Working Through The Queue: Malignant (2021)
I'm not usually into the James Wan type of horror productions like Saw or the Conjuring, but there was enough chatter about this popping up on HBO that I checked it out. And while I can't really recommend it as a good movie, I think I can recommend it as something that's interesting to watch. Partially because there are some great visuals throughout as this is heavily influenced by giallo horror, and also partially because it's so schlocky that its own badness becomes its strength at times. Also, there haven't been too many great new horror villains in a while, something we lament in an episode our podcast We Should Write This Down. And while Malignant's villain is, again, kinda so stupid that it flips back over to entertaining, he is memorable to say the least.
Spoilers from here on out!
The story starts out in a research hospital in 1993 as a patient with special abilities goes berserk off camera. Gabriel causes numerous deaths and apparently can control electricity to an extent and broadcasts his thoughts over radio. This opening is sufficiently schlocky and informs us on what we may be in store for as all the dialogue is overwrought and a bit stilted.
Flip over to modern times and a woman living in Seattle named Madison is stuck in an abusive relationship. Someone breaks into their house and murders Madison's husband and assaults her, and from here on out we're in a 'creepy' mystery movie that feels more in line with other James Wan productions. We follow detectives Shaw and Moss as they try to unravel Madison's mystery, and meanwhile Madison is seeing visions of her assailant, apparently Gabriel from the opening, as they hunt down and murder people associated with the research hospital in the opening.
The film gives you plenty of visual clues as you go along so the big reveal isn't really that much of a big reveal.
Gabriel is actually the parasitic twin of Madison who the doctors at the start attempted to remove. They couldn't really cut him all off so they just smooshed his brain chunks back into Madison's skull and called it a day. Essentially this is also a tribute to Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case, except dialed up like crazy with a bunch of weird Matrix-esque fight scenes because hey why not. Gabriel takes over Madison's body, his face rupturing out of the back of her head and forcing her joints to crack backwards in unpleasant looking angles. On top of that he can kinda control electrical currents and broadcast himself over phones and such, because......reasons? I guess we need him to be able to communicate while Madison is in control of their body, and we should probably not think too much about it. A lot of this movie requires you to just sorta shut off your brain a little bit.
The film definitely drops the ball by not doing more identity horror, but that would have required a completely different tone and pace. It becomes obvious fairly quickly that Wan was going for a hokey action horror thriller (unless that was an accident?), and that's fine but it also seems like a weird fake out from the trailers. Either way we did get plenty of body horror, but I would also say that's sort of overshadowed by the fact that Gabriel (and Madison) kind of split off into more of a superhuman category with their freakish strength and inexplicable electric powers. Gabriel and the movie itself are a sort of a grab bag of ideas that don't necessarily mesh well together but are in the end memorable.
Overall I am glad this didn't turn out to be a supernatural haunting type of film because I'm just generally bored of that type of horror. Instead we got an evil backwards slasher that hates the world for trying to cut him out of it, and while any sequel would no doubt be terrible I kinda wouldn't mind seeing them deal with Gabriel's motivations a bit more. The film barely gleams over the themes of being a prisoner of your own body and there's a lot of potential for some great identity horror that would benefit from a more slow burn approach.
Malignant is worth a watch but just as long as you adjust your expectations. As a love letter to Italian horror and bad 80's schlock it hits the spot in a weird way, but it never truly takes advantage of its own concept. It seems held back by being a decently budgeted studio film, and instead it just needed to either pull back more into a lowkey psychological thriller or go full throttle and be a little more bonkers. Which is a weird thing to say considering how off the rails the third act is but I'm still saying it.