Note: Spoilers abound for a movie you definitely should have watched by now.
I have made no secret over the past week how much I loved Malignant, and how Warner Bros was stupid/insane/wonderful enough to actually spend real money on producing it. I love that James Wan could have made anything he wanted to after directing the billion dollar-hit Aquaman, and decided to cash in his chips for this dialed-up, histrionic, Giallo-adoring, body horror-reveling, deranged tornado of gruesome violence, shameless melodrama, and unrelenting psychological terror. I love how he resisted the urge to turn and wink at the camera, and how Hell Fest scribe Akela Cooper wrote a shockingly dramatically functional story with clearly-defined stakes and character motivations amidst all the bone-cracking gurgle deaths. I pray the coming decade heralds more bonkers, all-out horror extravaganzas like Malignant.
I’m especially crossing my fingers that its central villain will catch on. Because Gabriel is a terrific movie monster, one of the most memorable in many years, and by breaking down why he works so well, my hope is that future forays from up-and-coming filmmakers will follow his example. Starting with…
#1: The Monster Should Be Truly, Irredeemably Wicked
Where Else This Worked: The Strangers
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Don’t Breathe
This is becoming a Problem with a lot of American films these days. Hollywood somehow got it into their heads that audiences can’t emotionally handle “too much” villainy, and have taken to softening their bad guys (or gals, in the case of Cruella De Vil; no longer just a mean rich lady who wants to skin puppies, she’s now a punk rock hashtag girlboss!).
Horror, I’m sad to say, has not been immune from this. In a genre that ostensibly seeks to terrify and revolt us, the unknown presence lurking in the shadows now has to have a Tragic Backstory or a Relatable Motive in case they’re popular enough to launch a spinoff franchise later. And that’s how you turn Leatherface from a hulking brute relentlessly pursuing Sally Hardesty to a poor bullied child with a skin condition lashing out at a heartless world.
Sometimes, filmmakers will even notice this and try to overcorrect, with head-slapping results. Like when Fede Alvarez realized how weird it was to position his selfish home invaders as the “heroes” robbing an elderly blind man of a monetary settlement he got after his daughter was killed in a car accident in Don’t Breathe, so he threw in a ridiculous mid-film twist where he keeps a pregnant rape slave locked in his basement in a clumsy attempt to nudge its audience’s sympathies away from where it would naturally fall. But – uh oh! – turns out Stephen Lang has incredible screen presence and played the only interesting character in the movie so now they’ve decided he’s actually an action hero in the sequel. Shockingly, this didn’t work out to a good movie.
But not Gabriel. He has a “motivation,” in the same way a loa loa worm also wants to stay alive, but he’s still a malevolent parasite who sucks the life out of anything he comes across. He’s such an all-consuming monster, he’ll even manipulate his host into killing other living things he fears will take her attention off of him. As soon as he regains control, he immediately sets out to brutally murder the doctors who finally gave Madison a chance at a normal life. He kidnaps his own mother just to sadistically save her for last. There is nothing “likable” about Gabriel. He’s similar to the teens in The Strangers – truly, irredeemably wicked.
#2: Up Until the Climax, Looking “Unsettling” Is More Important Than Looking “Scary”
Where Else This Worked: Ringu / The Ring
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Dead Silence
I would be remiss if I didn’t turn the critical eye towards James Wan himself in praising his latest effort as… possibly? Maybe definitely… his best movie, yet. Because even by his own admission, Dead Silence was a dud, and co-writer Leigh Whannell vowed never again to sell a pitch to a studio before having a finished script. Fair enough, but it’s not like the visual presentation did the garbage writing any favors. Especially when you’re asked to buy into the idea that a woman who already looks like a desiccated corpse would be a popular ventriloquist performer with dolls that look like they were designed from the start to be nothing else but horror movie props. It’s the kind of premature zero-to-WhOaOo-SpOoKy acceleration that leaves the audience emotionally with nowhere else to go. Once you introduce your evil ventriloquist (dear lord, this movie was released in theaters…) in her full Grandmama Addams glory, they won’t be trembling with anticipation over her Big Reveal. Their imaginations won’t be able to run wild with what’s lurking just off the frame. What they saw was what they got… and it wasn’t much.
