Film review | Malvolent

A group of scamming ghost-hunters get their just desserts – and a shot at redemption – after an elderly woman commissions them to silence a group of spectral screaming girls...

Shine a light: Florence Pugh in the Netflix Original horror film Malevolent (16)
Shine a light: Florence Pugh in the Netflix Original horror film Malevolent (16)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a streaming service at Halloween time will need a steady supply of horror cinema to furnish its front-facing options, and Netflix is certainly no exception, being a leader in the field with a firm finger on the pulse of what’s popular (for the most part, anyway). But one could even go a step further, and observe that horror will always have a keen audience waiting in the wings; one that will lap up examples of the genre no matter their inherent quality – just as long as they get their fix.

And while Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur’s first major foray into English language cinema, Malevolent, is certainly cookie-cutter enough to qualify as yet more grist for the mill for an unquestioning hoarde of horror hungry fans (count me as a card-carrying member, incidentally), it’s certainly also an entertaining genre diversion, made-to-fit for and by Netflix.

Bold, stylish type informs us that we’re in 1986 Glasgow, where two siblings – Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Angela (Florence Pugh) – are joined by Jackson’s girlfriend Beth (Georgina Bevan) and lovesick hanger-on Elliot (Scott Chambers) as they roam the city pretending to be paranormal investigators. Their cynical schtick – initiated by Jackson in a bid to get some money to pay off mob debts – is mostly about liberating houses from the supposed presence of the recent family dead. But when they accept a commission from Mrs Green (Celia Imrie) – an elderly woman whose stately mansion was once the playground of a brutal tragedy – the con suddenly becomes a lot more real, just as Angela feared it would...

De Fleur’s film certainly possesses no grand ambitions but, thankfully, neither is it hampered by a kitschy over-reliance on jump scares and other horror-gloss that tends to be evident in the American mainstream. Instead, it feels like an adequate slice of simple-but-effective fare that fits the Netflix model like a glove: make ‘em good but churn them out, and give the genre-loving audience what they want. Good photography and a well-rounded young cast ensure that the experience is immersive enough for the audience to come along for the scares. And while we may not be in the jump-out-of-your-skin territory of something like ‘Rec’, the blend of omnicient camera and found footage is strategically deployed, really rounding out the haunted house feel.

In the end, the conflict whittles down to two women – common enough for horror, and here we’ve got a blend of ghost story that kind of devolves into slasher territory by the third act. That’s when the film gets to flex its muscles just a little bit, because it’s Pugh and Imrie who elevate the experience ever so slightly above the disposable, working with an earnest approach and finding the genuine emotional undercurrents in what would otherwise have been by-the-numbers family gothic. While De Fleur’s film is unlikely to unseat The Haunting of Hill House as the current spectral horror talking point du jour, it offers a lower-budget and servicable-enough take on that particular sub-genre and, in short, a good enough time if you’re into that sort of thing.

The verdict

Hardly original and operating largely on established tropes, Malevolent still offers a good ninety minutes well spent in front of the Netflix-box as the embers of Halloween continue to glow into the autumn months. Making the best out of a restricted setting and boasting performances that punch above the material – Florence Pugh and Celia Imrie both bring their A-game despite working off a largely generic script – De Fleur’s chiller is a workable blend of family drama and spectral horror.