On paper, the twist of Gabriel’s origin might suggest Wan is attempting to mainstream and revitalize a different type of horror, just as he did with “torture porn” in Saw and modern haunted house movies in Insidious and The Conjuring. In that sense, the image of an underdeveloped “cancer” growing out of a little girl’s back in Malignant is pure body horror. Is this Wan’s attempt at playing in David Cronenberg’s sandbox?
Perhaps. There are definite similarities between Malignant and several Cronenberg horror movies from the late 1970s and early ‘80s, which trafficked all in the shock of physical deformity to get under the skin—and closer to darker thoughts in the mind. Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) bears particular similarities to Malignant. In that film, a couple’s messy divorce and child custody battle takes on horrific connotations when the wife (Samantha Eggar) seeks experimental psychological treatment from a doctor (Oliver Reed) who convinces her to physically manifest her pain: which involves the shocking ending where she gives birth to a brood of monstrous alien-children who kill her subconscious’ enemies and attempt take her daughter back from her estranged husband.
The revelation of these children is visually more shocking and scarring than any image of twisted, misshapen appendages or opening skulls in Malignant. But then that’s because like all other Cronenberg films, the body horror was merely a means to an end. A metaphor about male-dominated society’s anxiety toward the bonds between mother and children, and even a fear of the reproductive process unto itself, underlies the entire running time of The Brood. It’s the ugliness of this paranoia made visceral.
Yet this comparison shows where Malignant fails. Like the Cronenberg movie, Wan’s film pivots on a shocking twist and an uncomfortable image of physical distortion. Yet that twist and that image are ends unto themselves, divorced from any sort of significant meaning or depth.
The revelation that Madison is attached to a deformed and malicious twin brother who hides, quite literally, inside her head appears to serve no purpose beyond the initial shock of seeing Gabriel crawling out of a little girl’s back like one of the grosser gags in a Troma film. Wan and his co-writers—Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper—don’t appear to have anything to say after this other than “boo.” When Gabriel finally reveals himself in the film’s present timeline, it isn’t for anything as loaded as the image of a mother licking her newborn’s afterbirth before the eyes of a disgusted husband; it is just so Gabriel can take over Madison’s body and brutally kill a bunch of other prisoners inside a jail cell. It’s maximum splatter for minimal payoff. As a story, Malignant isn’t really about anything else.
In this way, Malignant falls into the long line of empty calorie “twist endings” that define their movies for all the wrong reasons. These are twists that rather than get under the skin settle for tickling the funny bone.
Malignant and Shock Twists That Ruin Movies – Den of Geek