Ah, another day, another mediocre ghost film. Haunting films are all the rage as of late, and why not, with films like The Nun and Annabelle: Creation doing gangbusters at the box office? Look, just because I like high quality Giordano’s Chicago style pizza doesn’t mean I want Dominoes every day. But that’s what the landscape of haunting films has become. An occasional great film with a slew of by the numbers snooze fests. Recently released on Netflix, Malevolent falls into the latter category…
…Directed by Olaf De Fleur and written by Ben Ketai (The Forest) and Eva Konstantopoulos (the film is based off of her novel, Hush), Malevolent follows siblings Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Angela (Florence Pugh), con-artists who pretend to be ghost hunters and take advantage of the bereaved and desperate. But when the swindling pair and their team are hired by Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie) to investigate a haunted mansion, the group uncovers a dark history behind the place and discovers too late that they may have stumbled across a very real and very dangerous case this time.
To be fair to Konstantopoulos and her novel (which I have not read), the set up for Malevolent is perfectly fine and even a bit intriguing. We’ve seen plenty of stories like this before, but what makes it just a touch different is that Angela actually shares a connection with her deceased mother in that they suffer from paranormal visions, which Angela is beginning to experience before taking the job offered by Mrs. Green. It offers a somewhat unique look at a character who is willing to put herself through this trauma for her brother, despite concern over what is actually happening to her. The problem may be the source material, but I’m more speculative that the real issue here is the adapted script, which often feels as if it is missing that extra ectoplasmic goo that you would likely find in the novel.
The first example of that is the characters. While Angela is interesting in her current confusion over what is happening to her, the rest of the cast and their motivations fall flat. What drew these people to conning sad people missing their loved ones? Why does everyone continue to do this for Jackson, even though he’s an asshole and no one acts like they really want to be there? We never really get much of an answer to those questions other than “because money”, but I’d have to imagine there are much easier ways to make some extra cash than pretending to be ghost hunters for the fun of it. Truthfully, the only character that really makes an impression is Mrs. Green. Imrie is excellent in her role, providing an emotionally complicated sense of grief, anger and fear that takes over the screen whenever she is present. If not for Imrie, I shudder to imagine how dull a majority of scenes may have played out in the latter half of Malevolent. And if it weren’t enough that most of the characters are dull and unengaging, they also happen to be your average dumb horror movie mongoloids that don’t understand it’s better to stick together than split up. That Cabin in the Woods scene becomes less funny and more too real every time I think about it. You know the one. Hell, even the villain ultimately makes dumb decisions, leaving passed out characters just laying around, so they can wake up later and potentially ruin some sinister plans. Hardly anyone makes a logical decision in this film, and by the end, you’re ready to pull out your hair at the next ill-conceived mistake.
Aside from the usual clichés of creepy nightmares leading to sweaty scenes of waking up screaming, ghosts disappearing around corners, and so on, there also doesn’t seem to be much of a threat at all during roughly the first two acts. Malevolent is a frighteningly slow film haunted by poor pacing and some inconsistencies in tone, with ghosts that just kind of wander but don’t appear to have any intent to harm. It’s as if De Fleur is attempting to make two different films, one a far too quiet ghost story, and the other a frantic thriller reminiscent of the early 2000s torture craze represented by films like Saw and Hostel, which comes in the third act. It’s completely natural for a film to pick up the pace as time goes on, but in this case, it feels like two halves to different movies. Again, I would be sure that this isn’t nearly as jarring in the novel, but Ketai’s adaptation is missing the pieces to ease the audience into the sudden tonal changes.
It’s unfortunate that Malevolent is so utterly lacking in any real “threat” for such a long period, because De Fleur does have the ability to build eerie moments and create tension when possible. De Fleur delivers an effectively creepy style early on, sprinkling Malevolent with enough unsettling imagery or ideas to at least keep the audience interested. Some of that credit is due to Al Hardiman’s haunting score, as well as the entire sound department for their manipulation of strange sounds that set the mood, such as an odd clicking which occurs as Angela is scrolling through newspaper articles on a computer. As mundane as it sounds, sound effects such as this set the mood for the scary haunt film that we never get.
Malevolent does eventually deliver to some degree, culminating in a twisty, bloody conclusion that is mostly satisfying and is easily the highlight of the film. While the different twists are predictable, they are still effective. Like I said though, the finale in no way represents the first half of the film, which is probably all right, considering that the “ghost hunting” element is hardly played up to any effective degree, and at a certain point, I couldn’t have really cared less about the ghosts anyway. What we get instead is a pulse pounding, grim series of queasy effects and insanity that almost, just almost, makes up for the previous hour, but to say that it does would be a stretch. Despite a surprisingly, er, malevolent conclusion (there’s my joke that’s so bad its barely a joke for the day), Malevolent’s third act is still rife with loads of un-believability, poor decision making, and a few cheesy random acts of Deus ex Machina that are scary only in how lame and preposterous they are.
Like a good chunk of films, Malevolent suffers as much as its characters from an uneventful second act that does little to keep the audience glued to the screen. De Fleur has the talent, and the plot does lead to some unexpected places which are worth watching, but if you must, you may just want to skip the second act altogether.
Malevolent is now available on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka