Fuck Cancer: James Wan’s Malignant

I didn’t know much about James Wan’s Malignant going into the film. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was going to view the film at all. It was really one of those situations where everyone on social media, in various horror circles, was talking about the movie — or pointedly not focusing on the details of the piece so as not to reveal spoilers, or the twist — that, eventually, with nothing further to do that Friday evening I had to check it out.

Before all of this, all I knew of Malignant was a spike to the head. Literally. The image of a blade inches away from a woman’s eyeball. Really, as you watch the film, it sums it up fairly well. So yes: this is going to be full of spoilers, a twist straightened out, and a malignancy dissected. 

I like how Wan just gives us Gabriel. He doesn’t fuck around. There is an entity in a Research Hospital back in 1993 that seems to have telekinetic abilities, or influence over electricity, and the strength to maim and slaughter full-size adults. There are also children’s toys everywhere in his room, and the hint of some malformed creature seems to be connected to a child. The doctors manage to incapacitate him, followed by the words “Time to cut out the cancer.” And then, we are in present time — perhaps 2021 — where the events of Malignant unfold: where Gabriel somehow returns, and the plot is slowly unveiled.

Wan isn’t trying to be subtle. He is practically spoon-feeding the details that you need to either figure out the twist of the entire film, or at the very least have it all make sense when the reveal occurs. I had a few ideas about what Gabriel was. Gabriel, the name, is that of an angel: the archangel who appears to the prophet Daniel to explain the nature and meaning of his visions, and also apparently the guardian angel of Israel who guards it against the angels of other nations. Angels are not attractive, or humanoid beings in ancient Judaic culture, an idea of which the Gabriel of Malignant definitely follows, but he is no celestial or infernal being, even if his sister-host Madison calls him the Devil. Yet he knows all about visions, and all about explaining or elucidating reality and events to someone else.

It’s no coincidence that Madison continues to have visions of people — and as it turns out specific people — being murdered, except instead of her seeing them before they happen, she sees them afterwards. It’s like a delayed reaction, or perception of events. Basically, when you watch the scenes melt away and Madison can only observe them helplessly, you are cinematically seeing the very definition of the term “unreliable witness.” 

For a little while, I was taken a bit off track, though mostly in the beginning. Originally, I thought Gabriel was some kind of sentient tumour like that of the creature in Clive Barker’s “Son of Celluloid” that fed off of negative emotions, and transferred between hosts. Certainly, the fact that the film begins in Simion Research Hospital made me wonder if he was some kind of research discovery or experiment that the staff there simply transferred to another child, or if he was just one example, and the rest of the film would be finding others of his kind. I guess, like a few people in other horror social scenes have already mentioned — including myself — I was applying Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 Basket Case to a lot of this, even at this point in my viewing experience.

Then I was confused for a time in that Gabriel was very clearly linked to Madison, and I thought that perhaps Gabriel was one person, and that the researchers were able to excise the Gabriel-tumour, and make his host body transgender: with Gabriel haunting, and possessing Madison as a spirit. But this didn’t add up as Madison could clearly become pregnant though, granted, it was also possible that Gabriel could have been the masculine gender he chose before the scientists and doctors lobotomized him, or something to that effect.

But it was far more streamlined than all of that, as it became more apparent what was going on. Like I said, Wan isn’t subtle. We find out Madison is adopted when she’s talking with her sister Sydney. Simion, from the Simion Research Hospital, is a Romanian spelling for Simon which is Hebrew for “listen” and “hearing,” while it is a Classical Greek adjective for “flat-nosed.” Now, look at freaking Gabriel with his vestigial lack of a nose when he and Madison are eight, and after the surgeries dealt to her when his face emerges from the back of her skull. And then consider, as well, how he communicates with her: telepathically through their shared brain in which Madison “listens” and “hears” what he has to say, and what reality he is dictating to her. 

I didn’t know about Simion at the time, but given the name of Gabriel — which is about as elusive as the name Belial with its own meaning of “without worth” and being associated with the Devil — I knew it had some significance. So speaking of Belial and going back to the comparisons between Basket Case, and Malignant, there are obvious similarities. Gabriel and Belial are teratomas — or what are theorized to be Fetus in fetu, basically parasitic twins. At least, that’s what it seems. Belial himself is flat-out considered another being, Duane Bradley’s twin, even if others think he is a monster, or a growth. Gabriel is seen by the doctors and specialists as a mutation linked to Madison Lake’s body and nervous system. Of course, there is one more obvious difference between these characters and their plot points: Duane and Belial never wanted to be separated, and even when they were and they conflicted with one another, they still loved each other in a warped and twisted manner, even if Duane tried to kill Belial in the first film. Duane often carried Belial around, after he was cut away by inexperienced surgeons and con artists, to get revenge on the people that did that to them.

