MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Malignant. Consider yourself warned.
It’s safe to say that the horror genre has evolved a good bit over the last decade or so – and one of the main reasons is James Wan. Thanks to his franchise-generating work in The Conjuring and Insidious (and by extension, The Nun and Annabelle flicks), horror turned away from splattering blood and gore to more supernatural, ethereal and religious scares. The movement even became its niche, known as “PG-13 horror.”
I’m not saying any of that has been a bad thing. I’m a huge fan of Wan’s work. The ability to deeply scare without copious amounts of blood and violence is a rare skill. But what’s interesting is that Wan started in hard-R horror, introducing us all to the gruesome, torture-filled world of Saw.
Now, after branching out into the superhero world with Aquaman and even helming one of the Fast and the Furious flicks, it seems Wan wants to return to his roots and influence the horror genre once again by turning back toward solid, hard-R scares with Malignant.
The story begins in 1993 at an appropriately gothic-looking research hospital known as the Simion Institute. The lead doctor there, Florence Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie), is recording the latest developments with a violent patient named Gabriel. After a frightening rampage, they finally manage to tranquilize him, but not before he’s killed at least half a dozen people.
They strap Gabriel down behind some plastic sheeting that partially obscures him – but we can see enough to know that Gabriel has some terrible facial deformity. He also can somehow control electricity – which is pretty random, but okay. Gabriel uses a nearby radio to broadcast his “voice,” saying he will kill them all. Knowing there’s no way to help him, Dr. Weaver decides to “cut out the cancer.” But of course, we have no idea what that means – yet.
After a very Se7en-ish main title sequence featuring lots of gross shots of surgeries, we cut to the present day, where a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis, who also starred in the first Annabelle flick) comes home from work, very pregnant and clearly in pain. She tells her husband Derek (Jake Abel) that the baby’s giving her problems. Derek tells her she needs to stop working, but Madison insists she’ll be fine.
Their discussion turns into an argument, in which Derek asks her coldly how many times he has to “watch his children die inside her.” Madison pushes him away, and Derek lashes out, slamming her head into the wall. He immediately apologizes – giving the impression that physical abuse is the norm in their relationship. When he runs out to get her some ice, she locks him out, forcing him to stay downstairs.
That night, electrical disturbances wake Derek up – and a shadowy figure soon appears and attacks him. Madison wakes up with her head bleeding and goes downstairs to find Derek dead in a sickening, contorted pose. She runs back upstairs and tries to lock the door, but the figure pushes back hard enough to send her flying and knock her out.
Cut to later on as the police descend on the crime scene. The lead detectives, Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) walk through the house, horrified at Derek’s twisted, broken corpse. They talk to the kindly, nerdy CSI tech Winnie (Ingrid Bisu), who doesn’t have much to tell them except that Derek’s corpse is unlike anything she’s seen before. Oh, and she also has a massive crush on Shaw – as does pretty much every woman he comes into contact with, which makes for some cute and funny moments.
Anyway, Madison wakes up in the hospital, where her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) keeps vigil. Madison immediately wants to know if the baby is okay – but Sydney has to break it to her the baby’s dead, which sends Madison into a deep depression. Shaw shows up in the morning to talk to her, but Madison’s despondent. Sydney comes in then and tells Shaw that Derek made sure they had no contact. So she never knew that this wasn’t Madison’s only miscarriage. She’s already had several, which stuns Sydney.
At the morgue, Shaw joins Moss, who (with her Kojak-style lollipop) tells him that all the hand patterns on Derek’s body were upside down like the attacker was “hanging from the ceiling.” Moss also tells him that the neighbors told her about Derek abusing Madison. So add that to no forced entry, and Madison looks like the guilty one.
Two weeks later, Sydney brings Madison back home but doesn’t like the idea of leaving her there alone. Madison says she won’t be scared out of her own house and that she’ll be okay. That night, there are more electrical disturbances – and Madison sees the same dark figure outside her window. She runs around locking all the doors and closing all the blinds, but she finds the back door open. When she closes it and it opens again, she runs upstairs, locking herself in the bedroom.
The next day, Madison installs deadbolts on the doors. When Sydney comes by, Madison shows her where Derek slammed her head into the wall. Madison says by the time she got up the courage to leave him, she was pregnant. She says she yearns for a blood relative, revealing that their parents took her in when she was 8. So Madison’s adopted, which is news to Sydney.
Meanwhile, there’s a tour going on of the Seattle Underground. The tour guide (Jean Louise Kelly) tells the group about the city currently being built on top of the old one and that many buildings and streets are still there. The lights flicker just then, and everyone laughs at its timeliness – but we know it’s not a good thing.
Once the tour is over and the guide’s closing up for the night, the same shadowy figure that attacked Madison and Derek comes for her. Instead of killing her, she wakes up a hostage in some nasty attic tied to the rafters. Through the nearby radio, the shadowy figure tells her how long he’s waited for this. So now we know the attacker is Gabriel.
