THE (UN)REAL GHOSTBUSTERS

Malevolent (15)

Director: Olaf de Fleur Johannesson

Screenplay: Ben Ketai, Eva Konstantopoulos

Starring: Florence PughBen Lloyd-HughesScott Chambers

Review: David Stephens

This is not to be confused with the (bafflingly) successful live-action Disney movie “Maleficent”. Nor should it be mistaken for the upcoming “animated horror movie” with William Shatner and Bill Moseley that owns the same name, or the identically-titled 2002 cop thriller with Lou Diamond Phillips. Not to mention the grim 2003 slasher “Malevolence”, or indeed next year’s underground-fighting directorial offering from Dolph Lundgren (also called “Malevolence”). Jeez, who said originality was dead? This is a spookier outing which is based on the novella “Hush” by E.M. Blomqvist, having been adapted by Ben Ketai (“The Forest, “The Strangers: Prey at Night”). A film made and produced in Scotland, it features a strong cast that includes Florence Pugh (from “The Falling” and the award-winning “Lady Macbeth”) and recognised U.K. National Treasure Celia Imrie (“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” and obviously much more). It’s been directed by Icelandic filmmaker Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, who is best known for the intense Nordic cop film “Borgríki” (“City State”) and its sequel. Now another Netflix Original film, “Malevolent” is being premiered on the U.K. and U.S. regions from 5th October onwards, and is a prime candidate for an early Halloween evening’s entertainment. So YGROY gets its ghost on and determines whether the movie is a bust or not… 


Set in Glasgow in 1986, it follows the shenanigans of Angela (Pugh) and her brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes from the “Divergent” movies). After their mother’s death in America, the siblings moved back to their home country of Scotland for a fresh start as University students. Jackson is something of a bad-egg though, and plays on his mother’s alleged psychic abilities, falsely convincing people that Angela has inherited her gifts as a medium and can “clear” haunted houses… for a substantial fee of course. After one such scam, the reluctant sister starts to see and hear some strange things, and suspects that she may have genuine paranormal powers after all. This is put to the test when they receive a strange phone call from Mrs Green (Imrie), the owner of a now-defunct remote orphanage. Apparently tormented by the undead screams of murdered girls (the victims of her psychotic son), she begs them for help. Smelling a wodge of cash and a way to beat his debts, Jackson convinces Angela to play-act through another false ghost-hunt, but (obviously) things don’t turn out the way he planned… 


Is there ANY disused orphanage in the film world that doesn’t turn out to be haunted or the site of gruesome murders?! That snarky observation aside, “Malevolent” turns out to be a slightly mixed bag. The low-key start doesn’t exactly convince and feels underwhelming. Apparently Angela and Jackson’s attempts at supernatural subterfuge simply means that she wanders around an afflicted house pretending to hear something and saying “she’s gone now”, whilst an accomplice plays a burst of fake audio on a tape. It is the 80s, but still… It’s hardly likely to make the papers or have people gasping for their services as depicted. This then leads into depressingly familiar territory full of the usual tropes you would expect in a film like this; allies causing false shocks (“Why are you creeping up on me?” “Because I’m a creep”… you said it pal), scampering little girl spectres, protagonists hearing spooky whispers, etc, etc. Angela’s nose even bleeds when she has an “episode”, which must have been copyrighted by Eleven in “Stranger Things” by now surely. The whole thing feels like it wants to be a low-budget Scottish version of “The Conjuring” or “Insidious”, but doesn’t come close. However, an unexpectedly lively third act greatly changes things…


Without succumbing to the curse of all-things spoiler, the final 33.3% of the film wholeheartedly embraces the dark-side of the story and doesn’t stint on some nasty details (not to mention the red-stuff). Up until this point, things have felt a little staid and uneventful, despite some strong performances and one or two decent emotional scenes. It certainly isn’t scary. Some later plot developments change all that, and whilst they are admittedly predictable to a certain extent, they move away from the somewhat morose and reactive tone that has been prevalent up until that moment. As a result, it leads into some nasty sequences that might be more commonly found in a “stronger” horror film. More importantly it also enables at least one of the cast to go-for-broke and have some real “fun” with their character. It also allows for some surprisingly effective final scenes, which are poignant and understated. Those are the moments that you’ll inevitably recall from the film, and not the earlier parts which are sadly a little forgettable. 


To its credit, the leads do give some strong turns as their characters. Pugh is destined for many high-profile roles in the future, and does a very solid job here, especially in the later stages. Lloyd-Hughes makes for an eminently punchable sibling, but doesn’t allow himself to descend into a one-note “villain” role. And Imrie couldn’t give a bad or insincere performance if her life depended on it. There are some nice little incidental details which help as well. Jackson constantly listens to self-confidence-boosting audio tapes, despite his apparent cockiness. There’s also some imaginative use for 1950s novelty records, with “Beep Beep” from “The Playmates” becoming incredibly sinister within context. If you’ve heard it before, you won’t be able to hear it again in the same light. Some detrimental aspects need to be considered though; over-dubbing is obvious, the decision to keep the characters as American seems strange given the location and with Pugh and Lloyd-Hughes being thoroughly English IRL (an eye on the International market perhaps?), the growly soundtrack grumbles away menacingly when absolutely nothing scary is happening onscreen, and the fright ratio is initially pretty low (with the paranormal content often negligible and disappointing).


But it’s the later pitch-black elements and the strong central performances that manage to garner “Malevolent” a respectable rating. It’s no Scottish genre classic, and pales beside the like of other disturbing Brit films like “A Dark Song”. But the slower and overly-familiar early parts of the movie do lead into a territory that is much more disturbing and effective than you might think, and contains moments that definitely stick on the metaphorical dartboard of low-budget horror. If you stream the movie without expecting a British “Blair Witch” or a “Conjuring” wannabee, and you’re prepared to stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded by the end. Not “Meh”-levolent after all…

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“Malevolent” is well-intentioned, but actually feels a little dull and derivative for part of the film, with plenty of the usual paranormal tropes and jump-scares. However, it is much improved by some strong performances and a third act that embraces an exceedingly dark turn. Not a Scotch “Conjuring”, but a sicker “6th Sense”.
Worth sticking with…  
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