Director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson’s Malevolent is the first offering in what Netflix is referring to as its month of “Netflix & Chills.” October is one of the few months on the calendar that routinely gets its own theme, so strong is the siren call of Halloween and all the horror and spookiness it represents. Don’t even come at me with December the “holiday season.” Snow and general goodwill do not a holiday month make.
The desire to be scared is so strong that entertainment corporations are increasingly developing their whole October content calendar around it. Thank goodness they are, because while fear is something that the dopamine receptors in our brain craver, it is so, so, so, so hard for anything to satisfactorily fill that need.
Horror is hard. Creating a truly great horror movie is nigh impossible. It’s so hard to sustain a sense of horror and fear for 90-plus minutes, especially when trying to follow all of the other traditional hallmarks of good storytelling. Then there’s the aspect that horror can somehow be both objective and subjective simultaneously. Our brains all have universal concepts that terrify us but should a movie lean on those too hard, it becomes exhausting and hokey. Should it not lean on them enough and become too subjective, a movie simply won’t work for most audiences. There’s a reason we tend to view the great films in the horror canon as miracles…because they absolutely are.
Suffice it to say, I find myself silently rooting for every horror movie I watch because I respect just how high the degree of difficulty is. In recent memory I can’t recall myself rooting harder than I did with Malevolent. Malevolent gets out of the gate preposterously strong, rides the wave of its own creativity for as long as it possibly can, and then finally falls over at the end, exhausted and spent. It’s an admirable, at times truly scary effort…but an effort is really all that it can offer.
Malevolent comes from writers Ben Kati and Eva Konstantopoulos, and is based on Konstantopoulos’ novel called Hush. “Hush” would have indeed been the perfect name for the film (at no point is the world “malevolent” spoken onscreen nor is it clear why the movie received this title) but alas, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix horror classic already nabbed it.
Malevolentfollows a crew of four young people in 1986 Glasgow, who act as “ghost hunters” for local haunted houses. Concerned parties call Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) to come investigate bumps in the night and he brings his team consisting his medium sister, Angela (Florence Pugh), cameraman, Elliot (Scott Chambers), and his girlfriend/technician, Beth (Georgina Bevan). Together Jackson, Angela, Elliot, and Beth help drive out spirits from haunted homes and bring peace to those homes’ inhabitants. Problem is: it’s all a scam.
Angela doesn’t have any supernatural powers and the rest of the gang is just looking to make a quick buck (Jackson in particular, who may owe some dangerous people money). Through a series of camera tricks, pre-recorded audio, and walkie-talkie shenanigans, the crew stages their successful cleansings and make a killing off the most desperate and vulnerable of the British Isles in the process.
It’s a nifty, relatively drama-free way to make a living but Angela is becoming fed up with the ruse. She wants to break away from the con, focus on her studies as a psychologist, and tend to the wounds left by her mother’s suicide. In true Murtaugh-esque fashion, however, Angela agrees to “one last job” at an ancient foster home where more than a dozen little girls were brutally murdered. Things do not go well there.
For little over half of its running time, Malevolent is in complete control of itself and the viewer. It begins with something that far more horror movies should utilize: a cold open! Malevolent’s first ten or so minutes are pitch perfect. The movie introduces its characters’ status quo in an interesting enough fashion and then pulls the rug out of it with a perfect jump scare.
So many of the decisions that Malevolent makes from the get-go are intelligent. Jackson, Angela, Elliot, and Beth represent the ideal number of central characters and all represent different archetypes able bounce off one another in intriguing ways. Pugh as Angela, the film’s lead, is superb. The lead (particularly female lead) in a horror movie typically requires more reactive acting than anything else and Pugh’s wide-eyed, curious, sometimes terrified responses are on point.
The movie also decides to eliminate the “what about cellphone?!?!” problem entirely simply by setting the movie in 1986. Is there a compelling dramatic reason for this movie to be set in 1986 Glasgow? Not particularly but it’s an inspired choice all the same. It keeps the phones out of characters’ hands and creates a particular, satisfying aesthetic of high waisted overalls, tiny gas-guzzling cars, and self help cassette tapes.
That aesthetic neither accentuates nor gets in the way of the horror, but it’s simply nice to have. As for the horror itself, Malevolent is an admirably scary movie for much of its equally admirably short running time. It benefits from earning the audience’s trust with early, legitimate scares and is able to keep the tension high once Angela and company arrive at the foster home and meet the caretaker, Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie).
Malevolent does so much ground-level stuff well that it’s particularly disappointing when it begins to run out of steam. It tries…it really does try – so much so that you can feel the effort. The movie’s scenes are lovingly crafted and its world is believable. The story just begins to fall in on itself in the third act. Some twists are too easily guessed (No spoilers but: when there are only like seven or eight total characters in a film with a twist, that’ll happen to ya’). Even more unfortunately, the movie loses grasp of its own themes by the end. Malevolent concludes on what should be strong emotional footing, but because it forgot to establish certain relationships and concepts throughout, that ending feels empty.
Regardless of its faults, Malevolent is ultimately a solid starter to Netflix’s month of horror. It can’t quite keep itself in order but it is at times truly scary. For the night horror fan, that is more than enough.