Malignant is a combination of horror movie references, James Wan’s usual bag of tricks and other things that he likes thrown into a blender and pureed together. The resulting mixture is slick and very entertaining, but not as engrossing as Wan’s previous horror movies. The movie is a creepy funhouse, relying on paper-thin characters to drive the plot. The movie works, and horror movie nerds will find it’s fanboy signalling endlessly entertaining, but the movie lacks the emotional connection that elevated The Conjuring to more than your average horror movie. Recommended.
A detailed summary and analysis follow. Spoilers abound. You have been warned.
Malignant begins with a flashback that would make Sam Raimi proud. In 1993, Dr. Weaver confides to a video recorder how her patient Gabriel is getting stronger and more difficult to control. On cue, the desk lamp flickers and a security guard tells Dr. Weaver that Gabriel has gotten out again. He’s done more than escape this time, though: he’s assaulted several members of the hospital staff, killing at least three of them. Dr. Weaver manages to shoot Gabriel with a tranquilizer dart, tells him he’s been a bad boy (no kidding) and exclaims: “It’s time to cut out the cancer!” As the credits roll, the operation is shown intermixed with snippets of Gabriel’s case file, all set to the ominous tones of industrial music. On the one hand, it’s the best music video Skinny Puppy never made. On the other hand, the same gimmick was used to open Godzilla V. Kong. I guess directors don’t get together to discuss notes on the WB lot.
Back in the present day, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) comes home. Her pregnancy is giving her a lot of pain, and her layabout husband Derek (Jake Abel) is no better. He says he’s upset because she’s had three miscarriages. What an inconvenience for him! When Madison tells him to back off, Derek smashes her head into the wall. She manages to lock the door, and Derek tries to explain away his abuse, saying what he did “isn’t me”. (I suspect that it is, Derek.) That night, a shadowy figure does a number on Derek. Madison wakes up and is attacked by the same figure, who knocks her unconscious.
Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), an odd couple if there ever was one, are assigned to the case. Since there were no signs of forced entry, and Madison suffered abuse from her husband, Moss feels she definitely had motive to kill him. Shaw, however, is unconvinced and Madison is allowed to go home after her hospital stay. Hmm. Motive was always good enough for an arrest on Law & Order.
Back at home, Madison sees a shadowy shape approaching her house. She tells herself, “there’s nobody there, it’s all in my head.” Oh Maddy, you literally don’t know the half of it! The next morning, Madison boards her house up and adds a deadbolt, but only succeeds in forcing her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) to climb in through a window. Madison confesses to her sister that since she was adopted, she really wanted to have a baby so that she could have a blood connection to someone else. Definitely be careful what you wish for, Madison.
Left to her own devices, Madison sees Dr. Weaver being murdered, Laura Mars style. The killer has long, dark hair that obscures his face, wears gloves and a long, black coat. (I’m thinking the perp is definitely into goth.) After she sees a second murder (another doctor), Madison goes to the police. She’s adamant that she didn’t know either of the two victims, but Shaw and Moss suspect Madison is connected in some way.
Madison receives a phone call from a man who sounds like Freddie Kruger. He calls her by another name and says she knows who he is. When the caller says he’s going to keep killing, Madison surprises herself when she exclaims “Gabriel, no!”. Madison tells Sydney that they have to visit their mom to find out who Gabriel is before the cops arrest her for the murders. Fortunately, mom still has a working VCR and cues up America’s Scariest Home Videos, which feature Madison trying to convince Gabriel not to do bad things. It must have worked because mom, Madison and Sydney are still around. (Dad’s fate is never mentioned, but if he bugged out, I couldn’t blame him. Dealing with an adopted child who talks to demons is not what most parents sign up for.)
Shaw and Moss go through binders containing Dr. Weaver’s cases. All of the cases are for disfigured children, which is puzzling because Madison looks perfectly normal. Eventually Shaw figures out that Madison was a patient of Dr. Weaver when she was eight. Shaw figures out that there is one more doctor on the hit list, but he’s already been killed when he arrives. Gabriel tries to kill Shaw, but Shaw has a gun, so Gabriel runs away like a later-day Darkman. Shaw follows Gabriel into the Seattle Underground, where he loses Gabriel in a Wan-inspired landscape filled with fog. On a side note, this is the second movie I’ve seen this year that made use of an underground city as a plot point. (Pig being the first.)
Now that they know Madison was a patient of Dr. Weaver’s, Shaw and Moss convince Madison to allow a hypnotherapist attempt to uncover repressed memories. She brings out a doozy: Madison, under the influence of Gabriel, nearly killed her unborn sister. After that revelation, a woman Gabriel kidnapped earlier crashes through Madison’s ceiling. Madison finally is arrested, and honestly, things are just getting started.
