It’s a Horror Show!
Octavio Ramos Jr. is a lifelong fan of all things horror. In his teens, he began to write reviews of horror movies. Since college, he has been writing fiction in the horror genre, as well as writing reviews and commentary on every facet of horror for magazines such as Video Vista, The Zone, Horrorshow, and Albuquerque Horror Examiner. Contact him for movie reviews and interviews at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malevolent: Giving the Haunted-House Story a Modern Vibe
By Octavio Ramos Jr.
Given the reviews of 2018’s Malevolent, currently playing on Netflix, it seems that today’s reviewers have limited attention spans. Several early reviews have panned Malevolent, with some actually misinterpreting and even outright missing plot points the movie unravels. Yes, some of the plot points are subtle, but if caught, they add so much to a film that is concurrently atmospheric and violently cruel.
The movie begins with a quartet of ghost hunters investigating a home. The now cliché trappings are on display, with technician Beth (Georgina Bevan) and videographer Elliot (Scott Chambers) handling the ghost-hunting equipment while team leader Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) does the talking while his sister Angela (Florence Pugh) uses her supposed physic abilities to move the dead into the light. Problem is, this quartet of ghost hunters is a scam, one orchestrated by Jackson as his latest money scheme. Jackson uses his shtick to take advantage of those grieving for a lost one.
From the very opening sequence, director Olef de Fleur Johannesson (City State and The Higher Force), along with screenwriters Ben Ketai and Eva Konstantopoulos (adapting her novel Hush), foreshadow events that take place during the film’s main sequence, hinting that Angela may actually have psychic abilities. The movie takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, where the American siblings relocated to escape the grief and pain from their mother’s suicide. The movie takes place in the 1908s, so that the timeline is right with respect to the days of orphanages (before the advent of modern foster homes).
The principal act of the movie has the quartet investigate a typical mansion, one used as an orphanage. The ghost hunters are called to this location by one Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie, in a creepy and understated performance), who only has an aged landscaper for company. Mrs. Green does not want the ghosts in her lavish but decrepit home to move on—she simply asks for a “quiet house.” Jackson immediately jumps into his routine, but Mrs. Green sees through it. Angela quickly begins to see apparitions, but the twist is that these ghosts are not malevolent—it is actually Green and her son Herman who have horrible secrets. When Green discovers that Angela is unraveling these secrets, she must take action. Along with her son Herman, the duo exact horrible violence to the quartet. With the frail barrier between the natural and supernatural fusing as one, Angela and Jackson must give in to their psychic abilities to survive.
Sadly, Jackson uses narcotics to suppress his abilities, and for this he likely perishes at the hands of Herman, but not before suffering what the orphans did so many years ago: He is tied to a chair, where Green breaks his jaw and then sews his mouth shut (“quiet house,” remember?). She then orders Herman to take the poor young man to the shed, where he is murdered off-camera.
Green then attempts to do the same to Angela, but with the help of the ghosts of the dead children (who break free of their sewn mouths and scream like banshees), the psychic gets the upper hand, killing Green. The film’s coda has Angela embracing her abilities, with a hint of a sequel as a shadow appears to her while in hospital.
The film adeptly captures the irony of modern thinking with respect to the supernatural. Although the ghost-hunter trend has declined, there remains a glut of haunted-house documentaries on television today. What is interesting is that spiritualism and even believe in the supernatural continues to wan, with the bulk of people looking to science for answers. The irony then is skepticism spoken aloud while many still watch haunted-house shows for perhaps other answers.
At the beginning of the film, all four ghost hunters do not believe in the supernatural. Jackson wants to make money, Angela wants to support her brother, Beth is Jackson’s girlfriend and likes being with him, and Elliot wants to be a filmmaker. As the movie progresses, both Angela and Jackson must come to terms with their psychic abilities, which they have inherited from a mother who could not cope with the images and voices she heard (see a theme here?), leading her to interment in a psychiatric ward and later committed suicide to find some sort of rest. Jackson simply refuses to acknowledge his ability, preferring to suppress them with pharmaceuticals, even though it is implied that his abilities may be stronger than those of Angela.
It is Angela who finally accepts her abilities, using them to communicate with the children for their aid at the film’s climax. The struggle to believe in the supernatural also creeps to supporting characters. For example, Elliott finally has to admit that he senses the ghosts, and although he cannot see or hear them, he yearns to capture them on film. Then there’s Mrs. Green, who knows that the ghosts of the children still torment her, but these “monsters” (a term she uses) are shades of memories that she wants squashed. If she could murder all the girls again, she would do so.
Another interesting facet of the movie is the many subtle instances of homage on display. There are the obvious, from the haunted mansion and the spirits to the twist about the ghosts not being malevolent to the horrible events of the past leading to horrors of the present. However, it’s the subtle pieces of homage that should interest those who enjoy watching horror movies. There’re little tidbits, such as the name Ms. Green (get it?), the rise of the banshees in children who have no mothers (Latin American banshees, known as lloronas, are mothers), an even the name of son, Herman (remind you of a certain munster?). There’s even a homage to King fiction (in both literature and film) when both Jackson and Angela bleed from their noses when using their psychic abilities. Those who have seen a movie like Firestarter will get the reference, although purists may point out that horror master David Cronenberg first used it in his killer film Scanners. Even the television series Stranger Things has used the psychic nosebleed to good effect. There are more, but I will leave them to the discovery of those who like finding such bits.
Although a solid entry in the haunted-house genre that brings with it modern sensibilities sure to leave viewers impressed, the movie does have some flaws. As is usual with modern horror, the reliance on the jump scare for a quick fright really needs to go. It is particularly infuriating in this movie because so much of it is carefully crafted, slowly building tension through atmosphere only to unleash violence and then return to the supernatural at the movie’s climax. Characterization is really good, with back-stories providing relevant information that adds to the plot, but the acting comes off a little wooden, particularly from the lead (Pugh), although she is good overall.
Another issue is the movie’s genre, as it does go from atmospheric ghost story to a violent, bloody sequence. However, this approach is in keeping with the movie’s principal them, with the reality of human psychological failings acted out in violence (sewing up mouths to make people shut up) to the supernatural coming into play through spirits yearning for someone to help them exact revenge. Once seen in this way, what could be considered a flaw in the movie actually can be seen as an advantage.
A final flaw in the movie is the character of Elliott. The poor videographer takes a beating during the movie, breaking his ankle during a fall, surviving a car crash, and later being slashed at with a saw. Despite all these injuries, Elliott survives the movie. Not since Ash from Evil Dead has someone endured so much punishment only to come out alive in the end.
If you’ve caught Malevolent on screen and found it unsatisfactory, give it another shot with the theme and homage elements in mind. You might find that it is actually a really good horror flick, one that points a finger at the modern human condition while providing some chilling and horrifying moments.