ANALYSIS: Complicated Views on Family in MALIGNANT (2021)


Horror fans always have a lot to say, something especially true regarding James Wan’s latest, Malignant. I loved it, from the campy beginning to bonkers ending, and immediately knew it would become part of my regular rotation. In particular I adored how Malignant tackled a topic I haven’t seen much in horror lately: family of origin, and how much where we come from does – or does not – define who we are. There are several aspects to analyse, such as the abusive relationship(s) and the allegories for mental illness, but the film’s commentary on family strikes hardest.

A “family of origin” means the family in which one was raised, and it comes in many different shapes depending on circumstance and culture. For Madison (Annabelle Wallis) her family of origin were her adoptive parents, her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) and her – believed to be imaginary friend, but later revealed as her real twin – Gabriel, because he was always with her, though he wasn’t acknowledged by others in the family. As much trouble as it causes her, he is part of her origin too.

An inescapable fact about one’s family of origin is that you cannot choose them, and especially as a child your family will have an impact on your life. As an adult, you can decide if you want relationships with those individuals or not, but they will forever be the family you came from. Madison does not want to leave her mother and sister behind, but she does want to create her own new family and have children with her husband. Her mother and sister are supportive, though she is isolated from them by her abusive husband.

Gabriel too prevents Madison from having children, and this plot point serves as a metaphor for how people can feel torn between their family’s expectations and their own desires. Gabriel has always been resentful of being physically attached to Madison, at one point yelling “I never asked to be tethered to you,” clearly frustrated with his lack of agency. Resentment toward familial obligations can be very real and often one-sided, as it is for Gabriel for most of his life. 

Depending on individual circumstances, people sometimes want or need to leave parts of their family of origin behind. Some need to completely cut off abusive or unsupportive family members, and some want to keep relationships but set boundaries to limit the ways family members can affect their lives. This can be messy, because needs can change over time, and not everyone will necessarily agree on what’s best.  An example of setting boundaries with family occurs near the end of the film, when Madison locks Gabriel away in a mental cage, and says he is not welcome to use her body any more. This moment serves as an example of setting firm boundaries to keep yourself safe, even if you know your family will be angry with you. Madison could not erase her past, but she could make decisions about how to move forward. 

A decision made by Gabriel and Madison’s birth mother, Serena (Jean Louisa Kelly), also represents the emotional difficulty and confusion that can occur when trying to draw boundaries with family. She decided to give her children a chance at a better life, as she was unequipped to become a mother at fifteen years old, particularly with Gabriel’s physical needs. She made a plan for her children to receive proper medical care and be adopted. This decision is understandable, particularly because she did not choose to become pregnant, and her own family weren’t supportive. However she can’t completely remove herself from the circumstances: after separating from her children, she decides to remain in Seattle, and eventually works as a tour guide. Even after the emotional difficulty of these decisions, she wanted to remain relatively close to her children.

While Malignant offers thoughtful portrayals of what it means to be part of a family, it also sends mixed messages. The film itself seems confused about what constitutes a family. For example, Madison expresses that she wants a child because she wants a blood connection with a family member. That’s not uncommon, and is of course understandable. In the home videos, when Madison is nine years old, she says to her mother that Gabriel asserts “she’s not your real family.” While this feeling may be something children who were adopted have to process, the film should have been more careful about what’s framed as “real” about family, because the implication is that adoptive parents don’t count. Then, at the end of the film, Madison feels closer to Sydney, saying to her that they had a “blood connection” all along: a confusing line, which seems to mean Madison feels a genuine familial connection with her sister and that blood is unnecessary. But as that’s not what she says, what should have been a heartfelt moment is clouded somewhat by ambiguity. 

There is also the extremely eyebrow-raising dialogue between Serena and her biological children near the end of the film. She says, “I never should have given you away”, a shocking line of dialogue that seems to undermine the earlier portrayal of Serena’s choices. When we are first introduced to Serena, we are meant to feel sympathy for a child who made the important decision to make an adoption plan, and we can sympathize with that choice; but later that choice is devalued by her adult regret, minimising the real challenges which would’ve faced a fifteen year old with no family or community support having to care for newborn twins, one with challenging physical needs. In this Malignant gives the audience whiplash, switching between “she did what she had to do” and “no, she should have raised her babies at any cost.” It is understandable that some viewers reacted strongly to these mixed messages.

Family can be a loaded word, and depending on your culture, it can mean specific roles and expectations. Madison’s journey through her family dynamics offers a compelling story, and one which can hopefully kick start conversations about diverse families and how they are represented in horror. 

Ariel Powers-Schaub

Malignant was voted by Moving Pictures Film Club writers as our film of the year. You can read the rest of our Top 10 of 2021 here.

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