Compare that miscalculation to Japanese classic Ringu and its against-all-odds worthy American remake The Ring. We not only had to wait until near the end of the movies to see Sadako/Samara in her final necrotic, waterlogged form, we only see her face at her most frightening for a few seconds. Most of the time, she’s just a little girl. And what could possibly be scary about that? But it works because even though her appearance isn’t monstrous, she still looks… unsettling. Rie Ino’o and Daveigh Chase both shoot cold-blooded glares out from under their long mops of oily-black hair, and you can’t help but feel a little creeped out. They just look “off,” somehow. That feeling is far more effective at burrowing into the audience’s minds as the movie goes on. Which is what makes the reveal of them out of the well feel like they earned our hearts stopping in terror.
So it is with Gabriel. We only barely make out a wet, fleshy outline of a sorta-face hidden behind a curtain of dark black hair (hey, I’m sensing an homage!). Most of his personality is expressed through his raspy voice. From a distance, he just looks like a trenchcoated tall dude with unkempt hair. But then you seem him move and he looks… “off.” He runs, he stabs, and dodges and weaves and climbs, but in a really weird way with his limbs that you can’t quite place your finger on why, exactly.
Which is how the reveal of his unobstructed red squishy face finally popping out of the back of Madison’s head was so effective. Keeping those cards close to the chest allowed us the joy of saying “Oh, so that’s why he OH GOD OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING WHAT IS HE DOING?!?!” during the film’s final swerve into Crazyville.
Which brings me to…
#3: The Monster Should Feel Like A Genuine Threat
Where Else This Worked: Insidious
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Doctor Sleep
The first two points are almost understandable for horror filmmakers to misunderstand, but this ought to seem self-evident, right? How in the world can you expect to scare your audience if your audience doesn’t feel like the central threat of your film is ever, ya know, threatening? I blame the massive popularity of The Avengers for this. Once studio executives and genre filmmakers saw consumers lap up a movie where the most powerful superheroes on Earth (including a literal god!) easily cut through an army of disposable alien fodder in the final battle, and who only face real danger from themselves, that’s when they decided making their heroes awesome was more important than presenting their challenges as seemingly insurmountable.
Just look at Doctor Sleep, which spends such an inordinate amount of time obsessively presenting True Knot, this cult of shine vampires (I know they call it “steam,” but The Shining is the better movie so I’m calling it shine), as these sadistic child-killers, that Mike Flanagan forgot to include even a single scene articulating why Dan and Abra should ever be worried about them. It’s established very early on that both of their shine powers eclipse True Knot’s several times over, and all but two of them are dispatched with guns. Guns! These supernatural beings have been able to travel around and kill several children in America despite being vulnerable to bullets. In! America! So when Dan explains to Abra that they can’t beat Rose the Hat by themselves, it makes no sense except in the context of, well, the screenwriter needed this to be true at this moment to get us to the Overlook Hotel. She is then easily defeated.
It’s why Insidious seemed so revolutionary in 2010. For the first time, a mainstream haunted house movie presented its protagonists as being smart enough to make the obvious decision to just leave the house they’re being haunted in… and it doesn’t work. The more they learn about the spectral presence that torments them, the more powerful it seems. How in the world are these two ordinary parents supposed to save their family from such an overwhelming force of evil?
And Gabriel? Man, that thing seemed unstoppable. He’s so unconventionally agile, strong, and ruthless that an entire police precinct is mercilessly slaughtered by him. He’s not invincible, but he sure seems close to it, as it should be in all circumstances… save one.
#4: The Monster Should Have a Clear Goal, but Not a “Master Plan”
Where Else This Worked: Joy Ride
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Literally all of the Saw movies
“It has always been me… the author of all your pain!”
Dammit, Spectre, that just retroactively makes Casino Royale worse! What a lazy storytelling trend this has become in the 21st century! Okay, maybe that’s unfair since the storytelling demands of long-running franchises these days practically mandate tying in every installment of a film series to its own internal mythology. I extend nothing but sympathy for writers forced to work within those demands.
But it’s still bad. And dumb. And drastically reduces the tension of a narrative conflict. This is why I never got into the Saw movies. Each new installment piled on contrivance after contrivance that literally everything was all gamed out in advance by John Kramer, down to the smallest arbitrary decision made by every participant in his “games.” How is an audience supposed to feel tension when the evil mastermind is apparently a full-on psychic who knew with absolute confidence that every single one of his victims, without exception, would be exactly as stupid as he needed them to be at the exact precise times they needed to be stupid?
