"Malevolent” simply isn’t scary.
Netflix’s latest horror film, set in 1980s Scotland, turns the tables on a group of scam artists performing staged paranormal investigations. While it has an interesting premise, problems surface far beyond the plot.
Two American siblings with a shady past, family history of psychic abilities and long-term stays in mental hospitals under their belts perform phony crossing-overs for obscene amounts of money. A woman, Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie), who used to teach out of her home, which used to be an orphanage, calls the team to her countryside estate to get rid of the voices she hears from the ghosts of girls her son allegedly murdered in the home years before.
Angela (Florence Pugh), Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Beth (Georgina Bevan) and Elliot (Scott Chambers) are the ghost-hunting scammers who are more or less paired up as love interests. Angela is paired with Elliot, the cameraman who she has feelings toward. Jackson is Angela’s deadbeat brother with organized crime debts, and he is dating Beth, who has almost no background. These characters are a bit cut and dry, encountering predictable challenges throughout the film that leave little room for growth such as Angela’s struggle with her abilities as they begin to manifest throughout the film. The romantic pairings and family problems, though mildly interesting, are dull and predictable.
The writers were unusually specific with the year in which the film takes place, 1986. Even after Googling that date, other than Scotland going to the FIFA World Cup, nothing major occurred. They could have chosen to set this story in almost any other time period and it would not have changed the effect, inviting the question as to why the writers chose to emphasize it.
The film uses the “rule of thirds” amazingly well. Almost every shot is perfectly set inside the framework, used by photographers where the subject of each shot sits inside two thirds of the frame. Even the shots that revolve around creepy silence are impeccably framed. Long periods of silence, coupled with atypical darkness, make one or two of the scares slightly unpredictable.
“Malevolent” as a whole is ambitious. On one hand, it has what many horror movies do not — elements of a well-written movie typically absent from generic horror, like human emotion, struggles against something not chasing teenagers through the woods and a developed life outside the revving of a distant chainsaw.
In some ways, the film also does too much. The complicated plot is riddled with little production details in an attempt to distract the viewer before scaring them in the next shot.
Despite the vague plot, cliche characters and mild scares, one aspect of the film sticks around in the viewer’s mind: the ending. When Angela realizes that she has psychic powers, she leaves the Scottish house of horrors bloodied and changed. She encounters a certain ghost while leaving the property that cements her understanding of her powers, and the scene is more chilling than the rest of the movie combined.
For a goofy, easy respite from the horror movie marathons happening all month long, “Malevolent” can fill the space between two terrifying tales — or between the sewn-shut lips of the ghosts that haunt Ms. Greene’s house — whatever you’re into.