By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 20: MALIGNANT
Unlike the majority of our other entries, the central monster of Malignant is fully revealed in the very first scenes of the film, as the video log of a Doctor Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) is interrupted by the attempted escape of her research subject, Gabriel. With alarms blaring, power fluctuating and personnel in chaos, she's informed that Gabriel "wants to go home" and is "drinking electricity." Still off screen, the entity causes gory injuries and deaths by unknown means he's incapacitated by a rifle. At first, we only see what looks like an ordinary, young human body being dragged away, but a clearly more ghoulish being is very faintly visible through a blurry, textured window as they strap him to a table, and Gabriel speaks through a nearby radio as he threatens to kill them all. Doctor Weaver informs her staff that it's "time to cut out the cancer," and the opening credits begin.
I'll take a moment here to say that I kept hearing about this as a "terrifying" movie, and thought it would be something more realistically dramatic and disturbing. This intro feels more like a throwback to the cheesy zaniness of 80's monster movies, and I do not say this as a complaint.
There is, however, much darker to this movie than a murderous, slimy puppet, as we jump almost thirty years later to Madison Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman abused by her alcoholic husband over her repeated miscarriages. Derek is clearly not helping that situation himself when he throws her against a wall, hard enough that the back of her head begins to bleed profusely. The shitlord apologizes and tries to reassure her that this is his last outburst, but that night, Derek's sleep is interrupted by strange sounds...
Derek finds various electronic devices buzzing to life around the house, until he's lead into the living room where a shadowy figure is watching a fuzzy television screen. The figure vanishes as the screen shuts off, but the shadow is already right behind the nasty asshole, and with one pitch black arm it slams his skull into the wall...hard enough to kill him.
Madison is awoken by the sound, the back of her head still bleeding, and goes downstairs to find Derek hideously mangled, but not quite dead yet. His neck and limbs are twisted, but he still appears to be conscious and softly, barely trying to move as his life slowly, agonizingly fades away and absolutely none of us care.
Unfortunately, the same shadowy presence immediately attacks Madison and knocks her out. When she next comes to, she has lost yet another pregnancy and no one suspects anything other than an attack by a human home intruder. Madison's sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) retrieves her from the hospital, but is shocked to learn about the multiple miscarriages, apparently having never been told.
Meanwhile, detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) are investigating Derek's death. The killer left no fingerprints, but it left hand prints exclusively "upside-down" on the walls. They aren't sure what that could mean, but with no physical signs of forced entry and a tip-off about Derek's abuse, Madison is their only suspect.
That night, the streetlight outside Madison's window begins pulsing, her power surges and she hears sounds of intrusion throughout her house, only calming her panic by repeating "it's all in my head, it's all in my head." Funny.
Madison spends the following morning fortifying her house against any further intrusion, and does a good enough job that Sydney has to climb up to the second story window to visit with her.
The two have a heartfelt conversation when Sydney sees the fractures on the wall, where Derek had slammed her older sister's head. They talk about how he was a scumbag anyway, but Madison admits she still desperately wanted to have a child, if for no reason other than to have any biological family at all; she confesses that she has no memory before she was eight years old, when she was adopted and told that her biological parents were dead, something her own adoptive sister never knew until this very moment.
Next, we see an as-yet unidentified woman hosting a tour of the Seattle underground, but once the tourists leave and she begins to close up for the night, she is stalked by an unseen figure that eventually drops on her from the rafters above. We get a quick, blurry glimpse of something that doesn't seem properly human - a figure with some sort of squirming, writhing tissue where a face ought to be - and the woman regains consciousness to find herself tied and gagged, trapped in a strange attic-like space with a scraggly-haired figure in a dark, heavy coat.
The kidnapper's face is still unseen, but a deep and threatening voice manifests once again from an old radio, and of course we know it's Gabriel. The voice says he has "waited so long for this" as the figure lifts a cellular phone and dials up none other than Doctor Weaver, the raspy voice repeating her own words back to her from so long ago: that it's time to cut out the cancer.
Back home, Madison is experiencing more power fluctuations and hallucinatory intrusions before her head once again begins to bleed. Suddenly, she has a vision of the elderly Doctor Weaver under attack by the vengeful Gabriel, her own home warping and shifting to match Weaver's and forcing Madison to watch a brutal murder in real time.
While the detectives poke around this latest crime scene, we return to the huge attic, where the kidnapped woman watches Gabriel, or Gabriel's minion, or whoever it is forging rad custom weapons from Doctor Weaver's personal trophies.
Next on the killing list is Weaver's old assistant, Doctor Fields (Christian Clemenson). This time, Madison envisions the doctor sleeping in bed next to her, which of course is actually his bed, where he's actually sleeping alone, in his own home. Madison is paralyzed and helpless as the killer crawls over her to begin stabbing the sleeping man, and we see that the murderer's body appears strangely backwards.