To ensure tension and a genuine sense of fear, you have to make sure your villain has more control over the conflict, but not total control. In fact, it’s far more suspenseful to throw in complications that the bad guy didn’t plan for to raise the stakes. This was why Joy Ride was such a welcome surprise, because it was pretty clear Rusty Nail was semi-improvising his twisted revenge plot on the fly, but was always just one step ahead of our beleaguered pranksters Lewis and Fuller.
So while Gabriel had a plan for how to execute his calculated killing spree, he certainly didn’t expect his mother to untie herself and crash through the attic of her daughter’s house. Narrative surprises. Unpredictability. No clairvoyance. That’s what keeps the audience on their toes.
#5: Tie It To Relatable Trauma, But Don’t Use It As a mEtApHoR Crutch
Where Else This Worked: Candyman (1992)
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Candyman (2021)
I lay a lot of the blame for this on A24, but the differences between the original Candyman and its semi-sequel are more salient for this part. The shame is, Nia DaCosta did an excellent job directing a nasty, grimy, brutal slasher and pretty obviously didn’t want to screech that to a halt so supporting characters could deliver didactic Systemic Racism 101 lectures to Anthony in boring, rote shot-reverse-shot presentation.
Whether she was pressured from outside stakeholders to add in these scenes or felt obligated to do so because that’s what the internet thinkpieces demanded is sort of beside the point, which is that they were clumsy and broke the film’s momentum. The themes of gentrification, White Savior complex, and communal folklore as a coping mechanism for intergenerational trauma were never directly spelled out in Bernard Rose’s 1992 classic original. They were elegantly teased out through the film’s story and mise-en-scène.
It all comes down to modern filmmakers either not trusting their audience or being too scared of being misunderstood by internet “hot take” peddlers on YouTube. Storytellers, especially ones looking to scare their audiences, need to accept that there’s always going to be a certain loss of control when you release your stories into the world. I’m sure John Carpenter wasn’t thrilled with the avalanche of cultural anthropology on Halloween’s implication that If You Have Sex You Will Die, but that’s what happens when you tap into the darkest corners of our collective id. And it didn’t stop Halloween from being hailed as a timeless classic to this day.
No one sits down and explains to us how Gabriel and Madison’s abusive husband are thematically connected. There are no heavy-handed reminders of how Gabriel is allegorical to incurable diseases like cancer or the burden of toxic relationships. James Wan and Akela Cooper trust that we can figure that stuff out on our own. Because I suspect they also knew how it wasn’t, or shouldn’t be, that hard for us to draw those conclusions. Especially since…
#6: The Monster Can Be Defeated, But It Can Never Truly Die
Where Else This Worked: The Babadook
Movie That Dropped The Ball: Any Halloween sequel other than the third one
To be fair, this last “rule” is also probably the excuse mercenary hacks use to keep resurrecting slasher icons for endless tiresome sequels. Which is, admittedly, why I am not super-excited about the prospect of Michael Myers escaping certain death yet again in another attempt to rewrite and reboot this franchise’s convoluted timeline, including stupid ties to witchcraft rituals in one of them. Instead of, ya know, leaving it alone and moving on to something else.
But you shouldn’t be able to… completely kill off the monster. That’s not how monsters are in life, and they shouldn’t be in horror. If you want to see a monster vanquished once and for all, that’s what fantasy is for (and even then, The Lord of the Rings trilogy ended with our heroes realizing that their scars won’t ever fully heal). Which is why The Babadook can make a strong claim for itself as possibly the best horror movie of the previous decade, and one of the only examples of “elevated horror” that has aged well in my eyes. The movie ends with Amelia keeping the Babadook under control; subdued and docile… for now. But it will always be there. She can never truly put it out of her mind.
Gabriel is the same way in Malignant. He is eventually defeated, and put into a “prison” deep inside Madison’s mind… but the faint electrical fluctuations in the background of Madison and Sydney’s embrace just before the cut to credits reminds us that he’ll always be around. He’ll always be a tumor stuck in the back of her brain, and she’ll have to be vigilant for the rest of her life to keep him from taking over her body again.
See what I mean about themes and metaphors being elegantly expressed? Think about how far medical science has come with cancer treatments over the last twenty years. The life expectancy of a person diagnosed with cancer has been extended by decades thanks to our increased understanding of the disease. But there’s still no cure. You can live with cancer. It can go into remission. But it very likely won’t ever be fully eradicated.
And neither will Gabriel, one of the great movie monsters of recent years.