Madison and Gabriel are still connected. The doctors weren’t able to fully remove ‘the tumour” that is Gabriel, not without damaging Madison’s brain, or making her comatose for the rest of her life. There is no love between Madison and Gabriel whatsoever. Gabriel terrorizes her, taking over her body and functions, and making their body do whatever he wants. Any attempt at love or affection from Gabriel’s part is always a deception to attempt to kill or destroy someone else. Gabriel takes away, or deeply compromises, Madison’s agency whereas Belial resents not having Duane’s life, and Duane is angry at having to take care of Belial while also furious at the world for thinking the latter is a monster. Both sets of siblings in their films do have a telepathic link with their counterpart, though Duane’s is when he sleeps, and Madison’s state of consciousness is always pliable to Gabriel’s manipulations. And although they don’t go into it with Duane and Belial, in order to keep himself alive, Gabriel needs to absorb nutrients from Madison’s body as a child and, when she is an adult, from the fetuses in her womb: using them as batteries that he drains to keep himself alive in the background when she’d unconsciously repressed him after her time in the hospital.

But with these pleasant comparisons aside, there is one other thing Gabriel can do differently from Belial aside from hijacking his, and his sister’s body, which is electronic manipulation. It is basically psychokinetic in origin. He uses radio waves, or electricity to speak to anyone that isn’t Madison. It’s fairly clear that the reason he can do this is due to all the electro-shock therapy — or torture, if you’d prefer — that he received from the Simion Hospital when the doctors were forced to pacify him when he became violent with Madison’s body: on her, and others. Eventually, even electricity doesn’t hurt him anymore in 1993, to the point where he has influence over it, and can cause disruptions in devices powered by that energy.

It is a little clunky, but this power doesn’t come from nowhere, and as a creator myself I was more than a little disappointed that Gabriel doesn’t use this power more often when he commits to his assaults. No. Gabriel is an up-close and personal slasher-killer. I don’t know how he does it, or did it, but perhaps due to his access to Madison’s limbic system, he can control that body’s pain and damage threshold. And, more than that, he alters their reflexes in inhuman ways. Perhaps he has control of their adrenal glands, and can increase their physical strength, endurance, stamina, and their reflexes. At first, I thought — and I already knew he was taking her body, or their body — that Gabriel wasn’t used to controlling an adult Madison’s body with how awkward he was moving. But then it occurred to me as I watched the film, that he bent her joints backwards to match where his face emerges from behind her skull. He isn’t able to do much about her feet, but he seems to adapt to that with crawling, and a lot of jumping. Human beings can adapt to various environments, and disabilities, and as such Gabriel in this fictional world is no different. 

Now, as for how Gabriel has his knowledge of the secret levels of Seattle, that is fascinating. You see, I think that both he and Madison had this knowledge. They were given to the Simion Research Hospital by their fifteen year old mother Serena May. Madison’s original name was Emily, before it was changed by her adoptive family. She and Gabriel were both eight when they were given away because Serena’s religious mother refused to take care of them, regardless of the fact that they were the result of rape. Serena’s mother blamed her, and the Devil for what happened, and the abomination that her children are: to the point where even Serena calls Gabriel that. Fascinatingly enough, Serena actually named Gabriel as we find out towards the end of the film where she calls him by that name and apologizes to him for how she abandoned them. Serena May is a tour guide through the lower levels of Seattle: the Underground that the original city of Seattle became in the mid-nineteenth century when it was burned, and the people decided to rebuild around, and over it: much like how Gabriel’s limbs had been cut off, and buried inside of the former Emily turned Madison.

All of these Jungian parallels, including Gabriel capturing Serena in Madison’s attic aside, Serena May seems to have a tremendous enthusiasm for the Seattle Underground. Perhaps she even had it when she was fifteen, and spent that time telling her children about it. This could be where Gabriel’s knowledge, along with his sense of vengeance for his mother abandoning him, came from.

At this point, we are past talking about the clues that lead to the twist which anyone who has seen many horror films or read such stories, can predict. I’m mostly talking about how it all comes together. From the videotapes Sydney retrieves from the abandoned hospital that shows the former Emily being able to see everything that Gabriel does in one of his uncharacteristic moments of cooperation with the doctors, to the family tapes where Madison is talking to Gabriel who wants to kill Sydney in her mother’s womb, and the revelation that Madison’s attic may well connect to the Seattle Underground in a large bit of metaphor. Hell, even Gabriel’s blade is made from the Award he stole from Dr. Florence Weaver: the emblematic blade of the whole film.

I want to write about Gabriel’s downfall. He is malicious as all get out. You can understand it to an extent. Imagine being born attached to someone else’s body. You can’t leave them, even if you want to, no matter how badly you want to be somewhere else. Your mother abandons you, and considers you a monster because of the way you look, even though she named you after an angel. She hands you over to doctors who routinely drug you, and torment you with electricity. You know that everyone thinks that, at best, you are a tumour or a deformity of your sister’s, and at worse you are a monstrosity they want to either curb, sublimate, or destroy. And then, when your rage gets too much, they’ve had it with you. These intrusive people your mother handed you over to essentially murder you. They cut off your arms, your legs, they take off your head such as it is, and they push the destroyed, ruined remnants of you deep into your sister’s skull, and bury you alive. Never mind the fact that you tried to kill them: that was just revenge, perhaps even self-defense, or you just didn’t like them.