Madison gets one brief glimpse of a slimy, inhuman eyeball before she snaps out of the vision, screaming, and finally decides to go to the police, where Madison finally meets the same two detectives we've been following and confides in them the details of her vivid hallucination. Sydney enthusiastically believes that her sister has psychic powers, and the two manage to convince the skeptical investigators to check out Dr. Fields' apartment. Sure enough, they find his body mutilated in bed, no possibility of the crime having been committed by Madison and no conceivable way she should have known about it. They're finally convinced something strange might be going on, but they're still not sure what.
When Madison goes to the restroom, she gets a phone call from the menacing voice we already know. He addresses her as Emily, arguing with her that it's her real, original name, and bitterly ranting about how they once dismissed him as nothing but an imaginary figure she invented. Despite not consciously remembering what he's talking about, she shocks herself by reflexively addressing him as Gabriel, and it seems the memories begin to trickle back into her mind from there.
Seeking more answers, Madison pays a visit to her adoptive mother, who's visibly shaken when Madison asks about the name Gabriel. Solemnly, her mother digs out some old VHS tapes from Madison's early childhood, revealing that Gabriel was something like an "imaginary friend" the young girl spoke to in morbid, unwholesome one-sided conversations about harming her "fake" family.
At the same time, Detective Shaw has uncovered some videos of his own in the archives of the late doctors, video logs like the one seen at the start of the film. He has a hunch to seek out a third doctor present in these records, once again finding the man already murdered, and is jumped by that strange, backwards-walking assailant. In a prolonged chase, the killer demonstrates inhuman agility and climbing ability before finally escaping, and Shaw can no longer deny he's dealing with something other than a normal human.
Shaw and Moss convince Madison to try recovering lost memories through hypnotism, and she horrifically re-lives a time when Gabriel manipulated her into very nearly killing her adopted mother and her unborn sister with a steak knife, warping her perception to believe she was only going to cut into a birthday cake as he seemingly took control of her body.
We return once more to the kidnapped woman in the attic, who has just managed to wear through her ropes on the surrounding support beams...and when she falls through a rotten spot in the floor, she crashes through to - where else? - Madison's own living room, in front of Madison, Sydney and both detectives. Now positive that Gabriel is a delusion or alternate persona of Madison, the detectives arrest her and bring her in for questioning, but the power surges and lightbulbs burst when the interrogation angers her. Shaw's cell phone rings, and Madison goes strangely quiet after stating that "he wants to talk to them." Of course it's Gabriel's voice over the phone, taunting the cops that they haven't "really" found him yet.
Sydney conducts her own simultaneous sleuthing, uncovering her sister's original full name and that she was once kept, alarmingly enough, at something called the "Simion Research Facility." Sydney finds and explores the long abandoned complex on her own, searching until she finally finds records of her sister, including medical files and VHS tapes, through which the true nature of our villain is finally revealed, but likely wasn't all that surprising a twist to some of you:
Gabriel was, originally, a parasitic twin absorbed by his sister in utero, growing as a grisly torso on Madison's back, his face on the opposite side of her skull. He's also described as a complex "teratoma," though these aren't really technically interchangeable concepts. Sharing his sister's brain, Gabriel was capable of taking temporary control of her and altering her perception of reality, while also demonstrating strange psychokinetic powers connected to electrical energy. The two were born to a teenage girl following an assault, whose religious parents believed Gabriel to be The Devil and relinquished the double-sided infant to the research institute, kind of a weird thing to do actually, I mean even when you think you've got a demon I'm not sure that'd be anyone's first thought.
When Gabriel became too great of a threat, the three late doctors made a deeply disturbing decision to surgically remove as much of him as they could. With their brains too closely intertwined however, they literally sealed his share of brain tissue and much of his face inside of his sister's skull.
If you hadn't yet figured out what has been going on since the start, the movie's absolute goofiest sequence should finally clarify everything: she's been locked up in a jail cell with an ecclectic bunch of threatening female inmates that feel lifted from Broadway's Chicago, and when they start roughing her up, Madison/Emily/Gabriel actually rip open the back of their head, the skull somehow splitting open to reveal a snarling monster face before initiating, I shit you not, a backwards facing martial-arts sequence.
Paranormal dread abruptly gives way to zany action-thriller antics, complete with kung-fu movie "wooshing" as we enjoy the inverted villain murdering his way out of jail and absolutely massacring an entire police precinct down to our two comic-relief detectives in a creatively coreographed and genuinely exciting all-out deathmatch.
With the doctors and a whole lot of bystanders dead, Gabriel's next target is the birth mother who abandoned him, which Sydney correctly guesses just in time for them to all meet up in the mom's hospital room. This is convenient for Gabriel, since Sydney was also high up on his shitlist; her relationship with Madison is what allowed his twin to lock him deeper in her mind and stop listening to him for nearly thirty long years, making Sydney the person he despises most of all. His mother, also conveniently, wakes up just in time to plead with him, apologize for everything and admit she should have accepted her daughter and her son, no matter what, and Gabriel begins to slowly lower his weapon...only for Detective Shaw to show up and shoot him, ruining the entire moment, driving Gabriel back into a violent rage.
