Putting Malignant Under the Microscope
James Wan’s 2021 horror movie Malignant has been jokingly described online as “a film about siblings who have each other’s backs,” but that’s actually a pretty accurate description. Protagonist Madison Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis) has terrifying visions of several murders, only for these visions to lead to an even more terrifying reality centered around a figure from her past. It might just be the Criminal Minds fan in me, but I want to analyze the villain’s motivations. Madison says that he was “always a monster,” but is that true?
HEADS UP: SPOILERS AHEAD
In the prologue, antagonist Gabriel kills several staff at Simion Research Hospital. Doctor Weaver (Jacqueline McKenzie) says that Gabriel’s getting “more malicious” and that, “I thought we could help him, but I was wrong. It’s time...we cut out the cancer.”
After that cheesy line and opening credits full of surgical imagery and patient information (including the name “Emily May”), the film cuts to “Present Day”.
Madison’s had two miscarriages during the timeskip, with a third happening after her abusive husband Derek (Jake Abel) shoves her into a wall and cracks the back of her skull open. This hits especially hard because she’s adopted and has always longed for a “blood connection.” A shadowy figure later revealed to be the abnormally-strong and acrobatic technopath Gabriel (performed by Marina Mazepa and voiced by Ray Chase) kills Derek and terrorizes Madison with horrifying visions in which she’s paralyzed while watching him kill doctors Weaver, Fields (Christian Clemenson) and Gregory (Amir Aboulela), as well as a few phone calls. Gabriel starts off his killing spree by abducting a woman later revealed to be Serena May (Jean Louise Kelly), telling her via radio, “I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this. But not yet. First, Dr. Weaver.” When he kills Weaver with her “Excellence in Surgery” trophy (later reforged into a handheld blade), he growls that he wants “To show [her] what the cancer has become!”
After killing Dr. Fields, Gabriel calls Madison and calls her “Emily”; “Your fake mother gave you the name Madison, your shitty marriage gave you the name Mitchell, but you’ll always be Emily to me.” He’s mad that she let “them” convince her that he wasn’t real, and is going to “make them pay for what they did, one by one.” She begs him to stop (surprising herself by calling him by name despite not remembering him), but he says they’re
just getting started. Detectives Kekoa Shaw (George Young) and Regina Moss (Michole Briana White) investigate the murders, with Moss suspecting Madison’s the killer and Madison’s adoptive sister Sidney Lake (Maddie Hasson) thinking that Madison has a psychic connection with him. Shaw figures out that the three doctors treated Madison at Simion and tries to prevent Dr. Gregory’s death, only to arrive too late and get ambushed by Gabriel. When Serena escapes from Gabriel’s secret lair in Madison’s attic, Madison is interrogated and put in jail and Serena is taken to a hospital. Sidney looks into Simion and finds video logs from when her sister was patient Emily May (McKenna Grace). According to these tapes, in 1985, Serena (younger version played by Madison Wolfe) gave her children up to the hospital because she was raped, her mother called her teenage pregnancy a “transgression against God,” and she feels Gabriel is an “abomination.” Madison’s adoptive mom (Susanna Thompson) says that the adoption center had told her that Serena died during childbirth. In another tape, Emily tells Weaver that Gabriel’s been telling her to hurt people, and that he gives her enhanced strength. “He pretends to be nice,” she says, “but he’s the devil.” The tape reveals that Gabriel is a grotesque creature growing out the back of Emily’s head and torso. Weaver says he’s an extreme form of “teratoma”, a tumor made up of various tissues, and a parasitic twin feeding off Emily. A third tape shows a doctor holding up cards to Gabriel’s eyes and having Emily say what’s on them. Another patient levitates an apple in the background. Weaver suspects that Gabriel can make Emily see things. Another doctor suspects that Gabriel can place Emily in a “mental prison”; her “visions” were hallucinations while Gabriel was using her body. Since Gabriel and Emily are conjoined at the brain, the doctors decide to cut off most of his body and stuff the remainder of his face inside her skull.
