★ / ★★★★
Although “Malevolent” is based on the novel “Hush” by Eva Konstantopoulos, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ben Ketai, it does not feel like one because there is a lack of mythos behind the story being told. Instead, it is more in line with badly conceived and even more poorly executed horror films in which paranormal investigators are paid to investigate dark basements, bedrooms, and other creepy areas with a certain horrific past. Naturally, from time to time we observe the action through a grainy or shaky camera. Its tricks become old quite quickly and it tests the patience.
Its premise is promising because the so-called ghostbusters are simply university students who swindle desperate people, often bereaved, for extra cash. The team (Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan) is led by Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) who is hinted to have drug problems and owing thugs some cash and so he seizes every potential job despite the fact that his sister, Angela (Florence Pugh), simply wishes for them to have a fresh start in Scotland. (The siblings are Americans.) Unbeknownst to Jackson, Angela has recently developed powers that enable her to see the dead. This is a great runway to lift off from—but the screenplay fails to do anything interesting with the usual machinations of horror films.
From 2000 to 2006, there was a television show called “Scariest Places on Earth” in which a documentary crew visited locations across North America and Europe where paranormal phenomena had been reported. Clearly fake in retrospect, it captured my imagination at the time because it bothered to detail the history of each place. Each episode worked to establish a thick atmosphere of mystery and, eventually, terror. We even learn about some of the equipments employed that allowed us to hear ghostly voices or see shadows that human eyes are unable to see. Take any episode from this show and it would be better than this film. At least each one was only about forty-five minutes. On the other hand, this picture is twice the length and significantly less entertaining.
Spanish and Mexican filmmakers have such talent in changing the gears halfway through—or two-thirds of the way through—by introducing convincing twists and turns. While this film attempts to surprise the audience by moving toward slasher territory during the final thirty minutes, it does not work at all. The reason is because the majority of the work is dedicated to silly jump scares as we follow Angela down dark hallways. There is no story—no meat—to bite into that could then lead to a believable pivot that makes sense to the plot. In other words, the change in tone is superficial and unbelievable. It comes across as a gimmick.
“Malevolent” is low on scares and even lower on imagination. The latter, I think, is the key to telling effective ghost stories. The funny thing about horror films is that they don’t need to be scary as long as they are well-told. It must engage us intellectually and emotionally. Doing so allows us to forget how stupid it is to go down a dark basement after hearing raspy whispers. The best of the genre makes us to want to explore that basement in morbid anticipation.