Malignant (2021)

Spoilers, Spoilers, Spoilers! This is not a great movie, but if it’s spoiled for you before you watch it, it’ll be all the worse. So if you haven’t seen it: definitely do not proceed, unless you don’t care at all about having this movie ruined for even one viewing. The less you know about it going in, the better your experience will be.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been going through a bit of a Giallo phase. Not that I have only watched those movies, or even that I’ve watched many of them, but that whenever I’m not sure what to put on I go with something from Italy in the 70s or 80s. I imagine James Wan was feeling similarly when he worked out the direction he wanted Malignant to take—I mean, for starters take another look at that poster.

Malignant draws quite a bit from the Giallo movies of Argento, Bava and the like, but manages to do so in a way that’s reminiscent without being overly derivative. Though there are explicit references, for example the lighting, there are also more subtle nods, like the kills and even the way the kills are filmed. The often bright red lighting in Giallo films is replicated, but not overused in Malignant—we catch the reference without being bombarded by it.

And it is a pretty bad ass weapon

The focus on the murder weapon—a golden blade fashioned from a trophy—and the black leather gloves on the killers hands, keeping the killer a mystery, is also very Giallo. Since many of those films are often horror-whodunits, these filming techniques are employed consistently. Furthermore, Dario Argento often used his hands in many of his kill scenes, and generally was wearing leather gloves while filming them, often clad in a long (often, but not always) black trench coat, another wardrobe choice we see Wan replicating in Malignant.

But, this movie doesn’t only draw from the Giallo films—there’s also a lot of influence from police procedurals that Wan clearly has always enjoyed working from. Take Saw for instance, Wan’s debut film, which pairs an investigation working out the details of Jigsaw’s intricate games with two men trapped in one. 

Onto the twist: the killer Gabrielle is actually Madison’s parasitic twin, who she had shared her brain and body with as a young girl. He’s been using her body to get revenge on the doctors who tried to remove him 30 years prior. It’s a fun spin on the evil twin narrative. 

But I will say, I hate it when filmmakers don’t give audiences enough credit, so there’s a line of dialogue that’s just thrown in there to make all the pieces fit, and it was entirely unnecessary. “Gabrielle has been dormant all of these years, but when Derrick smashed Madison’s head against the wall, it woke Gabrielle up!” cut to the scene when this happened, which we saw happen about 80 minutes prior. Not only was this heavy-handed exposition unnecessary, for me it came just as I was piecing it together and thinking it through, so it felt like a slap in the face.

Though one may see the twist coming, at least the way it’s handled is fun and new. I’ve heard people comment that it doesn’t make any sense, but I disagree. We come to learn that the twin’s struggle for power over the other can result in one experiencing the reality of the other’s choice. In the end, Madison is able to trap Gabrielle in a prison within her mind. So why wouldn’t we anticipate that he can make her think she’s at home doing laundry or sleeping in her bed, while he was using her body (their body?) to stalk and kill. 

Each murder sequence finds Madison’s consciousness closer to the killing than the one before. Beginning with Dr Florence Weaver, Madison thinks she’s at home and then this Matrix style collapse of her surroundings occurs and she sees someone bludgeoning Florence in the kitchen. This grapple for power starts shifting in her favor. The distance between her mind and their body diminishes each time, until finally in the jail cell she recognizes that they’re in the same place—though still she is paralyzed and unable to counter Gabrielle’s actions. He becomes unable to control her reality, as she becomes aware of what’s happening.

Also it’s just kind of funny that the twist is that Madison twists herself backwards and is in fact the killer (sort of).

The biggest let down with the movie was all the CGI. I wish that directors would take the time to work with a special effects crew that would use practical effects. This would’ve especially aided the reception of Malignant, as it’s got such a heavy draw from those old movies, which were famous for their gore.

Overall, I would recommend this movie. I think it’s fun and generally moves forward without dragging much. The use of the video diaries for exposition made me look forward to seeing more of what happened in 1993, and the reveal of pre-operation Gabrielle was really well done (slowing panning around from young Madison who’s been speaking directly to the camera). I also appreciate that James Wan was moving away from his typical jump-scare heavy films. 

And how can we not love that hilariously over-the-top fight in the jail and then the police station—Gabrielle turns out to be like Backwards-Man, some kind of superhero, with a special focus on hand-to-hand combat.

It’s a trashy good time, and though James Wan isn’t really the best equipped to handle of a tone like this, the story mostly pulls through. Is Malignant style-over-substance? Of course, but, which of the great Giallo movies weren’t?

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