Gabriel then calls up Dr. Weaver and tells her it’s “time to cut out the cancer.” Uh-oh. That can’t be good. So Weaver checks her old files and realizes that it’s Gabriel (though how she could forget is a good question). And back at Madison’s, she’s trying to do laundry when the electricity starts going all wacky – and her head starts bleeding again.
The next thing she knows, she’s frozen to the floor, unable to move. But somehow, in her mind, Madison’s transported to Dr. Weaver’s home, where she helplessly watches as Gabriel bludgeons Dr. Weaver with a dangerous-looking award she got for excellence in surgery.
As Madison wakes up back in bed, Shaw and Moss are at the crime scene at Dr. Weaver’s. Winnie says that the killer used one of the doctor’s trophies to kill her, but part of it’s missing. Going through her office, Moss says Weaver specialized in reconstructive surgery on kids and kept records. Shaw says they’ll have to go through them all. And back in the attic, Gabriel fashions a nifty new sword-like weapon out of Dr. Weaver’s award. As the poor tour guide tries to free herself, he throws the sword at her as a warning. Yikes.
As Shaw and Moss study Dr. Weaver’s files, Shaw finds a photo of a patient named Emily May. Shaw asks one of their tech guys (Dan Ramos) to age up the picture. Elsewhere, one of the other doctors from Simion, Dr. Fields (Christian Clemenson), is on the phone talking to someone about Dr. Weaver’s death. He finds a window open, and we know that’s bad news.
At her house, Madison wakes up in bed to find herself frozen again. She’s transported to Dr. Fields’ apartment and watches in horror as Gabriel kills him with his nasty new sword weapon. But this time, she sees Gabriel’s deformed face. The following day, she and Sydney go to the precinct. They explain to a skeptical Shaw and Moss about what she’s experiencing and that there’s another victim. Shaw and Moss reluctantly check it out and find Dr. Fields dead, right where Madison said he would be.
Madison describes Gabriel to a sketch artist, and Moss says it looks like Sloth from The Goonies. So that’s not going to be much help. While Madison’s in the bathroom, the lights go all weird. Then, her phone rings, and it’s Gabriel, and he calls her Emily. Gabriel tells her he’s not just a voice in her head. He’s real and he’s going to make them all pay for what they did to him, one by one. After Madison and Sydney leave the precinct, Shaw sees the aged-up photo of Emily May – and big surprise, it looks just like Madison.
As they drive off, Madison tells Sydney the cops think she’s the guilty one, but it’s someone from her past who’s killing all these people – someone named Gabriel. They go to their mom’s (Susanna Thompson) house, and they ask her to tell them whatever she remembers – mainly, who is Gabriel?
Their mom shows them an old videotape of a birthday party, where young Madison (McKenna Grace, from Annabelle Comes Home) talks to the air and calls it Gabriel. Mom says they assumed he was an imaginary friend she made up to help deal with her trauma. Madison says he’s real, and she knows they’re not her biological family. Then there’s another video of Madison talking on a toy phone with Gabriel where she says, “don’t hurt the baby” – the baby being Sydney at the time.
Shaw finds Dr. Weaver’s video files, where Dr. Weaver talks about how Emily May was a special case and was bringing in other doctors to consult – the now-deceased Dr. Fields and a Dr. Gregory (Amir Aboulela). So guess who’s next? That night, Madison sees Dr. Gregory getting murdered in his bathtub. But Shaw’s caught on now and arrives at his apartment – unfortunately, not in time to save the doc.
Madison watches, yelling at Shaw, trying to warn him, but he can’t hear her. Gabriel attacks, and Shaw finally sees his monstrous face. Shaw gives chase, and as Gabriel jumps down from landing to landing with the ease of a monkey, Shaw does his best to catch up. He ends up making a bold jump the last 10 feet or so to land on a dumpster. Ouch. Shaw bravely keeps up the chase, ending up in the Seattle Underground.
They end up in a carriage house, and Gabriel attacks him again. Shaw gets a few shots off, but Gabriel escapes. Then, Shaw and Moss go to Madison and tell her about Dr. Weaver’s work, and that they know she was Emily May. They get a hypnotherapist (Paula Marshall) to help Madison remember more.
Under hypnosis, Madison’s memories show Gabriel tricking her younger self into doing things – like grabbing a knife, which she thinks is to cut a cake. But then the façade dissolves to reveal her in her parents’ bedroom standing over them with the knife. Madison becomes hysterical, and they snap her out of the trance. Madison realizes that Gabriel was jealous, wanting her to kill Sydney before she was born so she wouldn’t have that sibling bond with anyone else.
Meanwhile, remember the poor tour guide tied up in the scary attic? Well, she finally manages to get free of her bonds, but then she falls through the floor – straight down into Madison’s living room. Yep, it was her attic. Not surprisingly, Madison ends up in the back of a police cruiser. Sydney tries to tell Shaw and Moss that Madison is innocent, but they brush her off.