In the prison, Gabriel hijacks Madison’s body again and kills his way to the hospital where Serena has been taken, with plenty of backwards-moving parkour and spinning maneuvers. He chases Sidney into Serena’s room, showing Madison a vision of this, and says he was saving Sidney for last since Madison “chose” her over him. As he prepares to stab Serena, she asks Gabriel for forgiveness, saying that she should never have given him away, “You were my son, and I should have loved you no matter what.” Shaw comes in and shoots at Gabriel/Emily/Madison. Sidney yells for him to stop shooting, then Gabriel throws his dagger at Shaw. Sidney tries to reach out to Madison, asking “What did you do to my sister?!” Gabriel yells, “She’s not your sister!” and throws a hospital bed at her. Sidney tells Madison to fight and that Gabriel was responsible for her miscarriages. Madison clenches a fist (overcoming Gabriel’s paralysis) and traps him in a mental prison in which he seemingly kills Sidney and Serena. He tells Serena that, “I wanted you to see what you made me. A monster.”
Madison says he was “always a monster.” He tells her, “I didn’t ask to be tethered to you. You don’t deserve your body. I can use it better than you,” that she’ll always be stuck with him and that he’ll eventually escape. She says she’ll be ready. Back in the real world, her skull heals itself. Serena smiles at her. Madison tells Sidney that the “blood connection” she’s sought had been in front of her the whole time, “Blood or not, you will always be my sister, and I will always love you.” The music swells happily, but the wall light buzzes.
Let’s do a biopsy and take a closer look at Gabriel. Weaver describes him in scientific terms as a teratoma and parasitic twin (one is a type of tumor whereas the other is an underdeveloped conjoined twin, two different things, but that’s beside the point). He’s been siphoning off nutrients from Emily since a young age, and he’s established to be conscious, but it’s not clear if this feeding is a conscious decision on his part. In the opening prologue, he’s said to be getting “more” malicious, but we aren’t given a baseline to judge by. To her credit, Weaver says that she thought the doctors could “help him,” which I took to mean she thought they could make him not be evil. It seems like he wanted his sister all to himself, sort of like a child who fears that a new baby will take away their parent’s love (which is what he said would happen to Madison once Sidney was born). He gave her terrifying visions, but never physically harmed her (although given that they share a body, he’d be harming himself). Derek wasn’t involved with Simion, but he did abuse Madison (which could either be Gabriel’s idea of a “gift” to his sister, overprotection of her, or a random desire to kill someone). He tells her that she “doesn’t deserve” her body, but it’s not clear whether that expresses a desire to outright kill her consciousness or to have her be mentally imprisoned forever while he roams free.
With nothing else to go on, besides Gabriel’s words to his victims (“Show you what the cancer has become!”, “She chose you over me, her own flesh and blood!”, et cetera.), it comes down to his interactions with Serena May. While she’s captive in the attic, he implicitly threatens to kill her for rejecting him. It can be assumed that he saw his cellmates and the police as “collateral damage” standing between him and revenge on her. In her hospital room, he starts to lower his weapon after she says she shouldn’t have given him away, before Shaw shoots him. She continues to apologize during his vision, but he smothers her. My impression is that he wouldn’t have done that if not for Shaw. Gabriel’s intensely angry about his family abandoning him and perhaps jealous of Madison’s life (saying that he can use her body better than she can).
Parasitic twins are a real thing, but not to the extent seen in this film—they aren’t conscious, and are usually just a few body parts or organs rather than the grotesque creature seen in Madison’s hospital tapes. While it’s not clear whether Gabriel was born bad, lowering his weapon suggests that he could have been redeemed, or might change his ways in a sequel (which the film seems to set up with the light at the end and the levitating apple). Even if he was born evil, there seems to be a nurture element to how evil he is—he wasn’t given the love or acceptance that he should have been, from either Serena or the doctors at Simion (in theory, the doctors could have, and perhaps should have, acted as parental substitutes). As far as we know, none of Gabriel’s doctors took any action on the psychological or child-rearing front. Personally, I think the movie could have benefitted from exploring Gabriel’s psychology and upbringing further; it would help highlight the themes of family suggested by Madison’s “blood connection” and “blood or not, you will always be my sister” dialogue.
I give Malignant a 4/5 for the story (it jumped from ghost/monster story to murder mystery to action-horror, seemed to take itself seriously despite the cheesiness of things like a prisoner in a gold Disco outfit and Gabriel discus-throwing a chair clear across a room, and didn’t answer important questions like “won’t Madison be arrested for all the murders?”); 3/5 for the message about belonging and inclusion (while it’s a relevant message about being “born bad” vs made that way, it’s presumably unintentional); and 6/5 for visual effects, cinematography and Marina Mazepa’s ability to bring to life a unique backwards-parkour-performing bad guy.