Unpacking 'Malignant' and the Twist Dividing Audiences

[This story contains spoilers for Malignant.]

Every once and a while, a genre film comes along that’s so off-the-wall, so against the grain of the current pop-culture zeitgeist, and so wholly the work of a filmmaker’s id and formative instincts that it’s difficult to believe any major studio would give it the green light. I’m talking about films like Southland Tales (2006), Grindhouse (2007), Jennifer’s Body (2009), Jupiter Ascending (2015), A Cure for Wellness (2016) and mother! (2017). It’s not that any of these films share commonalities besides their rather dismal box office receipts and polarizing audience response. It’s that you can watch them and feel like you’re getting a piece of the filmmaker’s unfiltered consciousness — for better or worse. These are movies that are uniquely and completely made for the enjoyment of their creators, and if the rest of us happen to catch on, well, good for us. James Wan’s latest, Malignant, feels cut from the same cloth as those aforementioned features, destined to be a neo-cult classic.

If you haven’t seen Malignant yet, you should stop reading this immediately and go watch it. And then watch it again to be certain you saw what you just saw. The film, conceived by James Wan and Ingrid Bisu, and written by Akela Cooper, begins simply enough with a setup akin to so many supernatural horror films. There’s Wan’s camera trickery and Joseph Bishara’s score cluing the audience in that this is indeed a James Wan film, but it initially seems awfully unambitious, as the trailer suggested, for a filmmaker who not only emerged as one of the modern masters of horror with Saw (2004), Insidious (2010), Insidious Chapter 2 (2013), The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), but also delivered two billion-dollar blockbusters with Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018). Wan, regardless of whether he’s working with a budget of $200 million or $1.5 million, has never lacked for ambition. If the setup in which a young woman, Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), is tormented by a figure named Gabriel with ties to her childhood seemed too easy for someone of Wan’s caliber, that’s because it is.

The third-act discovery by Madison’s sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson), that Gabriel is not a supernatural figure, or Madison’s imaginary friend given form, but a parasitic twin that physicians cut down to size and buried in Madison’s skull as a child is absolute insanity. Coupled with the fact that Gabriel’s brainwaves can manipulate electricity and cause Madison to hallucinate, there’s some real next-level shit going on here. And if that weren’t enough, Gabriel emerging from the back of Madison’s skull and using her body, through backwards movements, to slaughter the inhabitants of a whole precinct, is certainly enough to bring the house down. I don’t know if I’ve grinned as much watching a horror movie since Orphan (2009) or Evil Dead (2013).

It’s the implausibility, mixed with unpredictable twist (even if you guessed some of it, you didn’t guess all of it), and a fair share of camp that makes Malignant stand out. It’s all absurd and much of it is intentionally funny, though the fact that you’re supposed to be laughing may not be entirely evident until that last act. Upon rewatch, it becomes even more clear what Malignant is doing. From the overbearing music cues, the editing choices, the soap opera-esque revelations, “Sydney, I’m adopted,” the parking job on the edge of the cliff, and every actor’s commitment to playing their characters as big as possible but completely serious, Malignant is a masterclass example of controlling tone in order to dismay an audience and play with and subvert the conventions that the past decade of mainstream horror movies have taught us how to respond to. In many ways, Malignant feels like a companion piece to Wan’s Dead Silence (2007), his only other horror film to get the same kind of polarizing response. Though the filmmaker’s skills have grown significantly since Dead Silence, it too traffics in camp and the horror tones and aesthetics of the past.

Wan has referred to Malignant as his take on giallo films, thriller-horror films that were popular in Italy in the ’60s and ’70s. Filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Dario Argento became synonymous with the subgenre before making their way into full-fledged horror films – though for many, the giallo elements were always present. Gialli are typically defined by female protagonists who witness a gruesome murder and are thrown into a world of paranoia, confusion and hallucination as they become central to solving the mystery. The killer in these films is typically a shadowy figure with black gloves. Gialli served as the precursor to the slasher film, leading to an overlap between many of them. Wan is definitely playing in that area with the perpetually confused and distraught Madison and the black-gloved and golden blade-wielding Gabriel. But Wan has never been a filmmaker to stick entirely to one subgenre.

ANNABELLE WALLIS as Madison in MALIGNANT. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Malignant works as a cinematic evolution of popular genre films. Wan first tips his hat to the Gothic supernatural films of Hammer Horror of the ’50s with Madison’s isolated, impossibly large house for her means, heavy use of fog and shadow, and a domestic situation gone bad. When Madison’s husband, Derek (Jake Abel) is brutally murdered, the film shifts into giallo territory, complete with cops, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White), who are way out of their depth and actually don’t solve anything. From there, as Gabriel begins hunting down the doctors connected to Madison’s past, the film enters more traditional slasher territory, though the question of whether Gabriel is or isn’t a supernatural entity lingers, arguably highlighting the transition between slasher icons Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger in the ’80s — man or myth?

Wan juggles these horror allusions while throwing a few more balls into the mix as Malignant heads toward its final act: the sibling psychodramatic horror of Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1982) and the absurd, seedy weirdness of Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1972). And before all is said and done, Malignant takes one last turn into the horror-tinged superhero movies of the ’90s like Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) and Alex Proyas’ The Crow. Even Madison’s name, Madison Mitchell, reflects the alliteration of superhero secret identities. Her discovery of her own power in the end not only sets up an interesting avenue for a sequel, but also bridges the gap between horror and superhero films, the very thing that Wan has done repeatedly throughout his career.

Malignant is a cornucopia of B-movie influences, something screenwriter Cooper attested to on Twitter, writing, “I grew up loving B-grade horror movies (still do!), so it thrills me to no end that horror fans enjoy the movie. If it’s gonna become a cult classic then I have done my job.” What Wan, Bisu and Cooper have created with Malignant isn’t simply a list referential of winks and nods. It’s a film with its own unique identity. Horror fans may be able to pick out certain influences, but even after all of that, the film remains a distinctly original work that doesn’t feel like it exists simply because the creators reflected on what is “in” in horror right now.

We’re living in a high point for horror movies. Anyone who says otherwise is either too tethered to their own nostalgia or hasn’t really been exploring all the recent films the genre has offered. But it’s also true that when it comes to mainstream horror, the genre is taking itself a lot more seriously. A24, Neon and even Blumhouse to some degree are challenging the perception of horror for non-horror fans. And in A24’s case, it’s even managed to package some of these under the allure and prestige of a drama. Whether leaning more toward art house or big-budget studio horror, we’re seeing more horror for everyone, film critics who don’t really like horror, awards season voters and even your mom. While I don’t like the term “elevated horror,” I do think that you can look at something like Hereditary (2018) or the upcoming Lamb and understand how they’re different from films like The Forever Purge or Spiral: From the Book of Saw, and even those later entries offer far more social commentary up-front, a necessary way in, than many of the studio horror films we saw in the 2000s. They’re all essential to the survival genre.

But I think the appeal of something like Malignant for many horror fans, and from my perspective, millennials, is that it’s reminiscent of the films that made us fall in love with the genre in the first place — loved by us but not made for everyone. Films like House of Wax (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Ruins (2008), nasty little gems that, even as remakes or adaptations, made us feel like we discovered something new, despite being widely seen, and encouraged us to look further into the genre and make new discoveries. Malignant feels like a discovery from that era, something to be loved by us but not made for everyone.