Winnie shows Moss and Shaw around the attic, and they see Gabriel’s clothes and the nasty sword weapon. Slam dunk. Case closed. But in interrogation, Madison swears she has no idea who the tour guide is. Moss goes into full bad-cop mode and tries bullying her into a confession, which gets Madison more worked up. When she hits the breaking point, the lights blow out with her anger. And then Gabriel calls on her cell phone, wanting to talk to the cops. He says he wants his stuff back, and Shaw asks who he is. “Just a figment of her imagination,” he says. Bwahahahaha! Click. Literally. Just like that. It’s pretty funny, actually.
Meanwhile, Sydney finds out where Madison’s adoption happened and drives out to the now-abandoned Simion Institute. She finds more videotapes and brings them back to Mom’s place. The pair watches an interview with Young Serena May (Madison Wolfe, from Conjuring 2), who was raped at 15 and became pregnant. In the interview, she tearfully agrees to turn her baby – Emily – over to Dr. Weaver. And with the magic of a cross dissolve, we finally find out that the poor tour guide is none other than Serena May, who’s now in a coma.
They watch another interview with Young Madison, where Dr. Weaver asks why she’s become so aggressive. Madison says Gabriel tells her to do bad things, and he makes her strong enough to attack people twice her size. Then, the camera pulls back to reveal Gabriel – and holy sh*t. It turns out Gabriel is a monstrous, parasitic twin attached to the back of Madison’s head. Seriously!
Then another videotape reveals that Gabriel hijacks Madison’s brain and body to attack. Dr. Weaver says the surgery removed as much of Gabriel as they could and then pushed what they couldn’t safely remove into the back of Madison’s head. Major eww.
Meanwhile, Madison’s thrown into a holding cell with many other female offenders who start messing with her. Two of them start beating her up, and – well, that does it. Gabriel’s had enough and takes over Madison, his hideous face emerging from the bloody back of her head in a truly disgusting (and yet kinda funny at the same time) reveal, and turning her body backwards. Then Gabriel makes quick, gruesome work of every chick in the cell.
Sydney calls Shaw and tells him what they found. She says they need to get to Serena in the hospital because she’ll be next. Back at the precinct, Gabriel busts into the evidence room to get his clothes and the sword. Moss and Shaw come in to find many dead colleagues – and Gabriel on the rampage in the bullpen, killing everybody with his super-ninja skills.
Shaw sees Madison’s face and yells at her, trying to wake her up. But Madison’s stuck in her mind-prison, still in the holding cell, but she wakes up to see all the dead cops. Gabriel attacks Shaw and Moss, but they’re still ambulatory, so Moss tells Shaw to get to the hospital to save Serena.
Sydney arrives at the hospital first, but the security guard stops her – that is until his pacemaker starts going nuts and blows a hole in his chest. Then Gabriel appears and starts attacking Sydney, saying he should have killed her before she was born.
Serena conveniently comes out of her coma and apologizes to Gabriel for giving him up. Then Shaw arrives and shoots Gabriel – but Gabriel nails Shaw with the sword. When Sydney gets a hold of the gun, Gabriel throws a hospital bed at her and traps her. Knowing Madison can hear her, Sydney yells at her that Gabriel caused the miscarriages, feeding off the babies in the womb.
That gives Madison the strength she needs to snap out of it. But then Gabriel shoots Sydney and suffocates Serena – or does he? The background changes to reveal that it’s Gabriel who’s now in the mental prison. Madison’s flipped the script and used Gabriel’s own tricks against him. She says she won’t let him control her anymore. He says he’ll get out sooner or later, but Madison says she’ll be ready as she slams the mental prison bars on him.
Madison wakes up as Gabriel recedes into her head (one more time, eww). It turns out Sydney’s not dead, and neither is Shaw or Serena. Madison lifts the bed off Sydney with her newfound super-strength and embraces her little sister, telling Sydney that she didn’t realize the connection she wanted was right there in front of her. Aww. And as we pan over to a lamp that starts to surge with energy, we – cut.
Malignant is one of those flicks that you think you’ve seen before – but the surprise it holds (and holds onto for a good long time, to its credit) is a real doozy. It’s also one of those flicks where you have to decide if you’re still willing to go along with it once you know what the deal is. Wan takes a big risk with the parasitic twin idea, especially with how Gabriel looks. It’s super-gross but also somewhat cheesy at the same time, which will undoubtedly cause some people to check out right then and there.
But I think the rest of the ride after the reveal is worth taking. Malignant is a ballsy statement on Wan’s part, embracing the full-on, gross-out horror from back in the day. Gabriel is a truly hideous, evil ghoul that, for someone my age, brings to mind Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street (the original one, before the sequels where he devolved into a lame comedian). And we haven’t seen a horror villain like him in a long while.
Malignant is scary, gross and funny in that particular James Wan-kinda way – and while it may not be the best horror flick ever made, it’s certainly a lot of fun. It’s a call to horror filmmakers everywhere to dive back into blood, gore and monsters with reckless abandon. Hopefully, they’ll answer the call.
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Akela Cooper, James Wan (story), Ingrid Bisu (story)
Release Date: Sept. 10, 2021
Run Time: 1 hr 51 min
Distributor: Warner Bros.