Netflix's latest creep-fest is a schlocky bore filled with predictable twists and some dodgy performances, though it's mitigated with some genuine visual style.
“Horror isn’t easy” is probably one of the greater understatements in the history of film. Sure, it’s easy to crank out an hour and a half of Blockbuster bottom-shelf worthy gore fests or ghost stories, but to make something genuinely scary and personally rattling, it’s immensely hard. Which is what makes Netflix’s series of horror misfires that much more disappointing – it’s clear they are picking movies that are trying their damndest to scare audiences. But like so many of their previous attempts, the newest Netflix fear-fest Malevolent only adds to their list of horror films that are more forgettable than fear inducing.
American siblings Angela (Florence Pugh) and Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) operate a small ghost-hunting team. Exploiting the grief of those that hire them, they pretend to exercise the spirits haunting various homes. While Angela uses the cash to pay towards her psych degree, Jackson uses his ill-gotten gains to try and pay off a vague mob debt. However, on their most recent ghost hunting scam, Angela speaks to an actual ghost, revealing a gift that her mother possessed as well. Mysterious manor owner Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie) becomes the latest to hire the group, hoping to remove the ghosts of three young girls who had been murdered by her son when her home was an orphanage.
Much like a crumbling orphanage, many of Malevolent’s issues come from the frame itself. Based on the novel Hush by Eva Konstantopoulos (who shares the screenwriting credit), the story is co-adapted by Ben Ketai (writer of horror films The Forest & The Strangers: Prey by Night). The movie has the feel of a book adaptation gone awry, trying to fit too many plot threads into an hour and a half. There’s the triplet ghosts, the murderous son of Mrs. Green, the multiple secrets of Mrs. Green herself – not to mention Angela and Jackson’s mother occasionally showing up to talk to her kids from the beyond. So much is happening, but not a single rule is set forth about this world. It’s unclear what kind of power the ghost girls possess, what causes them to appear, or even how they interact with the world around them. So much of the paranormal just happens because it can, acting as only a plot point rather than an action guided by the rules of the world. The sheer arbitrary nature of Malevolent’s scares kneecaps any horror that could come from the paranormal proceedings.
Then there’s the acting, which can best be described as serviceable. Lloyd-Hughes does a stellar job as the domineering and manipulative big brother, and Scott Chambers’ turn as Elliot is very likable. Even if the character felt constantly on the verge of suddenly venting about the ‘friend zone.’ Celia Imrie does seem to have a very clear idea as to what kind of film she’s in. She has a wonderful balance of upper-class propriety and a ‘70s Hammer Film camp that plays very well. As for Pugh, she unfortunately tends to feel stilted, often when she needs to yell – giving the feeling that the underacting was more about peaking the sound levels than about her own performance choices. Aside from those scenes, she does a very fine job. But the lack of emotion during so many major moments handicaps her performance at crucial points in the mystery.
Dodgy performances aside, Icelandic filmmaker Olaf De Fleur’s stylish direction is a rare highlight. His English (and horror) debut isn’t a standout, but his framing is genuinely beautiful. He has a keen eye for the pacing of horror-based tension, lingering wonderfully on Angela’s burgeoning gift. He seems motivated to slow the pacing of a script with so many moving parts, which is what makes his work particularly refreshing. Malevolent doesn’t seem to showcase the best of De Fleur’s skills, it does hint at a great talent doing the best with what he’s been given.
Malevolent is currently available on Netflix.