Malignant

Malignant ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There’s this scene in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1997 masterpiece Men in Black where the film’s titular pair of interplanetary cops went off to buy some newsstand tabloids to help them with their case. “Medical Miracle: Pope a Father!” and “Top Doctors Baffled! Baby Born Pregnant!”, the headlines read. “These are the hot sheets!?” mock the Will Smith rookie cop in disbelief. “Best investigative reporting on the planet. Go ahead, read the New York Times if you want, they get lucky sometimes,” counter the Tommy Lee Jones senior cop, right as they find the skin-stealing alien they’re looking for on the front page of The World.

In a lot of ways the hot sheets of MIB have a lot in common with purely “genre” horror films. That is, that their existence is defined in contrast to a higher-minded iteration of their prototypical form—whether they be the fine journalism of a prestige paper or the entire premise of an “elevated” horror film—and that they really get away with a lot due to said comparison. Much like how a double-exclamation-mark headline about extraterrestrials on the front page of the Washington Post shocks, an arthouse picture would certainly get blasted for not excising “He was feeding off of your fetuses to build himself back up!” off its script, and yet here is Malignant, gleefully parading itself through its triumphant climax, bad dialogue and schlocky twists in hand.

The central premise and twist of Malignant is that its protagonist (Maddy) shares her head with the remnants of a removed parasitic twin (Gabriel). He used to tell her to harm people, but now opts to directly take control over her body and do the deeds himself.

The origins of this narrative can be traced back to, well, the yellow tabloids of yore. In 1895, a little-known writer who goes by the name Charles Lotin Hildreth wrote a little piece for the Boston Post titled “The Wonders of Modern Science”. In it, he recounts such fanciful tales as a half-human, half-crab creature and a fish-tailed woman from Lincoln (much of which, like the rest of his fiction, seems to have been confined to the forgotten annals of American literature). But he got lucky. One of his mind’s creations survived to the modern day:

One of the weirdest as well as most melancholy stories of human deformity is that of Edward Mordake, said to have been heir to one of the noblest peerages in England. He never claimed the title, however, and committed suicide in his twenty-third year. He lived in complete seclusion, refusing the visits even of the members of his own family. He was a young man of fine attainments, a profound scholar, and a musician of rare ability. His figure was remarkable for its grace, and his face—that is to say, his natural face—was that of an Antinous. But upon the back of his head was another face, that of a beautiful girl, 'lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil.'

The female face was a mere mask, 'occupying only a small portion of the posterior part of the skull, yet exhibiting every sign of intelligence, of a malignant sort, however.' It would be seen to smile and sneer while Mordake was weeping. The eyes would follow the movements of the spectator, and the lips would 'gibber without ceasing.' No voice was audible, but Mordake avers that he was kept from his rest at night by the hateful whispers of his 'devil twin,' as he called it, 'which never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in hell. No imagination can conceive the dreadful temptations it sets before me. For some unforgiven wickedness of my forefathers I am knit to this fiend—for a fiend it surely is. I beg and beseech you to crush it out of human semblance, even if I die for it.' Such were the words of the hapless Mordake to Manvers and Treadwell, his physicians. In spite of careful watching he managed to procure poison, whereof he died, leaving a letter requesting that the 'demon face' might be destroyed before his burial, 'lest it continues its dreadful whisperings in my grave.' At his own request he was interred in a waste place, without stone or legend to mark his grave.

The plausibility of Mordake’s tale relative to Hildreth's other wonders of modern science proved key to its survival. Just a year later, ophthalmologist George M. Gould and his writing partner Walter L. Pyle copied the anecdote verbatim into their medical journal: “Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine”. From there the tale turned from fanciful to probable to case study to accepted fact.

By the time the story reached Ingrid Bisu’s ears, its apocryphal nature has been well understood. Nevertheless it struck a chord. “I felt like there was a lot of darkness there. It’s an interesting thing,” she said in an interview about the conception of Gabriel.

What’s interesting is the transformation the story undertook on its way to the big screen. Mordake’s story is ultimately about a man who is denied his aristocratic right due to the torments of the woman on the back of his head; he is doomed from the moment he chose isolation. Maddy’s story is about a woman who overcomes trauma by refusing isolation in spite of the man on the back of her head. At its heart, Malignant is a love letter to human connections (which makes sense, Ingrid Bisu and her husband James Wan co-writing the original draft here has produced a film as sweetly in love with the very idea of love as Joe Wright and Haley Bennett’s collaboration in Cyrano).

The reproductive politics of the film, much like the accurate reporting of The World in MIB, is ultimately muddied by the larger camp and outrageousness surrounding it. Gabriel is a man who hijacks a woman’s body to carry out his own agenda with clear disregard for the woman’s own well-being. He is a metaphor for the anti-abortion movement which have successfully overturned reproductive rights in the US. Maddy’s triumph over Gabriel comes as she proclaims that she’s “…taking it all back. My mind, my body, my everything…”

We also learn that both Maddy and Gabriel were conceived through the rape of a teenager (Serena), and that she handed them over to a research hospital after she carried them to term. Serena’s pregnancy is rejected by her mother, and in turn she rejected Gabriel as “…an abomination”. This revelation opens up a lot of questions. It is implied that the deal with the research hospital is coercive; can a teenage mother who openly declares she has no other option really consent to handing her child to become a test subject? Was Gabriel born evil, or is he evil precisely because the world has decided that he must be evil from the moment he is born?

The film ultimately decides that Gabriel’s existence is inherently evil. He can only sustain his life at the cost of Maddy (and later on, her babies’) life. He is cancer. He is, well, a blunt metaphor for a forced pregnancy. Maddy’s abusive husband’s punch which awakened Gabriel might as well be Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. For Maddy to regain her bodily autonomy, she must band together with the women in her life to overpower the man.

But while it’s easy to proclaim that the pedestrians of MIB’s New York are ignorant for not believing The World’s account of a skin-stealing alien, it’s not like they don’t have a reason to not look for serious journalism in red tops. The worst offender in Malignant is the queer coding of the women in the jail cell, whose comical antagonization is de rigeur in order to allow the audience to indulge in their massacre. The thin characterisation of the doctors who cut Gabriel out works to some extent—painting them as passionless cogs in an apathetic system who refers to their patients as “test subjects”—but clashes with the lack of subtlety elsewhere.

Though in the end Malignant does benefit from embrasure of its lurid genre roots. It’s a lovingly crafted love-letter to gialli, brimming with the kind of cine-literate formal homages to its inspirations that are reminiscent of Studio Aardman’s resurrection of the campy silent film as an artform. It’s exquisitely shot and edited, with well-blocked action sequences involving some really impressive performance from contortionists Marina Mazepa and Troy James (who performed the choreography backwards in order to capture Gabriel’s distinctive way of moving).

Like The World, the film's positioning as a genre offering inevitably means it will get passed over by many. But it knows which men in black it’s serving, and those amongst its target audience are in for a real treat.

References

Charles Lotin Hildreth. The Wonders of Modern Science. Boston Post, 1895.

George M. Gould & Walter L. Pyle. Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. W.B. Saunders, 1896.

Meagan Navarro. Animatronics and Contortionists: How James Wan and Ingrid Bisu Brought ‘Malignant’ Killer Gabriel to Life [Spoiler Interview]. Bloody Disgusting, 2021.

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