A Look Back at Malignant: The underrated horror gem of 2021

By Tom Moore

Although it’s been great to see director James Wan’s vision stretch outside of the horror genre, his return to horror with “Malignant”(2021) delivered one of his best films to date but didn’t get the recognition it deserved. While “Malignant” certainly got the opportunity to be seen with it debuting in theaters and HBO Max on the same day, it’s lack of strong marketing and being eclipsed by “Shang-Chi’s” success basically kept it in the shadows – a fate it didn’t deserve. To be fair, it was also seen as divisive by critics and audiences, but speaking for myself, it was one of the best films of 2021. Wan’s take on a giallo horror not only delivered some of his most wildly imaginative horror yet, but “Malignant’s” story, co-written by Wan, Ingrid Bisu, and Akela Cooper, contains some amazing twists and strong moments of female empowerment.

“Malignant” is a one-of-a-kind film and easily deserves to be hailed as one Wan’s best – which is pretty remarkable given that Wan has already shown himself as a modern master of the horror. So, before we head into a whole new year for the horror genre, it’s a great time to take a look back at one of the genre’s most underrated entries of 2021.

A giallo is an Italian subgenre of horror that generally mixes detective mystery thrills with insanely unimaginable horror and even though this is Wan’s first real stab at giallo, although you could argue that “Saw” is inspired by giallo, he showcases himself to be a real master. “Malignant” is Wan pushing himself out of his comfort zone with him utilizing more ambitious and striking visuals that create uneasiness. His trademark style of suspense-building is still there but elevated by the distinct visuals that come from some of the great visual effects and camerawork. Right in the first act there’s this amazing chase sequence captured from the top down that turns a seemingly standard house chase into a nightmarish maze. The sequences of protagonist Madison (Annabelle Wallis) experiencing traumatic visions of serial killer Gabriel brutally murdering people are trippy and creepy as hell as reality shifts around her through these amazing effects.

Even the iconic red tint of giallo comes through and “Malignant” truly is Wan exploring his own ambition freely because, well, he could. “Malignant” marks a pivotal point for Wan as a director as it was pretty much greenlit because of his name, and he basically had full control of his vision. It really shows in the final product and while some aspects of that vision don’t always work out in Wan’s favor, mainly the narrative handholding and unintentional humor, “Malignant” is Wan unleashed and in that process, he creates an iconic killer in Gabriel that’s among his scariest antagonists.

“Malignant’s” black cloaked serial killer Gabriel is easily one of the most enticing aspects of “Malignant’s” central mystery. His backstory and strange connection to Madison constantly picks at your brain and each new clue changes your thought on what Gabriel really is. He’s excellently brought to life by a trio of strong performers (the voice of Ray Chase, performer Marina Mazepa, and contortionist Troy James) and his uniquely backwards movement and brutality in his kills instills chills every time he’s on-screen. The truth behind Gabriel is easily “Malignant’s” most memorable and craziest revelation with how it kicks off the absolutely bonkers third act that turns the film into a total bloodbath, but more importantly leads to some empowering moments for Madison.

There’s no doubt “Malignant’s” legacy will be its insane third act because its everything horror fans, specifically gore hounds, could want. The level of purely wild insanity and blood-spilling will leave you shocked beyond your wildest beliefs and the twist of Gabriel’s connection to Madison is both visually monstrous and completely mind-blowing. It’s Wan’s best twist since “Saw” and is legitimately pure movie theater fun with how it just goes for it and totally succeeds.

Personally though, Madison’s personal arc should also be a part of “Malignant’s” legacy as it’s incredibly fulfilling to see her rise to regain control of her life. When we first meet Madison, she’s completely at an emotional rock bottom. She’s suffered through multiple miscarriages, an abusive relationship, and is now entangled in these gruesome visions of Gabriel. She truly feels haunted by a past with Gabriel she doesn’t fully understand and by the time she does, he gains absolute control over her in way that’s more terrifying and disturbing than anyone could imagine.

Madison is literally like a puppet to Gabriel and it’s what makes seeing her cut those strings and regain control so powerful. Madison finally overpowering Gabriel feels like more than just the “final girl” taking out the killer as it harnesses meaningful, empowering change for her that sees her overcoming inner demons and pushing past darkness. When she finally takes control, it’s this momentously emotional change that feels real because of the added elements of the abuse and trauma she’s faced, and Madison’s story could easily connect with anyone. Wallis’ strong performance elevates all the great writing for Madison and creates a surprisingly powerful arc for her that’s rare and incredibly touching.

There’s so much to “Malignant” that makes it so much more than a standard horror offering with Wan’s creative visions on full blast and taking on a giallo twist as well as “Malignant’s” engaging horror mystery that leads to an empowering female character arc. As said before, “Malignant” is one of Wan’s best and a one-of-a-kind film that deserves greater attention for everything it accomplishes.

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