I’ve pretty much been a fan of James Wan’s movies since day one. “Saw” (2003) put him on the map, and ever since, Wan has established himself as a Master of Horror. I think my earliest favorite from Wan was “Dead Silence” (2007), another creepy puppet film with a Saw-like ending twist. The second I got my own car and was old enough to purchase R-rated DVDs, I was at Walmart on a weekly basis scoping out horror titles. But I digress. We’re here to discuss Wan’s latest, “Malignant.” I saw it last night with my best friend, and the theatre was almost empty. Here’s to hoping everyone’s at home watching it on HBO due to COVID. 

What is “Malignant”?

I was happy about the vagueness of the plot in the initial trailer and how it didn’t give too much away. As I’m writing this, maybe some people are going to the theatre tonight to see it with the expectation that it’ll just be another “Conjuring.” That couldn’t be further from the truth! Yes, this has Wan’s signature spooky style, but it isn’t a haunted house or ghost movie. It’s a Warrens-free psychological horror film with a touch of science/medicine. It’s also an action film. Wan took to Twitter in July to describe it as “a genre-bender/blender” inspired by “Bava, Argento, DePalma, Cronenberg…and the kind of 80s horror/thrillers you would discover on the back shelves of video stores!” Having seen the film, I can attest that Wan emulated these creators, but at the same time made it his own. Wan has always been known for interesting camera angles/low-angle shots, memorable scores, etc., and this movie’s no exception. In particular, the synthy score from Joseph Bishara, who worked with Wan on his previous films, was brilliant and really set the tone for the movie.

Malignant (2021) movie poster

Madison Lake

Annabelle Wallis, star of the Wan-produced “Annabelle” (2014), plays Madison Lake, a pregnant woman with an abusive husband (Jake Abel). After an assault from her husband, a deadly attack from a shadowy figure, and a resulting tragedy, Madison discovers that she has a psychic connection to the killer. Throughout the film, she’s paralyzed with fear as she’s forced to watch the killer mutilate his victims. Wherever Madison is when the kills are happening, the room melts away and she finds herself at the scene of the murder. Rather than seeing through the killer’s eyes, she’s right alongside the victim, bathed in red light and watching with wide mascaraed eyes as the long-haired attacker slices and dices. 

Wallis is something else. I don’t remember being wowed by her performance in “Annabelle,” but she channels something jaw-droppingly special in “Malignant.” She displays range – scared, paralyzed, sad, angry, brave, deadly, depressed, empowered. I imagine “Malignant” was physically and mentally taxing to be in due to its very psychological pick-your-brain nature; she gave it everything she had. I liked that her character wasn’t limited to “scared and hysterical” the entire movie. Like the viewer, she wants to know what the hell’s happening. What is her true connection to this mysterious killer, this “Gabriel”? Soon, Madison’s past is revealed to us. Trauma and repressed memories are a key theme in the film, and each memory gets us closer to the secret of who Gabriel really is.

The ultimate question we find ourselves asking: is the killer flesh and blood, or is the killer a manifestation of Madison’s childhood imaginary friend? The audience is constantly thrown for a loop. That theory you’re probably putting together while watching? Nope – wrong. I made several educated guesses – it must be so-and-so connected to Madison. Maybe it’s a relative. Maybe it’s x, y, z. Nope. 

“Malignant” is constantly shedding itself and evolving – you’re thinking it might be one thing and then Wan pulls the carpet out from under you. All the while, though, you’re having a blast watching it – if you abandon rational thought and let your eyeballs enjoy the ride. 

Malignant (2021) movie still of Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) scared into a corner.

Supporting Cast

Wallis’ performance as Madison aside, “Malignant” features a great ensemble of supporting characters. Maddie Hasson (“We Summon the Darkness,” 2019) plays Sydney Lake, Madison’s sister. Sydney balances Madison’s darkness and intensity with sass and humor. She’s always there when Madison needs her. After the attack in Madison’s home, Sydney is the first one at the hospital by her sister’s side. When Madison returns home, Sydney is the first to visit her with a casserole from their mother. Hell, she climbs through her sister’s window after Madison deadbolts the front door. She’s loyal, empathetic, and is never skeptical or disbelieving of what Madison has to say (at least not for long). That’s another thing I liked about “Malignant” – there’s no long stretch where at least one person doesn’t believe Madison. There are people who want to help her. 

George Young and Michole Briana White play detectives Shaw and Moss; they teeter-totter between belief and disbelief, changing their views about Gabriel and whether he’s real based on evidence presented to them. Moss is the most skeptical and blames Madison for the killings. However, all the supporting characters are fluid with their views and adapt accordingly.

It needs to be said that there are some hokey lines and poorly delivered dialogue/exposition, especially from characters early on during the opening hospital sequence. But, remembering the inspiration behind this movie, I’m wondering if this all intentional. Watch any 60s-80s movie and you’ll find cringey dialogue. If “Malignant” really is trying to emulate or pay tribute to old VHS movies rented from video stores, the campiness and cheesy line delivery checks out.

Malignant (2021) movie still of Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) scared in bed

“His Name is Gabriel”

As mentioned earlier, Gabriel is someone or something who keeps us guessing. Is he an evil entity/the Devil? A figment of Madison’s imagination? A patient from the hospital who somehow knows Madison? You’ll have to see for yourself. What I can spoil here is that Gabriel controls electricity and broadcasts his voice through speakers/radio waves. He also has super strength/super speed. He has a mission that we don’t quite understand – all we do know is that there’s a strong personal and psychic connection to Madison. Regarding the character’s look: Gabriel reminded me a little of Bughuul/“Mr. Boogie” from “Sinister” (2012) – maybe it was the long hair. I do like that the character created his signature weapon from a trophy belonging to his first victim, the doctor. With his gold trophy sword and climbing abilities that put Catwoman to shame, Gabriel is part horror movie monster, part sci-fi action movie villain. An interesting combination for sure.

Malignant (2021) movie still of Madison Lake (Annabelle Wallis) scared in bed with creepy silhouette behind her.

I’ll honor Wan’s wishes and omit any discussion about the twist/direction the film takes. I want you to discover the reveal about Gabriel for yourself. “Malignant” is unpredictable and sometimes unbelievable, but that only contributes to how much fun it is. I’m interested to hear what you think – message me at my Instagram account below. 

Bret Laurie

Bret Laurie


Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.

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