Sydney plays junior detective and heads to the hospital (now abandoned) where Dr. Weaver treated Madison all those years ago. She finds video tapes laying around that haven’t degraded in eighteen years and takes them back to her mom’s house. (Remember the working VCR?) The tapes show Madison at eight, and reveal that Gabriel is a teratoma or tumor on the back of Madison’s head and body. Dr. Weaver discusses Gabriel as being a parasitic twin, and this all makes sense, since the opening sequence and credits contained enough clues to put two and two together. The movie plays a little fast-and-lose with this setup, though, but I’ll get into that later.
Down at the precinct, Madison is inexplicably placed in a holding cell with a bunch of other nasty girls, who see her as an easy mark and rough her up. (Don’t quadruple murders get special treatment?) The physical distress wakes up Gabriel, who emerges from the back of Madison’s skull. He realigns all of Madison’s joints and kills every woman in the cell. Because the cops in this movie are incredibly inept and can’t shoot straight, Gabriel frees himself from the cell and then proceeds to kill every cop with ease. I found it odd for a horror movie to have a reference to Colin Firth’s rampage scene in The Kingsman, but Malignant references so many other things, I guess it fits.
Realizing that Gabriel wants to kill Madison’s birth mother, Sydney rushes to the hospital where she is recovering. This leads to a family showdown where Gabriel reveals to Madison’s birth mother that his plan was to kill Sydney first, then mom. Fortunately, Madison figures out how to shut Gabriel away, maybe for good? (Never trust a horror movie with a happy ending!)
Reviewing Malignant is complicated. On the one hand, the movie is a typical horror movie, with a heroine in peril and a monster with a penchant for slashing. Malignant is more than that, however. It’s filled with homages, nods and winks to other horror movies, old and new, that will give horror movie aficionados the thrill of playing “spot the reference” for its entire running time.
This isn’t to say that Malignant isn’t a good horror movie, it is. There are plenty of scares to be had, and it is the second-best horror movie I’ve seen this year. (A Quiet Place 2 is still the leader, hands-down.) If I say that Malignant would have been great if director James Wan had shown some restraint, horror movie buffs would think I was making a joke. As the director of Saw, The Conjuring and Insidious, Wan isn’t known for restraint. Maybe the word I’m thinking of is consistency.
Each of Wan’s previous horror movies have featured a distinct, uniform style. Saw had a grimy, chop-shop quality. The Conjuring movies were set in the Seventies and filled with Roman Catholic demonic imagery. Insidious switched between the chaotic energy of a fun house and the dreamy netherworld known as The Further. Malignant marks a departure for Wan, in that the movie is an amalgamation of callbacks to horror movies that I’m guessing influenced him to become a director.
The problem I have in general with movies built on homages is that the constant signaling takes me out of the narrative to decipher clues, instead of getting further invested in the story and the characters involved. For Malignant, this meant that at points where the tension and dread should be growing, I found myself thinking, “Where did I see this before? Was it Evil Dead? Or was it Basket Case?”. A knowing wink or two (maybe three) would have been enough, but this movie has at least a dozen, if not more.
I’ve been watching horror movies for decades, and while I wouldn’t consider myself a horror movie connoisseur, I quickly understood the game Wan is playing. When I see a movie, I want to get lost in the story, and not split my attention between what I’m watching and the visual equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. With Malignant, I wanted to see an exceptionally scary James Wan horror movie, not play “name that movie” for nearly two hours. While the steady stream of external movie references was a needless distraction, they were not the only problem I had with the movie.
Malignant feels like Wan letting go in a big way. There is no subtlety to what’s on screen. Everything is to the max (no pun intended), and nothing is held back. After years of making relatively bloodless horror movies, Malignant feels like Wan’s cinematic release, a way of getting all of the blood and gore out of his system. Based on the movie itself, I’d think that he did, at least I hope he did.
Wan has traditionally eschewed the well-worn “victim pursuit” horror movie trope, and instead has become the master of the “jump scare”. Malignant definitely has several of those, as well as Wan’s other go-to trademarks: nightmare landscapes coated with fog, evil beings whose bones and joints pop like a bowl of Rice Krispies, lights that buzz and blink off at the worst possible moments. In another horror movie departure for Wan, Malignant features “action sequences”.
As I mentioned above, Gabriel goes on several rampages towards the end of the movie. These scenes took on the nature of a video game, with Wan setting Gabriel at “boss mode” so that he could inflict the most damage while receiving little to no injuries himself. How a police station filled with at least twenty armed cops could fail to shoot Gabriel at least once is nonsensical. (I had this same issue with the conclusion of the first season of Westworld, where two androids can avoid getting hit by a constant hail of bullets from an army of security guys.) The scenes undeniably have a gory, kinetic energy (borrowed from one other movie I mention below), but they rely on shock instead of horror. Instead of being scared, I wished someone had given Wan some Ritalin.