Then they take your sister to another family, where she slowly forgets about you, to the point of pushing the phantom of you down into your body: not just her body, but yours. You know that once she sees her adopted sister, once she is exposed to Sydney, she will completely drown you out, and you will exist in a living death in a body turned into a prison that you can’t control. So you bide your time. You consume those “parasites” in your body to regain strength. It’s just as well, as you know if she didn’t get pregnant you would feed off of her too much, and potentially kill yourself as you share the same body. But then your sister’s abusive husband slams the back of her head — namely you — into the wall. And you. Will. Not. Have. It.

It’s been thirty years later, practically, as scientists and doctors attempted to mutilate, and bury you alive. All that’s left of you are vague memories of a traumatic imaginary friend, some family tapes of your sister “talking to herself,” the tapes and folders left in a rotting, abandoned hospital, and the bad memories of doctors. You remember everything. And you take your body, because you are the only one who really knows how to use it, to the nth degree. And it is all because Emily — or Madison — is too weak-willed to do what must be done.

And this is where Gabriel fucks up.

You see, Gabriel forgets that he shares a body. It isn’t his body, but also Madison’s, and it has been hers for years. Madison has had years of love. Her pain still affects her, the trauma is still there, and perhaps it affects her life’s decisions. Or maybe assholes came in, and took advantage of her kind nature. She is a nurse, and tries to help people.

There is a lack inside of her psyche, however. She wants someone she’s blood-related to in order to fill that void. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remember until much later that she already had that, and it was hell. She is all too ready to leave her abusive husband, she wants to have one of her children survive, and she loves her adopted family and her sister. But Gabriel threatens all of that, but it’s not until she’s in a holding cell that she finally begins to understand that Gabriel’s gotten even more adept at altering her memories: that he is holding her in the prison of their body now.

What happens is something beautiful. One thing I absolutely adore about Malignant is the unapologetic mass-murder. It’s true. Gabriel could probably destroy people with electricity, or short out more technology as he does in the hospital at the end. But he goes in, up close and personal, and slaughters every prisoner and police officer in his way. Hell, he doesn’t even have to kill everyone in that precinct. He just … enjoys it. It’s this ugly catharsis after seeing Madison get imprisoned, and tormented by the other inmates, and disbelieved by police who even saw a phone activate and the power go out thanks to Gabriel: and he likes to do that, cutting the power out of a place, and going to town on it as he tried to do back in 1993 when he was much younger.

Yet this fucks him. Because Madison is older, and she has something to fight for. The film could have been so easy. Gabriel’s defeat could have been Madison committing suicide, or letting someone else kill her. But Madison has had enough. This is especially true when, as Gabriel tries to murder Sydney, when she tells Madison to wake up and realize what Gabriel did to her unborn children: how he devoured them to keep himself alive. And just as he is going to kill Sydney and their birth mother, Madison traps Gabriel in the same prison he always put her in: altering his memories, and stopping him.

He claims that he will return, of course. This doesn’t surprise Madison. But she claims that when he does return, she will be ready for him. And this is one of the strengths of this film. Not only do we get the chance for a sequel, but we realize that the power in this film isn’t knowing the twist. It’s seeing the characters come to that realization, to all the discoveries, and overcoming the challenges that come to this point. Madison’s mother finds out the truth, along with Sydney, and and instead of leaving her to Gabriel’s devices, they still love her. Sydney goes out of her way to know more about her sister, and save her. It gets to the point where she won’t shoot Gabriel because she knows it will kill Madison.

And Madison ends up achieving self-agency. Her abusive husband is dead. She remembers Gabriel, and what the doctors did to her as well as him. And she stops him from hurting the family she loves, and even the woman that abandoned them. She thinks to herself “Never again.” She takes control of her body, which is still altered because it isn’t just Gabriel’s body and physiology but hers. She still has that incredible strength. She can control it, and the speed, and possibly more. Hell, and I am saying that a lot since we are talking about defeating a Devil, Madison could simply deprive Gabriel of sustenance: slowly shrinking him over time, perhaps if she still wants a child and keeps him locked away, into nothing.

Gabriel is rage and hatred and fear of abandonment. Even internal misogyny. He is a parasite that threatens to make her wither away while he grows malignant, and strong. Madison uses the tools of her oppressor to defeat him, and whittle him away. As was said at the beginning of the film, he is the cancer — the word and breath of him threatening to grow, and spread — and while he will never necessarily be gone, Madison has put him, and everything he stands for, into remission.

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