★★ out of ★★★★★
It’s weird to think that the year 1986 is considered to be a throwback, or alternatively a period piece. But alas, 1986 was 32 years ago and that’s awful close for it’s consideration as an antique.
The year brought Bananarama, the Mir Space Station, and the Chicago Bears and the anemic Super Bowl Shuffle. It wasn’t a particularly scary time, and in fact, the Cold War was on the slide, the economy was on the rebound, and unemployment was holding steady around six percent. So, it’s rather strange that director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson would think to park this film firmly in this rather mundane year.
Malevolent is a 2018 film, that follows a brother-sister huckster duo who prey on hyper-sensitive Scottish people whose lives have been wracked up by paranormal happenings. Why this American duo is taking advantage of poor feeble-minded Scots is answered in a thin plot point having something to do with an addled Scottish Grandfather and their previously Scottish mother. Much like the year 1986, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, doesn’t spend a lot of time perseverating over this puny plot point.
Angela (Florence Pugh) and Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) are using the ol’ paranormal ghost-hunting scam to both pay for Angela’s school and Jackson’s burgeoning drug habit. Both, it turns out, aren’t going so well. As Angela and Jackson set out for one last bit of grift, Angela begins to see ghosts. Real ghosts. These other-worldly apparitions are something shared by her and her departed mother, and her addled Scottish Grandfather discloses this is precisely the thing that drove her poor mother to gouge her eyes out in a fit of reverse Oedipal behavior. Angela vows that she’s done. The grift is too much and she can no longer create false optimism for grieving families.
Of course, real grifters can never give up the life, nor can psychically-tortured Angela. An older woman, Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie), continues to call Angela and Jackson pleading with them to come and help remove the spirits of creepy young girls that were previously slaughtered by a ruthless serial killer, and who now inhabit their mostly abandoned orphanage. Most grifters, psychic or not, would politely decline this generous ghost hunting pitch, but Angela and Jackson are not your average grifters. They pack up their gear and along with their cameraman, Elliot (Scott Chambers), and Jackson’s girlfriend, Beth (Georgina Bevan), they set out of the bucolic countryside and some true blue Scottish haunts.
Mrs. Green initially explains that the wee girls were killed by her son Herman, but that they might have just deserved it. Because, you see, young girls are kind loud, tempestuous, and callow — so, they probably had it coming to them. Jackson unfazed by this bit of storytelling decides nothing is going to stand between him, his next payout, and his next fix. Angela continues to experience spectral sightings in the most mundane and non-frightening way possible. The jump scares continue to roll off her and the ghostly tension doesn’t build as much as it slumps off in an almost demoralized way. The jump scares are definitely there, but untethered to any dramatic tension the scares just slither a way in to the ether.
After several mediocre attempts at ghost hunting, Mrs. Green lets slip that it was her, and her son Herman who killed the young girls and sewed up their puerile mouths. Angela, Jackson, and cameraman Elliot go head-to-head with the orphanage-owning creeps and there’s a pinch of blood and some more mouths being sewn shut. Angela eventually escapes and is reunited in the hospital with Elliot, but not before a dark and phantasmal presence looms over her. Allegedly this final twist offers a profound clue in to Angela’s apparitional ways, but after an hour and half of fair to middling ghost hunting it’s mostly another lost and unrealized opportunity.
That’s the biggest hurdle that Malevolent faces — lost opportunities. Nothing is really done to incorporate or explore the year 1986, Scotland, or Angela’s relationship with her Mother or her Grandfather. Mostly importantly Olaf de Fleur Johannesson never explores how she feels about her paranormal abilities. Only that they make her tired and give her nose-bleeds. There’s lots of choices that could be made in this choose your own adventure yarn, but sadly none of them really get picked.
Malevolent is rated MA and currently available for streaming on Netflix.