Directed by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson
Netflix and chills, apparently. Among other seasonal offerings this month, everyone’s favourite streaming giant brings you the latest from director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson: Malevolent. Based on novel Hush by Eva Konstantopoulos (a more appropriate name, had studio peer Mike Flanagan not got to it first) it’s a lukewarm haunted house thriller. And it sadly does little to challenge their patchy record on movie originals – for which another Flanagan project Gerald’s Game is one of very few exceptions.
The setting’s 1980s Glasgow, where we follow a Yankee brother and sister combo of fake paranormal investigators: front man Jackson (Lloyd-Hughes) and allegedly psychic Angela (Pugh). Typically, they show up at people’s houses, listen to sad stories of their dearly departed, and perform an elaborate exorcism ruse via various toys and sounds. But then what happens when these fake ghost hunters come across the real thing? This is what seems to be happening, during our cold opener, when a demon dummy lurches towards Angela. And then again in the second half, when they go for another job at an eerie old house, where an elderly couple claim to be kept up by generic spooky noises. Is the traumatised “medium” cracking up? Or is there really life after death and things going bump in the night? Maybe she really does possess supernatural powers.
It’s not exactly a novel premise, with variations having been done most memorably in The Last Exorcism, but also in Ouija 2: Origin of Evil. As such, people with an even rudimentary knowledge of recent horrors will know the rough arcs, arguments and plot beats. Still, a tired premise isn’t necessarily the make or break factor, provided the source of tension is right. But Malevolent’s scares are so lightweight that it’s hard to move past it. There’s some suspense, as they investigate the house, though the threat is poorly characterised – with ghost children you’ll have seen better elsewhere. On top of that, a predictable third act twist feels cheap, undermining the good old fashioned ghost story feel for minimal impact. I like a bit of mystery in my supernatural horrors, it’s good to fear the writer, worrying they may kill characters without mercy and mislead you with a classic rug-pull. But while the Scooby Doo reveal plays with an interesting idea, it lacks the sophistication to treat its themes with the gravity they deserve. The lack of depth to character dynamics throughout means that what we get feels generic and rushed, rather than a logical catharsis to what’s come before.
This is unfortunate, as the actual craft of some of the scare scenes is well handled. The sets look great, with the use of light and shadows evokes a respectable paranoia. However, they are too few, without much in the way of payoff as the somewhat eerie kids do things somewhat eerie kids have done before in better films. Part of this is countered by the acting, with Pugh having both the best performance, and the most to work with. She reacts to the scares with enough rawness to make you care more about her character’s fate than you maybe should. Yet she’s not enough to compete with a sluggish pace, a by the numbers threat and utterly unremarkable plotting. What makes it seem worse is it’s been uploaded within a week of the latest Mike Flanagan project, Haunting of Hillhouse, to compete for your attention. Once again, I expect he’ll come first.