Bloody ‘Malignant’ is a horror throwback that you won’t see coming

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The problem with the movie plot twist as a narrative device is that it has become too ubiquitous. They have become so expected among certain genres, particularly mysteries and horror flicks, that viewers spend much of their time trying to spot the twist coming around the corner. We’re a long way removed from the cerebral shocks in films like “Psycho” and “The Sixth Sense,” even if the latter’s director has tried to build a career on twist endings.

It is no spoiler to say that the horror film “Malignant” takes a stab at the plot twist, because being armed with that advance notice alone isn’t enough to enable audiences to guess what’s happening. Indeed, so deliriously deranged is director James Wan’s big reveal that you’ll delight in the fact that you’re shocked even when you know the shock is coming.

That said, the description of a film being “a plot twist in search of a story” applies in spades to “Malignant.” After an attention-grabbing cold open set in 1993, the story flashes forward to Madison Lake, a pregnant woman living in Seattle with her abusive husband. Soon after he cracks the back of her skull against a wall, an apparition snaps his neck in two. This unlocks a mystery over the identity of the shadowy killer, who hijacks Madison’s psyche as he continues to kill.

Akela Cooper’s screenplay slowly unspools the links between Madison, the killer — who goes by the name Gabriel — and his victims. Most paranormal horror films begin with tangible frights that end up finding their origins in the supernatural. Wan and Cooper’s nifty trick here is reversing that sequence, as “Malignant” starts out like an ethereal J-horror film before revealing itself to be outlandishly literal.

North Carolina native Maddie Hasson — who carries a passing resemblance of Florence Pugh — does fine work as Madison’s sister Sydney. Meanwhile, George Young and Michole Briana White provide a breezy comic air as two police detectives trying to catch the real killer.

After moonlighting for the “Fast and Furious” and DC Comics movie franchises, Wan is back in his element as the erstwhile director of the “Saw,” “Conjuring,” and “Insidious” films. The result is some B-movie schlock dressed up in blockbuster garb. Between the opening scene and the eye-opening reveal, “Malignant” is a garden variety revenge slasher with standard-issue chills and thrills. The presentation is almost parody-worthy at times, and only Wan’s panache keeps you interested enough to stick around for the denouement. Although the storyline requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, certain plot points — like the origin of Gabriel’s electrokinesis — are given the short shrift and seem to exist for the sake of narrative necessity.

That said, in a modern-day filmscape in which seemingly every horror film hammers home some wider social commentary, “Malignant” is a bit of a no-nonsense, bloody 1980s throwback with an updated FX sheen. And if you say you saw the ending coming a mile away, you’re lying.


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