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Wednesday, October 6, 2021

‘Malignant’: Has James Wan Created Yet Another Horror Icon With Gabriel?

What makes a memorable horror icon? Since the legendary slashers sliced through pop culture at the end of the 20th century, filmmakers and studios alike have constantly tried to capture audiences with new horror icons, hoping to kickstart a franchise of films starring their beloved creations.

The most recent nightmarish characters to be admitted into the horror hall of fame seem to be Bill Skarsgard’s menacing Pennywise, Leigh Whannell’s twisted Billy the Puppet, James Wan’s haunting Annabelle, and Michael Doughetry’s loveable Sam from Trick ‘r Treat.

With Wan back on the horror scene with the jaw-dropping Malignant, could Gabriel be the next modern Horror icon? 

James Wan has a pretty great track record when it comes to creating modern icons. Being responsible for some of the 21st century’s most iconic horror franchises, Wan is a master at his craft. Starting with 2004’s Saw, the iconic director shocked moviegoers with this twisted survival horror. With Saw came the memorable introduction of Billy the Puppet – the only creepy doll to truly give Chucky a run for his money. Next up, Wan brought horror fans the terrifying Mary Shaw with the highly underrated Dead Silence. Using an arsenal of horrifying ventriloquist dolls, this spectral ventriloquist doesn’t get enough love. Moving on from the horror of puppetry, Insidious conjured the absolutely terrifying lipstick demon. Everything from his signature “Tulips” music track to his blood-red face pattern made this creature extremely notable.

Next up came The Conjuring, where Wan gave audiences his twisted interpretation of the real-life Annabelle doll. Said doll has gone on to star in three stand-alone spin-offs. Annabelle’s harrowing porcelain face has become a staple of modern horror. As if Annabelle wasn’t enough, Wan went on to bring audiences the haunting Nun character with The Conjuring 2. Her terrifyingly pale makeup combined with Bonnie Aarons’ menacing performance inducted her in the horror cinema hall of fame. After The Conjuring 2, Wan took a vacation to the depths of the ocean with Aquaman before returning to the horror scene with the instantly memorable Malignant

To understand what seems to lead to the acceptance of a new horror icon, we need to look back at when it hasn’t worked. Films like The Gallows repeatedly tried to market their slasher Charlie in comparison with the greats of Krueger and Voorhees. Immediately pushing audiences to expect a horror character to be in line with the classics is a death wish. Jason and Freddy weren’t created with anticipation of being legends, they grew into that status. 

The Malignant marketing was quite infamous amongst the horror community, barely showing anything regarding the third act of the film and even hiding many of the slasher elements. As more and more viewers experienced Wan’s newest scarefest, it became very clear why the secrets were kept at bay…

*Spoilers for Malignant will follow*

Malignant’s greatest kept secret is that it actually is a bonkers, all-out slasher featuring a backwards-walking, acrobatic, disfigured, dagger-wielding creature that literally lives on the back of protagonist Madison’s head, dubbed “Gabriel.” Many of Gabriel’s introductory kills are shrouded in shadow, hiding the true extent of his nightmarish appearance. As Wan unwraps the mysteries behind his newest horror character, Gabriel truly shines in all his twisted glory. 

Let’s run through the horror icon checklist…


All horror icons are instantly recognizable by appearance. Green and red sweaters immediately scream Freddy Krueger. Hockey mask means Voorhees. William Shatner mask means Myers. Let’s take a look at Gabriel. 

  • Creepy cloak 
  • Absolutely disgusting face
  • Signature dagger weapon
  • Extremely unique movement
  • Twisted connection to final girl
  • Long dark hair
  • Iconic movement 

Actress Ingrid Bisu, who plays Winnie in the film, explained that creating Gabriel’s iconic movement was a combination between several actors, one being well-known horror actor “Twisty” Troy James (Channel Zero, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark), the other the talented Marina Mazepa (The Unholy) . “It was a combo of two of them. We met them, and they started demonstrating things in the office. It blew my mind. They really brought it. I feel like they made our vision come to life because we can only imagine so much of that movement, but neither of us can do it. Both of them are absolutely incredible.” You can read more behind the scenes insight about Gabriel’s physicality in Meagan Navarro’s piece on the film.


From John Carpenter’s absolutely iconic “Theme from Halloween,” to the razor-sharp symphony of the Psycho shower sequence, each of these memorable characters has been accompanied by a fantastic signature score. In Malignant, Gabriel is accompanied by a wonderfully moody score from Joseph Bishara and a hellish remix of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind.” Much like US’s “I Got 5 On It” and Insidious‘ “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips,” Wan’s newest film turns a relatively normal song into a nightmarish symphony. 


Last but not least, all horror icons seem to be swept away by various lanes of pop culture. Due to the universal appreciation and knowledge of these legendary characters, memes, products, and parodies are spun out like clockwork. In Gabriel’s case, his legacy has already fallen into the hands of the meme-creators of Twitter:

Fans of the character have also started producing fan-art, a tell-tale sign that a horror character is resonating with audiences. 

Only time will tell if Gabriel from Malignant will live on in horror infamy. I expect Halloween and future comic conventions to hopefully be filled with creative attempts at dressing as the double-faced killer. With an iconic look, killer score, and already influential pop culture impact, it’s safe to say James Wan may have gifted us yet another entry into Horror’s Hall of Fame. 


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