With a $40 million budget, Malignant gives Wan the opportunity to indulge himself in ways we didn’t typically see in his Conjuring and Insidious movies. Wan employs various types of cameras and lenses throughout. I couldn’t help thinking that prior to filming, Wan went onto the Warner Brothers lot, tossed every camera and lens he could find into a van and sped away. The movie features Steadicam shots, fish-eye lenses, overhead shots, you name it. Several scenes where Maddie’s perspective transitions to Gabriels’ feature what I’d assume was very expensive CGI. Gabriel himself appears to be constructed using old-fashioned makeup techniques that have largely been replaced by CGI.
After watching Malignant a second time, I noticed that it had some substantial plot holes. Granted, it’s easy to nit-pick the logic in even the best movies, but they are difficult to ignore. For example:
- If Gabriel can control Madison’s body, why can’t he use her eyes and mouth as well?
- Why does the newly emerged Gabriel have eyes at all? The doctors removed everything except his brain. How did he manage to grow them, but nothing else?
- How does Gabriel know where the doctor’s live? We never see him use a computer throughout the movie.
- Since Gabriel and Madison share the same body, why does Madison “see” Gabriel externally in the early going?
- Why does Madison only see what Gabriel sees when he’s about to kill someone? Why wouldn’t she see him walking around Seattle beforehand, or taking an Uber to the scene of is next murder?
- What did Madison’s adoptive parents do with her in the time between when she threatened to kill an unborn Sydney and after Sydney was born? Did they keep her locked in a closet?
- If Detective Moss believed Madison had sufficient motive to kill her husband, why didn’t they arrest her? Did both she and Shaw need to agree in order to do that?
- How is Gabriel able to call Madison’s phone? Doesn’t that require having access to another phone? AFAIK, there is no way to have a phone call itself. Him being able to call Detective Shaw’s phone is slightly more plausible, since he may have caught a brief glance of Shaw’s phone number on the business card he gave to Sydney. But even still, calling a phone is much more involved than broadcasting your thoughts to a radio or a television.
The acting in Malignant is serviceable, but nothing special. In all fairness, Gabriel is the straw that stirs this drink, with all of the other characters existing mainly to react to his mayhem. The dialog is mainly exposition, with a few bits of color added here and there. George Young makes a positive impression as Detective Shaw, and Maddie Hasson provides energy and a bit of comic relief. Annabelle Wallis does what she can as Madison, but her character exists mainly to be tormented and frightened.
In spite of all of the self-indulgent aspects on display in the movie, Malignant is still a wildly entertaining thrill ride. That a movie with a kitchen sink aesthetic like this one is still worth watching is a testament to Wan’s skill as a director. He’s set such a high bar for himself and others, I suppose it’s unfair to expect him to hit a grand slam every time out. Malignant is a solid double, with the runner sliding into second base at full speed with sharpened cleats.
James Wan’s Favorite Things
Malignant features a lot of elements I’m assuming Wan loves, including:
- Industrial music: featured in the opening credits and later in the movie.
- Goth culture: Gabriel is decked out in long black hair, a black leather coat and black gloves.
- VCRs: old video tapes feature heavily in resolving the mystery of who Gabriel is. Wan loves VCRs so much he puts a camera inside one and films it in action.
- Analog devices like radios, loudspeakers and children’s toys, through which Gabriel “speaks”.
- The cheesy synth music used in horror movies from the early Eighties. Credit Stranger Things for co-opting this retro calling card and making it cool again.
A Directorial Pastiche
The other aspect of Malignant is how it references films I’d assume Wan is a fan of. While watching the movie, I thought of many other horror movies that likely served as influences. The list below is by no means exhaustive, as I figure there are likely at least dozen YouTube videos that cover this territory.
- Basket Case (1982) featured a normal man who was separated from his deformed twin at birth. Very likely a heavy influence.
- Sam Raimi’s early movies. Wan clearly loves the “camera flying around on a wire” filmmaking in Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead 2 (1987). He also shares Raimi’s preference to pour on the blood, and when it seems like too much, pour on some more. The scene where Detective Shaw chases Gabriel from the hospital to Seattle’s underground city reminded me a lot of Darkman (1990).
- Gabriel’s voice reminded me a lot of Freddie Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The two also have a penchant for killing their victims with knives. Gabriel and Kruger both spent time in mental institutions.
- Just like the ghosts in Poltergeist (1982), Gabriel can speak through electronics (televisions, radios, cell phones, speakers, etc.)
- For most of the movie, Gabriel’s face is obscured by long, dark hair. That and his herky-jerky movements reminded me of The Ring (2002).
- When it’s revealed that Gabriel was/is a parasitic twin who takes control of Madison’s mind and body to inflict his revenge, Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall (1990) came to mind.
- The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) was the first horror movie I thought of that featured a heroine who saw murders as they were happening.
- The scene where Gabriel reveals himself and kills every woman in the holding cell, then every police officer in the precinct, felt like a riff on Colin Firth’s church massacre in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).
- In what is likely just a coincidence, Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade (2018) is a movie that features a man whose mind and body are controlled by a malevolent being. Whannell acted in several of Wan’s movies, and took over the reins of the Insidious series for Wan.