Netflix's Haunted House Movie 'Malevolent' Has Two Twists, But Neither Is a Surprise
This article contains spoilers for the Netflix film Malevolent.
There's a nice empathetic quality that sometimes flows through movies about restless spirits. As lore has it, ghosts stick around whenever they have unfinished business: maybe someone murdered them, maybe they forgot about something important while they were still living, maybe they simply don't realize they're dead yet. Netflix's Malevolent, which offers a spin on your classic medium-in-a-haunted-house plot, has a little bit of that same type of ghostly empathy, but fails to do anything all that interesting with it.
In 1980s Glasgow, Scotland (if there was an actual reason for the movie to be set in the '80s, I missed it), four young folks have created a budding con industry for themselves, traveling around to families claiming their houses are being haunted and pretending to drive the spirits away, making sure to collect their paycheck on the way out the door. Angela, played by Florence Pugh, acts as the troupe's "medium," stepping dreamily through shrouded basements and spouting classic ghostbusting lines like, "I've come to see if you would consider leaving this house."
During one of these busts, it turns out that Angela might actually be a bona fide medium after she comes across a spirit in a scary basement filled with mannequins. Soon after, she learns she may have inherited the gift from her mother, who committed suicide five years prior and was believed to be insane because she could hear voices and see things. She becomes reluctant to go on any more fake ghost hunting trips, despite cajoling from her brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), who constantly hypes himself up for his scams by listening to motivational cassette tapes.
At last, he convinces the group to visit the house of a woman named Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie) who complains of constantly hearing children screaming, and says, "I just want a quiet house." Years ago, when the place was an orphanage, a few of the girls were murdered there by Mrs. Green's son Herman, and Angela's mission is to poke around a bit, pretend to talk to some of the girls, and assure Mrs. Green that the children have finally found their rest. Of course, that plan derails almost immediately when it turns out that the spirits of the children really are still there, and lead Angela down into the basement where she learns the shocking truth of their deaths.
The movie builds tension really well, lingering in long moments of silence while the characters creep around inside dimly lit buildings before whipping out some choice scares. But once it's revealed that it was Mrs. Green, with the help of her son, who killed the girls after sewing their mouths shut (She just wants a quiet house, remember!?) everything kind of falls apart, the supernatural scares giving way to screaming and some gross-out violence. There are also plenty of opportunities for frights that the movie just ignores. Any time you bring a camera into a place infested with spirits, you ought to be prepared for some scary ghost stuff to appear and disappear in your photos. Instead, director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson doesn't even consider getting a little creative with what he has.
All of the actors capably handle their roles, though none particularly stand out. Not even Pugh, who was downright chilling in last year's creepy Lady Macbeth, can make it interesting -- she basically spends the whole thing looking vaguely concerned. Here's my thing with this movie: it should have been funny! A troupe of folks masquerading as real ghost hunters is a concept that could have allowed a laugh line or two before the plot really gets rolling. The movie swiftly dives into heavier territory -- parental suicide, mental illness, the ability to see actual restless spirits -- but some levity at the beginning is a great way to make the inevitable turn to horror especially jarring. Just look at something like Cabin in the Woods, a scary movie with a real downer ending that's all the more entertaining because it has a sense of humor about itself. In contrast, Malevolent starts off Serious and only gets Seriouser, missing every opportunity to have a little fun with its own concept.