Gabriel hurls Sydney across the room, then pins her under a massive, heavy, metal exam bed. She tries to get through to her sister, who still perceives herself waiting in the jail cell, and informs her that Gabriel was actually absorbing her unborn children to rebuild himself over the last few years. At this, Gabriel shoots Sydney point blank through the head...
...Or so he thinks, of course! Whatever it was that got through to Madison, the sight of Gabriel hurting her sister, the realization that he had put her through torment for years or both, we discover that the last few moments of his vengeful rampage are nothing but an illusion his sister has built for him the same way he was able to manipulate her perception of reality so many times in the past. While he screams from his imaginary brain-jail, Madison also realizes that the superhuman strength Gabriel demonstrated was still utilizing her body. She easily lifts the enormous metal bed off of a still-living Sydney, and they tearfully comfort one another as the film ends with only a slight power surge, unnoticed by anyone present.
MONSTER ANALYSIS: GABRIEL
Ha ha ha ha, wow. I actually wrote this review after watching this movie for the very first time, and I really had no idea this was such a zany one. I swear every reviewer I'd previously seen was apparently chilled to the bone by the entire story and their minds blown to kingdom come by a "twist" that, to be honest, I already figured out from the first couple of minutes and the title of the film. I guess it had been a while (if ever) since an evil parasitic twin graced mainstream media, for some of us, this was just a fun homage to a fairly classic monster archetype we've seen in comics, cartoons and the 1982 classic Basket Case. For that very reason, I almost wasn't sure if I was going to include this movie, but Gabriel's psychic powers and strange relationship with electricity - implied to be a means by which he can actually "feed" - pushed this one over the edge from your usual sentient teratoma to something a bit more inexplicable, a bit more "SCP Foundation."
Gabriel's original form is memorably ghoulish; a half-formed and alien face on the other side of his sister's skull with his own emaciated rib cage and t-rex arms protruding from her upper back. I'm sorry to say that I find his later form, the brain-tissue face with zombie teeth, a lot less interesting aesthetically, but it's pretty zany how his sister's skull works kind of like an oyster shell. I mean, how? What happens to the bone on the front of her skull for the back of her skull to split open like that?? I guess the toothy, more demonic CG face is a bit more in line with the tone of Gabriel's killing spree, however, which brings us back to the movie's notorious tonal whiplash: audiences really don't seem to know how they're "supposed" to feel by the shift between eerie, psychic haunting horror and tongue-in-cheek slasher-action horror, but personally I think it works and even plays directly into the theme: the movie, itself, has two different sides, with Madison's perspective being an entirely different flavor of Monster Movie from Gabriel's perspective.
"Malignant" overwhelmingly feels like the origin story of a brand new campy slasher villain, and it's a genuinely novel addition to that landscape. The idea of a nice, normal person whose actual, physical, literal "other side" is a monstrous killer isn't something I've seen done in a feature film before, as obvious as it really feels, and wouldn't have felt at all out of place alongside icons like Jason, Freddy, Chucky or Ghostface, though this is one monstrous killer I must say is far, far more justified than most; honestly, how CAN you blame him, even for his most sadistic behavior, when everyone treated him like a hideous monster from the moment he was born? When he had absolutely nothing but his twin sister, who also finally rejected him? Let alone when medical professionals decided the correct thing to do was surgically remove what little body he had and trap him inside of a skull, where he was apparently locked away conscious but helpless for decades? WHO DOES THAT. Yeah he murdered lots and lots of people but look at him:
That's just a little guy! A little guy with little arms! They took away his little arms! What the HELL, man?! Who takes a little guys ONLY little arms!? They pushed his little face in. WHO PUSHES A LITTLE GUY'S ONLY LITTLE FACE IN. I'd slasher everybody too if they pushed my little face inside!!! FUCKERS! COME ON! You don't take a little guys little arms (his only ones!) and push his little (only!!!!!) face inside and just not get slashered!! Shit heads!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The possibility of a sequel is up in the air, but I could see this movie gaining more traction as a cult hit in the coming years, and I wouldn't be surprised if a franchise eventually emerges. If so, I'd hope that maybe Madison/Emily and Gabriel actually begin to reconcile their differences to some degree. The ending of the first film sort of sets them up as a super-powered Jekyll and Hyde duo, with Gabriel even swearing that he'll return some day, but how cool would it be if that was because his sister found herself in a scenario where he was actually needed, possibly against a greater threat to them both? We all know Madison herself probably has to live in some kind of extended containment from here on out, even if it was legally a genetically and mentally distinct being that committed so much mayhem, but maybe they'd be put into some kind of monitoring program where, eventually, there's a reason to negotiate for Gabriel to have at least some limited freedom? What about their birth mother? She was willing to accept them both again. Could she go on to help reform her weird little son? Honestly, how sweet would it be to ever see Gabriel himself start to care about Sydney, and vice-versa?! He DESERVES a family! THEY TOOK. A LITTLE GUY'S. LITTLE ARMS.