television inside Madison Mitchell’s (Annabelle Wallis) home. Reality, however, provides something different: an earnest decision to stay true to that soapy filter of comically extreme emotions with blatantly obvious reveals punctuated by overwrought music cues. Give Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper credit for sticking to those guns because the result is not what many would expect from someone who has made a name in grounded horror removed from the campy schlock this journey heads towards instead. This is a midnight flick primed for hooting and hollering. And it’s admittedly fun. But good? I’m undecided.
The scene is of Dr. Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) back in 1993 on a night where a patient escaped his constraints and began killing others in the hospital. It feels like a late nineties adventure film with the beast just outside of frame tearing off limbs so that we can only see the wide-eyed shock of the victims left dismembered. We eventually do peer into the face of evil before things move to the present-day and it proves a gruesome sight that’s barely human. So when Weaver admits she’s “ready to cut out the cancer,” we can assume she means this monster that she believed she could help years ago upon his arrival. Just like that disease, however, a relapse is inevitable if you don’t excise every bit.
Enter Madison, a pregnant woman coming home to find her husband (Jake Abel‘s Derek) lying about with phone in-hand and a wrestling match on the TV. An argument ensues, his violent temper is unleashed to leave her with a cracked skull, and her instant reaction upon him leaving the room to apologetically retrieve ice for her head is to lock the door behind him. Fast-forward some hours to Madison in bed suffering a nightmare wherein a stranger shrouded in shadows wakes Derek up to snap his neck and she can’t help but go downstairs to make sure he’s okay. When she gets there, however, she discovers it wasn’t a dream at all. She finds his dead body on the floor as his killer rises to chase her too.
Detectives Shaw (George Young) and Moss (Michole Briana White) are put on the case only to discover all evidence points to Madison as the culprit. That she was found unconscious herself prevents them from pursuing that angle publicly, but we know it’s what they think. Everything changes, though, when two more murders occur a few weeks later because Madison and her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) arrive at the precinct with a far-fetched story that has them shaken to the core. Similar to the night Derek was killed, Madison witnessed these latest homicides as they happened too. Rather than in her sleep, these events were shown via a sort of full-body paralysis as the room around her morphed into the crime scenes. Why her? The past holds the answer.
A lot of talk surrounding Malignant hypes up some crazy twist as the explanation of what’s happening, but anyone paying attention to the opening credits and not-so-subtle hints insofar as how the killer only attacks people it targets (or those who get in its way), how Madison very obviously isn’t Sydney’s biological sister, and how talk about the supernatural is always dismissed with skepticism should know different. How hard Wan and Cooper go (alongside co-story breaker Ingrid Bisu, Wan’s wife and CST Winnie on-screen) might surprise some viewers regardless, but the overall dynamic is pretty much the only feasible answer to what’s happening. I won’t spoil the particulars, but it will get a bit contrived as it heads towards an unforgettable cards-on-the-table climax that cannot help but entertain.
Everyone involved leans into the soapy aesthetic to maximum effect so it’s tough to single any actor above the rest. Wallis obviously needs to possess the most range considering her role and her performance is definitely worth noting as a result. For me, however, the real star is White as the single straight man in this entire endeavor. Whether it’s her sarcastic delivery of dialogue (her Moss earned my biggest laugh when describing the sketch of their lead suspect) or her body language’s lack of time for all nonsense surrounding her (the eye-rolling when Winnie or Sydney flirt with Shaw is deafening), she’s stealing scenes left and right. White and Marina Mazepa (who portrays the monster in all its backward lurching glory) are worth the admission price alone.
I could take or leave the rest. Wan delivers good gore (especially during a massacre sequence wherein Zoë Bell brilliantly screams while pushing other people into the line of fire to save herself) and the production value is high with underground Seattle sets and a modified trophy as dagger, but your enjoyment truly relies upon whether you can accept the outlandish atmosphere. The massive subset of horror fans who relish in that comedic tone for the communal experience it provides in a packed auditorium should have a blast. Everyone else needs to check their expectations and realize what they’re getting into since the dramatic gravitas of the Conjuring universe has been intentionally replaced by B-movie sensibilities. Doing that with Hollywood capital proves just how much clout Wan’s accrued.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: ANNABELLE WALLIS as Madison in New Line Cinema, Starlight Media Inc. and My Entertainment Inc.’s original horror thriller MALIGNANT, an Atomic Monster production, a Warner Bros Pictures release.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy Caption: JACQUELINE MCKENZIE as Dr. Weaver in New Line Cinema, Starlight Media Inc. and My Entertainment Inc.’s original horror thriller MALIGNANT, an Atomic Monster production, a Warner Bros Pictures release.
 © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy Caption: (L-r) ANNABELLE WALLIS as Madison and MADDIE HASSON as Sydney in New Line Cinema, Starlight Media Inc. and My Entertainment Inc.’s original horror thriller MALIGNANT, an Atomic Monster production, a Warner Bros Pictures release.