James Wan’s Malignant begins with heavy subject matter, handled with all the grace and elegance of a dump. (This is a compliment.)
Backtrack. James Wan’s Malignant actually begins with a flashback to a spooky Shutter Island–ish asylum way back in olden times, meaning 1993. There is a patient or some sort of creature named Gabriel locked up there, with superhuman strength and an ability to control and communicate through electricity. We know this because someone in a lab coat says, “He speaks. He’s broadcasting his thoughts.” The head doctor then faces the camera head-on and says, “It’s time we cut out the cancer.” Cue the gory, surgical, oh, you’re in for it now title credits.
We then meet pregnant Madison (Annabelle Wallis) and her abusive husband Derek, who punches her into a wall so hard her head bleeds. We don’t have to wait long until he gets what he deserves. We learn that Madison has lost pregnancies before, and she’s heartbroken about this one because she “wanted to know what it felt like to have a blood connection with someone. A biological connection.” This stilted line underscores how weird the motivating force behind basically all of human life is. Whoa, man. Yes, this movie inspires dorm-room stoner thoughts, as any good horror watch should.
This leads to a scene that has not stopped rattling around in my head since I saw it. More than the gore, or the scares, or the pivotal monster reveal, it’s the following scene of sisterly bonding that defines Malignant’s camp sensibility and hints at the madness to come. Out of context, it seems pulled from a Lifetime movie about suburban scandal. But here, this hyperdramatic treatment of a mundane character detail establishes a tone of excess, Expressionistic performances, and surreality. That tone is a feature, not a bug.
Sitting on the bed of her very haunted house, Madison tells her sister, Sydney (Maddie Hasson, looking every bit like a Florence Pugh body double), “Mom took me in when I was 8. I don’t remember anything before then. Mom told me that my biological mother died during the birth.” The background music — which happens to be a spooky-choral rendition of “Where Is My Mind” because Malignant takes the “he’s broadcasting his thoughts” approach to filmmaking — builds as she gives her confession. The camera cuts to her sister, listening with owl-wide eyes, lit up ghost-white like Laura Dern in Inland Empire. Everything in this scene is signaling that we are about to witness the most horrific moment of the movie; that maybe just before Madison can get a word in, the killer will drop down from the ceiling and start stabbing. The music drops out. Pause for effect.
“Sydney, I’m adopted.”
Madison chokes on the word “adopted,” inhales it, like she’s confessing to a horrible crime, or like it’s a scared-straight movie from the 1950s and she’s admitting to smoking the devil’s lettuce. This bonkers energy is surpassed somehow by her sister’s reaction; Sydney searches Madison’s face with haunted eyes while the music cuts back in with a wail. It’s funny not only because being adopted is not that big a deal (at least not until we learn more about Madison’s pre-adoption particulars), but everything until now should have already given this revelation away. They even deliberately cast two actresses who couldn’t look less like biological sisters if they tried. The coagulated cherry on the blood-matted cake of this scene is the immediate cut to a sweeping shot of Seattle at night. It’s all just so gleefully excessive.
Intentional artifice abounds in Malignant. When we’re first introduced to Madison’s sister, Sydney, she’s incongruously dressed as a fairy princess in a hospital (“birthday party princess” is her day job). And one of Gabriel’s victims is introduced as a haunted tour guide. Both their jobs are to make pretend and persuade an audience to knowingly buy in for the sake of fun; Wan is signaling to us that this is his job, too, as a horror director. These moments invite us to watch his movie in a similar mode, with a sense of abandon, giving ourselves over to his constructions and not worrying about whether dialogue is “believable” or not. It’s not a story meant to scare you at the campfire because of its plausibility; it’s either giallo or camp, depending on whom you ask, for its lurid visual extravagance and Expressionistic approach to acting.
I appreciate the intentionality behind every decision in this movie, even if it doesn’t totally pay off. For example, I’ve heard other fans and critics say that the second act drags its feet on its way to the good stuff at the end; I’d argue that this section’s repeated beats are an effective parody of mystery procedurals, right down to the cop banter. Directors making extremely strong choices like the ones Wan makes here are the stuff cult-movie rituals are built around. Rocky Horror fans throw toast at the screen; one day, fans will show up to midnight Malignant screenings armed with chairs.
Okay, now it’s spoiler time.
Madison’s confession is actually clever foreshadowing, as the circumstances of her adoption really do turn out to be as horrific as the tenor of that scene merits. The mysteriously powerful Gabriel is a sentient tumor in the back of Madison’s head who has been dormant since the events of the opening scene, but was “awakened” when Madison’s husband smashed her head against the wall (this explains why she wakes up from her “visions” of the killer with her head bleeding). Gabriel is able to take control of Madison’s body by placing her in a “mind prison.” We see this in full effect when he breaks all her bones so that his face is “forward” for a climactic killing spree in a women’s holding cell and a police precinct.
The drama comes to a head (Malignant pun) in the hospital room of Madison and Gabriel’s birth mother, with Sydney begging Madison to regain control of her body and put an end to Gabriel’s violence. “Madison, he killed your babies! He was the cause of your miscarriages! He was feeding off of your fetuses to build himself back up!” Sydney cries in what I’d consider the other best line in the whole movie.
This is enough for Madison, empowered into bodily autonomy through the power of sisterly love, to face off with Gabriel on the astral plane of their shared psyche, where she imprisons him. It’s all very anime. When she comes to, she tells Sydney, “All my life, I’ve yearned for a blood connection with someone. Yet in the end, it was right in front of me all along. Blood or not, you will always be my sister.” See? That’s why they had to make that adoption convo such a big deal. Because this movie had to go from a broken-boned tumor demon scampering in the dark and stabbing people in the head to the resolution of Disney’s Frozen in a matter of minutes and have it pay off. It’s basically RuPaul’s spiel about how you get to choose your family. Is Malignant queer canon?
The movie is full of scenes that may not make sense to your waking brain, cucked by the drab realism and continuity we’ve come to expect from major-studio releases. But that’s because Malignant isn’t concerned with your waking brain at all; it’s a movie about all the weird shit that goes down when you let your subconscious scamper around like the little freak it is. Scenes like the “I’m adopted” confession play out like they would in a dream. Annabelle Wallis and Maddie Hasson’s performances of Akela Cooper’s screenplay make emotional sense the way opera makes emotional sense. For all of its plainspoken familial emotion, inventive action, stylistic excess, and weird hang-ups about heads and faces and ownership of one’s identity, Malignant reminded me of the first time I watched and fell in love with Face/Off. Were movies allowed to be this fun and strange all along? And where is my mind? And … are we all adopted?