Dream logic is a powerful narrative engine, driving both the most anxiety-inducing of horror and the wackiest of screwball comedy. It only makes sense that a franchise like Nightmare on Elm Street quickly changed course from making people scream to making people laugh. Dream logic exists in almost every horror film though, especially B-horror, because the rules of the supernatural can never be airtight. If they were, they’d just be natural. The clumsier the handling of the writing and direction, the less this inherent dream logic can be hidden by artistic sleight of hand. The results can produce cult classics like Troll 2 where this non-sequitur, “no one is behaving like a normal human”-style narration makes us laugh instead of feel scared. Malignant embraces the duality of dream logic not simply to make a horror/comedy cross-genre, but rather to depict something as equally impossible to separate into a true binary.
The springboard opening scene is pure horror camp: mental hospital clichés, psychic powers, and huge doses of intentionally heavy-handed acting set the tone for the film. Immediately things jump to a grim depiction of domestic abuse, both verbal and physical, only to be cut short by an intensely violent and much more serious and spooky attack from some sort of shadow. This is more than a ping-pong, though. The story is a tangled knot of silly and serious. Only by the third act has enough information been revealed to show that these aren’t intertwined elements that need to be sorted out. It’s a standalone architectural snarl that mirrors the protagonist/antagonist and their inseparable trauma. After traversing an illogical road of red herrings and psychic visions, the truth about who the slasher killer is gets revealed. But the truth isn’t as simple as any of the bets on the table ~ evil twin theory, black out behavior theory, etc. The truth is that the killer’s identity is an existential conundrum given physical form. Both the slasher, Gabriel, and final girl, Maddie, are twins conjoined at the brain. It is a medical impossibility to separate them. They aren’t just two people trying to share the same body, but the same mind. Or are they just one mind and body fighting with itself? To truly decide if this entity is singular or dual is impossible, much like the impossibility of separating the comedy and horror of the dream logic narrative. The approach that leads to this discovery is presented in the form of the discovery itself. This is a contained universe of tragedy and comedy, eternally relying upon each other at every level.
Detective work, both amateur and professional, steers the way through the dream; assuming that an objective conclusion can be found at the end. Along this road, one clue discovered is that the singular/dual entity of the slasher/final girl was conceived as the product of a rape. Between this origin, the dream logic of the narrative, and a scene showing the slasher forging their iconic bladed weapon, Malignant is offering some blatant allusions to Nightmare on Elm Street. It is more than a love letter though, it is an evolution. In Nightmare, rape leads to the birth of a true monster, Freddy. The implication is that those born into trauma are evil.
In Malignant, the entity born into trauma is the Gabriel/Maddie hybrid. On the surface, one side evil and the other good. Upon inspection, the line isn’t drawn so clearly, though. Instead of a definitive demon, what is offered into the world is more of a philosophical riddle. When someone is born into trauma and then copes with violence, is it that individual’s fault or the fault of those who dealt the cards? Is that question even fair? No, because an answer would neither fix anything nor is even possible. Trauma is an Ouroboros, an existential paradox.
The conjoined identities can’t be easily distinguished by the tools used to discover their existence. Detective work may have uncovered them, but the rule of law cannot even begin to untie this Gordian knot. Some sort of conceptual groundwork must be established to even glimpse a separation of the protagonist and antagonist. In that sense then, the beast side is the violence and fear, regardless of who it is attributed to. The hope side is the love and comedy, again regardless of any physical form. The beast, or the slasher, is who is thus called Gabriel. The hope, the final girl, bears the name Maddie. These names don’t distinguish specific sections of the entity’s body or brain – they are labels for the two ethical energies at play.
The particulars of the slasher energy are timely for a 2021 released film. Gabriel is a beast that wants to kill people in the medical profession because he believes that their efforts to get rid of him were not an act of love for Maddie, but an attempted abortion of his being. He survives this abortion though, hibernating in the skull of the dual entity. After awakening, he then tells Maddie, a woman, that he deserves to control her body. His reason why? Because he “knows how to use it better.” For a film washed in confusion, manifesting trauma in a very illusory way, the allegory of Gabriel as an alt-right militant conservative is exceptionally blunt and serves as an anchor amidst all this narrative and philosophical chaos. The film may love to throw curveballs like unexpected “women in prison” scenes straight out of ’70s grindhouse, which then topple into a ’90s Blade-style blood rave, but with this anchor at the core, the screwball assemblage of reference points all point to the same guiding star.
The anchor – the empirical evil of Gabriel – provides a narrative out for the final girl. She can take charge of her fate and decide to put hope above all. It is a sort of “life only makes sense when you force it to” solution, but a solution nonetheless. That said, as Maddie puts Gabriel into a mental prison, he notes that he’ll be back. Of course he will, sequels are inevitable in horror. More importantly, though, he will be back because the Catch-22 of trauma always persists. He will be back because hope only prevailed over violence through the use of violence itself. In some ways, Gabriel was made stronger by defeating him temporarily.
Trauma isn’t easily processed because it exists in the non-verbal parts of the brain. It can’t be reasoned with. It exists despite knowing better, despite all logic. A screwball comedy/horror might sound like a disrespectful way to depict trauma, but screwball is not such a bad way to describe the simultaneously conflicted and cooperative nature of a mind encompassing both the reasonable and unreasonable. Even those fortunate enough to be free of trauma still know the surrealness of paradoxical emotions, with both joy and fear living as one and as opposites in the same skull. In the end, it is all a screwball cliché accurately depicting the comedic tragedy of truth.