The following story contains spoilers for the new horror movie Malignant, from director James Wan.
Folks, I’ve seen a lot of horror movies. I’ve seen a lot of horror shows. I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi, adventure, fantasy, and so on—as they say, genre—movies and shows. And when you’ve taken in a lot of genre, unfortunately, you start to get a pretty good read on where stories are going. And sometimes it can happen pretty early. This doesn’t always mean that something is going to be bad, but it can start to happen pretty early in a viewing experience. With Malignant, the latest horror film from director James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) I didn’t totally expect what was coming right off the bat, but it didn’t take long for me to think I had a pretty good idea. And, uh, I was way off.
Let’s just fill in with some pretty quick background before we dive into the bonkers madness of Malignant. I was going into the movie relatively blind—as I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie to do. I’d seen a trailer for the movie about a month and change earlier, before watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Old in theaters; but it was a pretty vague horror trailer, not divulging too many details, and given that Old itself was a horror movie, between other horror trailers and a whole twisty feature film, I didn’t exactly retain anything the Malignant trailer hinted at.
I’m a horror nut; I’d probably count John Carpenter’s original Halloween, along with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Wes Craven’s Scream, and of course Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining all along my favorite films—not even just horror films, but favorite films in general—of all time. So as soon as I learned that Malignant would be available to stream on HBO Max (in addition to its premiere in theaters) I got excited for a Saturday night of trying to scare myself.
While Malignant is creepy, and weird, and certainly has some scary imagery, it isn’t particularly scary (though it does have a handful of jump scare moments). But where it really succeeds is a layer of shocking unexpectedness that only comes from someone who really knows what they’re going for, and kind of nails it?
Part of why you don’t see The Conjuring on my list in the previous paragraph is because I put off watching that movie for years. Not because I thought it looked particularly bad, but because I kind of expected exactly what it would be: a “true story” that follows an investigation into a paranormal happening, and then, that’s right, the paranormal happening happens. And then probably one last scare at the end. When I finally watched the movie, earlier this year, lo and behold, that’s exactly what The Conjuring had in store. It wasn’t bad, but it was in no way surprising.
I would not dare have that same critique for Malignant. There were a few moments in Wan’s latest where I thought I knew what was coming. But boy, was I wrong.
For the next few paragraphs, I’m going to try to walk you through the way my mind and thought process evolved as I watched Malignant. Because this was an experience unlike any other I’ve had.
Let’s start from the top. We see some sort of Stranger Things-esque opening flashback (set in 1993), where doctors are conducting experiments on someone called “Gabriel,” who can control sound waves or something? But we never get a look at “Gabriel,” which should have been the first tip that something was messy. The doctor says it’s time to “cut out the cancer,” which without context we obviously have no idea what it means.
After an opening sequence that shows surgery and case files and all sorts of madness, we catch up in present day with Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who is a pregnant nurse with an abusive boyfriend. We know he’s abusive because he quickly smacks her into a wall, the back of her head hitting with full impact; it makes it so we are not at all upset when he’s brutally killed within a few minutes, but it also largely sets up the entire rest of the movie.
Throughout the rest of the film, we see killings that sort of follow the model that is established in the beginning of the film. People connected to the movie’s opening—with “Gabriel”—are killed, and Madison, in some sort of vision, keeps seeing it happening.
The sequences of Madison seeing the killings occur are visually stunning; she sees her house transform, with vivid detail, into the scene of the crime. She knows nothing of what happens, but sees it in a dreamlike stupor, waking up each time in her bed with a bloody wound once again on the back of her head. This should have been our second major clue.
She’s investigated by the authorities, and somewhere along the way she becomes a suspect herself; she reveals, and we see through archive footage, that she is actually adopted, and was at the facility we saw at the beginning of the movie. “Gabriel,” she says, is her imaginary friend.
At this point, I—and I assume many other weary horror viewers—started to have a guess, or an idea, of what was up. “Gabriel” isn’t a being of his own, but Madison’s split personality; she’s blanking out and this alternate personality is committing these crimes. Maybe by the end of the movie there will be a twist that reveals that she knew what she was doing all along and is really evil, but that’s about it. Figured it out. Got it.
And, uh, not to spoil the fun, but that was kind of right? Madison does have some sort of split personality, and her body technically is committing all these murders. But the movie’s actual third-act revelation is something that I truly, truly, 100% did not expect: “Gabriel” is not just an imaginary friend in her head, or even a surprise personality—he’s a whole-ass parasitic twin, and in archive footage we see his deformed face and waving arms facing the other way on her body as a child. This is stunning, and we’re screaming right along with Madison’s sister (Maddie Hasson) as we all see this revelation.
It turns out that the doctors in the beginning of the movie were trying to entirely remove “Gabriel,” when they said they needed to “cut out the cancer,” and did their best. But they couldn’t cut everything out, which meant the remaining parts of “Gabriel” were shoved into Madison’s head and sown up. Gabriel laid dormant—hence the “Malignant” of the title for many years, but was awoken by the abusive boyfriend’s wall slam. And things went fucking crazy from there.
That’s the twist. And there’s not even any point in going too much deeper, except to say that the moment where we see “Gabriel” take over, when he takes over Madison’s body and MAKES HER RIP THE BACK OF HER HEAD OPEN TO REVEAL HIS “FACE” is absolutely fucking bonkers—and also makes us think about all the moments earlier in the movie where she woke up from one of her transformative dreams with blood on the back of her head.
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