Here’s the thing.
I usually break down my movie reviews into three sections: Non-Spoiler intro / Spoiler story section / Non-spoiler wrap-up.
There is virtually no way possible I can talk about this movie without at least mild spoilers. I just wouldn’t have very much to say!
So here’s your advance warning: This ENTIRE ARTICLE is a SPOILER WARNING!
Yeah, look at that trailer! Man, nothing out of the ordinary about that, right? James Wan. Modern horror movie. It’s a new The Conjuring or Insidious, buckle up! Gonna have demons and jump scares and violin strains and the whole nine yards, right?
No, it’s not.
As my wife and I watched it, we each kept repeating two things over and over.
For her, it was “This can’t be the right movie. We have to have found another movie called Malignant”.
For me, “These choices are all intentional, but… why?”
Malignant is far, far less a modern horror film than it is a love letter / homage to campy horror movies from the 80’s. Everything about Malignant is wildly over the top. The acting and dialogue are soap opera quality, but I’m pretty sure that’s intentional. The music is incredibly in-your-face and weird, and a lot of times, the background score doesn’t even fit the scene at all. The reveal of what is happening and how…
Well, I’ll put that off for a bit.
The basic story is of Madison, a girl who was adopted at nine years old and grew up with a new family. We find out she is pregnant, apparently for the umpteenth time, but all of her pregnancies have failed. One night her boyfriend roughs her up. She locks him out of their bedroom, and during the night, he is killed.
From then on, Madison is able to see when the killer is striking. She sees the doctors from a closed down institution being killed by this dark being. The cops don’t believe her, of course, until they do when one of them chases the killer through the Seattle underground (and they believe her even more later on when the police have Madison in custody, but the killer calls them).
Along the way we find out the killer is named Gabriel, and that Madison had an imaginary friend named Gabriel when she was younger. This dark voice kept making Madison do bad things, and it kept trying to pressure her to kill Madison’s adopted mom’s unborn baby. Madison rejected those commands, though.
So all right. Dark voice. People are dying. Madison can see the deaths. Imaginary friend to a creepy kid that she referred to as the devil. This is a demon, right?
(Weren’t you paying attention earlier? I already said it’s not that easy)
What’s actually going on is…
Madison partially reabsorbed her own twin in utero, having been born (and spending SEVEN PLUS YEARS OF HER LIFE) with this weird Voldemort-like creature living on the back of her head! It had little flailing arms and everything!
For reasons that are never once explained–the movie doesn’t even begin to care about trying to explain this–Gabriel (the twin on the back of her head!) can control electronics. Why? Because the movie needs him to to further the plot. And he was EEEEEEVIL! So Madison, originally named Emily, was put in an institution to try to help cope with this.
Eventually, the doctors said “fuck this shit” and just decided to perform a good ol’ fashioned Gabrielectomy. They cut off the vast majority of him (wouldn’t she have MASSIVE NOTABLE SCARS? Movie never talks about this), except for a portion of his face that is stuck to Emily/Madison’s brain, so they literally just PUSH THAT BACK INTO HER SKULL AND STITCH HER UP.
As an adult, Gabriel has been… feeding on her pregnancies? To get stronger? And when Madison’s boyfriend pushed her head into a wall, it brought him fully forth. So Gabriel had been going out and killing the boyfriend and the doctors who excised him.
The thing is… Gabriel comes out from a hole in back if Madison’s skull, right? So when he takes control, he pops and tears the tendons in Madison’s body so that he can move as if he is the “front” of the body. And move he does, because in this form, Gabriel is full-on god damn SPIDER-MAN, flipping and whirling about like Simone Biles on a killing spree.
And then when Gabriel recedes and Madison wakes up, her ligaments are all perfectly fine. I’m pretty sure we don’t get so much as a “Huh, my elbow is sore” from her.
Eventually Madison’s sister finds out what happened and shows up during a Gabriel rampage in the police station to try to wake up Maddie. It’s then that Madison takes control of her body back, realizes she can cast illusions on Gabriel just like he had done to her, and pushes him back into her skull.
Obviously, this flick is bizarre as shit.
And I’m writing this review based on one viewing, when I feel I need to watch it again KNOWING what is going on to see if that makes it better… or worse.
For both of our sakes, let’s break down the positives and the negatives of Malignant, and hopefully by the end, I’ll have a score figured out.
Let’s start with the negatives, of which there seem to be plenty!
-Seemingly intentional though it may be, the acting and dialogue really are B-level. There is a definite soap opera level quality to everything going on from the words to how the actors are delivering them. The whole quality of everything here seems more in line with a Shudder original than a big budget, major studio release.
-In another frustrating throwback, the movie doesn’t even pretend to care about explaining anything. Why does Gabriel control electronics? Why doesn’t Madison have huge disfiguring scars? How does quadruple-jointing her entire body both make her Daredevil AND not have any impact on her when she undoes it? How did Madison forget the first seven plus years of her life when she had a twin growing off of her? No answers are forthcoming; just go with it.
-The movie isn’t scary at all, though that may be down to the fact that you spend so much of the runtime wondering what the hell you are watching, so you never feel fully engaged. At least I didn’t. Because of the weirdness–because of all the silliness and the deceptive trailers–I personally spent the entire movie trying to discern why cinematic choices were being made. So I was always too keenly aware that I was WATCHING a movie to forget it was a movie and let it be an experience.
Those are some pretty big negatives!
Let’s talk about the good.
+I mean, the BALLS of this movie. This movie advertised The Conjuring and then delivered 1988’s Brain Damage. The entire ad campaign is based on deception, and I have to admit, I really appreciate that, man. The nihilistic creator in me sees what this movie did and is all in for it. It tricked an entire audience who isn’t going to like it into seeing it. Only Tom Arnold can put it best…
+The movie kept me guessing. Sure, in doing so it was taking me out of the movie. But I really demanded answers from it on why it was doing what it was doing. I said once about halfway through “Never before have I so wanted to turn a movie off while simultaneously NEEDING to know where it goes”.
+I laughed. I laughed quite a lot at a few scenes. I’m not sure I was supposed to (though I might have been), but I did have a good time with parts of this. I’m very glad I watched it on HBO Max and not in theaters for two reasons. First, I would be much harsher on this movie if I paid theater prices to see it. And second, I don’t know that I could have been quiet with a bunch of people around.
So where do we land? Where. Do. We. Land?
Initially I gave this a 1/5 on Letterboxd, but that feels slightly low. I was maybe a bit influenced by my wife, and she absolutely DESPISED this.
I mean, it’s not GOOD. Even with what it’s going for and the choices it intentionally made, it’s just not a great quality. I hated not getting answers to everything and having the movie basically flip me off for asking them. And I feel like you could have made the same point without the terrible acting.
And yet, I did have fun with it, especially once I was fully on board with what it wanted to be. It’s dumb, but it’s the fun kind of dumb. It’s the right kind of dumb. It isn’t trying to be Sharknado or Meet The Spartans. It’s a tribute, not a parody.
At first I thought watching it again might inspire me to like it more, but with the cat out of the bag… I might end up just finding it boring on a second go-round.