[Note: If you haven’t seen Malignant yet, this story discusses spoilers.]
Any movie monster is good for a jump scare or two, but only a special specter can slash its way into the hearts of audiences.
Malignant’s Gabriel—armed with little more than a sharp trophy, a leather duster, and the all-too-rare element of surprise—earned a place in the pantheon of beloved horror icons when the film seemingly came out of nowhere earlier this fall to delight critics and set the internet abuzz.
Malignant is a deliciously wicked genre romp from modern horror maestro James Wan. In between Aquaman duties, Wan and co-creators Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper conjured up the film as a love letter to Giallo cinema, but with a decidedly inspired twist: The killer and their prey share the same body. Gabriel is, in fact, Madison’s (Annabel Wallis) parasitic twin, bending over backwards to kill while she sleeps.
With that third act reveal, Malignant reaches a level of galaxy-brain theatricality, making Gabriel all the more threatening while positioning him as something of an anti-hero, a slick badass on a revenge mission. It’s also at that point where the viewer starts making plans for a rewatch, this time looking closely for hints about how Wan and company pulled the whole thing off.
Two months after his debut, with Gabriel is still fresh in horror fan’s minds, The A.V. Club spoke to key players from Malignant’s production crew to learn what it took to bring the character to life.
“It’s not often you get to work with somebody like James Wan,” says costume designer Lisa Norcia. “But, when you do, you realize the greatness that you’re around, the talent that he surrounds himself with.”
Norcia had previously worked on Insidious: The Last Key, which Wan produced, but was thrilled to have the chance to collaborate with him more closely on Malignant.
She says the vision for Gabriel was clear from the jump—he was always meant to nod to the killers of Italian Giallo films, particularly from their ’70s heyday. Norcia studied the classics of the genre, which inspired the design of black leather gloves, complete with golden zippers.
“In all of these [Giallo] movies, the gloves are the crucial detail,” Norcia says. “It’s like, ‘Where is that hand coming from? What’s going on?’ And the seductive mystery of the glove keeps you guessing. So we knew it’d be a focus of the design of Gabriel.”
Even more important was Gabriel’s full-body coat, with matching gold zippers and a high collar to help hide the secret on the back of his head. Norcia jokes that they didn’t want the garment to “look like The Matrix,” but instead were thinking of something “old, decrepit, and falling apart”—something Gabriel could’ve stumbled upon in the attic he’s made his home base. The goal was to make the character look recognizably human, but like he was masking something “almost animalistic” underneath.
“When I came on board, it was all about: How can we camouflage? How can we hide what Gabriel really is, or who he is, and how is he attached to Madison?” Norcia says. “And that’s where the hoods and the higher collar came in—it was working around what they had come up with for this big reveal.”
Gabriel’s style is both fashion and function—a modern “movie monster” with a classic Giallo flair. Norcia was thrilled to let her artistry shine through in the initial design, but Malignant’s real challenge was in crafting costumes that could meet the demands of the film’s ambitious stunt work.
As Wan and Bisu revealed to Bloody Disgusting, Gabriel was played by a number of actors, each with a specific skillset depending on the needs of the scene. At times, Wallis suited up as her evil twin, but production relied heavily on contortionists like Marina Mazepa and “Twisty” Troy James to create the illusion of Gabriel’s backwards movements and pull off some of his more acrobatic feats.
According to Norcia, that meant she and her team had to design 11 versions of the killer’s costume, each fitted to a specific actor, or a specific function within the film. Gabriel’s coat, in particular, proved challenging, in that the designer needed to mask the fact that different people of different sizes were portraying the character from scene to scene:
Each coat was designed and assigned to the person that was going to be wearing it. We had two “hero coats” for Madison, and then we had Contortionist #1, Contortionist #2, Stunts #1, Stunts #2, #3 and #4. And sometimes one stunt person wouldn’t be able to do that stunt, so then they would bring in another person, and each one of them was specifically fitted for their coats. But, as we were going along and there would be a new stunt added or something, we’d have to reconstruct the jacket and add gussets and shoulder pads so that the shoulders look the same on everybody.
