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Review: James Wan's genuinely scary 'Malignant' proves the auteur can still produce a killer twist

If you're like me and have been begging the horror genre to get back to originality, a filmmaker like Wan should represent a breath of fresh air
Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

ST. LOUIS — James Wan wants to scare the life out of you while messing with your head at the same time. To be scared is to allow yourself to be vulnerable and therefore, uncomfortable. Wan also knows how to execute the twist ending, something that elevates his latest film.

The horror genre godfather of the moment doesn't waste our time or mince our attention spans with his latest scarefest, "Malignant." Annabelle Wallis is our petrified heroine, Madison, a woman experiencing awful nightmares of grisly deaths — or are they actually real murders and she could possibly have more clues than her sister (Maddie Hasson) or detectives on the case, (George Young and Michole Briana White)?

What's refreshing about Wan's latest film is that it's not overly complex or stuffed with too many layers to deter you from knowing this is all meant to make you move around that theater seat. The film opens up at a mental hospital, where a mysterious and rather deadly patient is brutally murdering doctors and nurses before one steps up to the camera and says, "time to cut out the cancer." Before too long, the audience is back with Madison, who is getting roughed up by her husband, slammed into a wall quite ferociously. As the murders continue, ones that she seems to witness before anyone else, all the viewer can wonder is if the end will justify the means.

"Malignant" certainly does. If you're like me and have been begging the horror genre to get back to originality, a filmmaker like Wan should represent a breath of fresh air. The action here is ruthless and gory, with no bloody images held back or authenticity denied. The story from Ingrid Bisu and Wan, with a screenplay from Akela Cooper, isn't afraid to take some chances and cast a spell at the same time, luring you in closer with Wallis' portrayal of a woman who has either gone mad or found her mind glued to something even worse.

Wallis is the thing that makes this movie ascend. If we don't care about her or want to get to the bottom of these brutal visions, Wan's movie isn't worth the paper that movie theaters still print tickets with. There's more to her performance than being the damsel in distress. Taking a cue from Elisabeth Moss' thrilling portrayal of a woman under fire in "The Invisible Man," Wallis' haunting face endures itself to the particular tale being told, and I dug it. If you're wondering where you've seen her before, it's been in the background of other movie stars — like "Tag," "X-Men: First Class" and the underwhelming "Annabelle."

"Malignant" is her movie, though, and she flourishes.

Wan's film is versatile, and by that I mean it's got some action sequences that step outside the genre. One particular scene involving a killer broken loose at a police precinct reminded me of "Atomic Blonde" mixed with a zombie movie. There's life in the third act, and that includes one of the most jaw-dropping twists in recent memory. The guy who brought us the same "what just happened" reaction with the first "Saw," and the guy who keeps sending Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga after demons, still has a good surprise stuffed up his sleeve.

It's the twist that locks the movie into place as something worthwhile. Be prepared to be freaked out, and have your mind blown.