In the 1980s and ’90s, my friends and I loved to see horror films at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the opulent, 1500 seat movie palace where 2001: A Space Odyssey played for 80 weeks in 1968. Two decades later, the Hollywood Pacific was no longer A-list but it was still glorious and the perfect place to see the Nightmare on Elm Street films or Christine or the B-movie gem, Dolls. Readers in New York City can surely name an equivalent horror palace, hopefully one that’s still open. The Hollywood Pacific has been boarded up since 1994.
And that’s a shame because the Pacific would have been the perfect place to see Malignant, the memorably nutty new movie from director James Wan, the impresario behind Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious. (He also directed Furious 7 and Aquaman). To announce his allegiance to the kind of crowd-friendly scare flick that would have played the Pacific, Wan begins Malignant with static lines shuttering across the Warner Bros. logo, like a VHS tape badly in need of someone to adjust the tracking.
Old VHS tapes tucked away in the basement of an abandoned Seattle mental hospital will actually prove crucial to unraveling the true identity of a demonically limber, no-faced dude named Gabriel who’s fixated on the troubled Madison (Annabelle Wallis), who just happens to have had an imaginary friend by that name as a child. After Gabriel kills Madison’s abusive husband (Jake Abel), he moves on to a series of murders Madison begins to witness psychically, as they happen, much like Faye Dunaway did (more elegantly) in the 1978 thriller, Eyes of Laura Mars (now streaming on Prime).
Malignant is too long and often feels slow yet it contains several showy sequences, including a gleefully cheesy mental hospital murder spree complete with panicked staff running through hallways awash in swirling red alarm lights. Gabriel, it would seem, has gone berserk. They tried electric shock on him but, “It was like he was drinking the electricity.”
Later, there’s a terrific foot chase between Gabriel and a detective (George Young, an action star in the making), a truly nasty jail cell slaughter, and in the film’s final 20 minutes, a plot twist so left field crazy the old Hollywood Pacific audience would have flipped their collective lid. They’d have hooted at the twist’s absurdity, and then cheered the epically gory set piece it inspires.
As always with Wan, Malignant’s sets are dense with detail and texture, but for all his experience with the genre, the new horror movie king, now 44, falls prey to its more obvious traps: awkward exposition and a fadeout scene that falls flat, as if the director left the room early. Wes Craven had the same problem. Setting up a shock is fun. The follow-through is duty.