That one-size-does-not-fit-all approach was also key to Malignant’s creature effects, designed by Spectral Motion, the company behind characters from Stranger Things, Birdman, and a number of Guillermo del Toro projects like Pacific Rim and the Hellboy series. Project supervisor Kevin McTurk reveals that Spectral Motion was responsible for all of Gabriel’s effects in the movie, sharing an impressively exhaustive run-down of their creations:
[We made] a complete, free-standing animatronic puppet of Gabriel that could push its head out of the back of the skull and pulsate, talk and emote. We also [created] an animatronic version of the Gabriel face that stunt actress Marina Mazepa could wear on the back of her head, and we had one that lead actress Annabelle Wallis could wear on the back of her head as well.
We also created mask versions of Annabelle Wallis’ face with her eyes closed that could be worn either on the front of Marina’s face, or on the back of Marina’s head. We also [made] additional pullover-style Gabriel masks to be worn by various stunt persons. In addition, we created the young Madison/Gabriel animatronic puppet, the insert surgery dissection Gabriel, and various compound broken bone injuries in the film.
McTurk says that Spectral Motion had “an absolute blast” indulging Wan’s vision for Gabriel and experimenting with different ways to execute Malignant’s special effects as practically as possible.
Their initial research involved “green-screen limbs” that could be fastened to actors and bent backwards. But a major breakthrough came when they learned about Mazepa, who had previously shown off her jaw-dropping abilities while competing on America’s Got Talent. When Mazepa came by Spectral Motion’s studio, they did a lifecast (a three-dimensional representation created by molding a body of the contortionist), and began to work out how their special-effects wizardry could complement her performance, stunt by stunt.
“Marina could actually do stunts and move around backwards while wearing this animatronic face of Gabriel on the back of her head,” McTurk says. “It was an extremely complicated animatronic, but Marina was amazing in the costume.”
For other scenes, Spectral Motion created pieces like a pair of posable legs that could be dressed with the Gabriel costume, attaching them at an actor’s waist so that they appear “backwards” on the character, even when he’s in motion (seen, notably, when Gabriel kills Dr. Victor Fields in bed).
Like Norcia and the costume department, McTurk’s team had to devise a different solution for almost every one of Malignant’s special effects. “We had to have four versions of Gabriel ready to go on set, at any given time,” he says.
And with production taking place throughout downtown Los Angeles, that meant they’d have to haul all four Gabriels across town, often to very “dimly lit locations,” with technicians ready to get Gabriel dressed “in any possible way that could come up in a moment’s notice.” The bottom line was to make Gabriel look terrifyingly alive, no matter what the scene called for.
With ingenious effects work and a wardrobe to die for, it’s no wonder that Gabriel feels immediately worthy of a spot in the horror canon, alongside favorite villains like Michael Myers, Pinhead, and The Babadook. Both Norcia and McTurk have been delighted by the response to Malignant, and they have their theories as to why the character has struck a nerve with fans.
For McTurk, Gabriel was destined for greatness from conception: He’s a true horror mash-up, “a combination of Italian Giallo suspense films and modern body horror films.” That cross-genre and generational appeal—coupled with Malignant’s confidently executed vision—makes that character feel instantly timeless.
Norcia sees the draw of Gabriel as something more personal. “He was the unwanted child,” she says. As Malignant’s opening scene makes clear, Gabriel is seen as a cancer—something to be destroyed, to be rid of.
“Sure, his actions might make him a mean, vicious person, but all he really ever wanted was to be loved by his mother. And to be alive!” As Norcia notes, audiences (“especially horror buffs”) tend to root for the underdogs. Of course, it helps when said underdog can pull off parkour moves in a floor-length leather coat.
Gabriel is likely to be a popular Halloween costume for many years to come. “If you dress yourself up as Gabriel for Halloween, you want to make sure your mask is on backwards,” Norcia advises. “And you’ve got wear your coat and everything backwards, sure, but the walk is really crucial—you’ve got to be able to strut like him.”
McTurk adds that you should find a wig with standard bangs, and then slice it up in the back so that it can reveal Gabriel’s face. But, perhaps most importantly: “As James Wan always requested, keep that Gabriel face well-dressed with blood!”