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On Netflix: MALEVOLENT (2018)

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MALEVOLENT
(UK - 2018)

Directed by Olaf de Fleur. Written by Ben Ketai and Eva Konstantopoulos. Cast: Florence Pugh, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Celia Imrie, James Cosmo, Scott Chambers, Georgina Bevan, Niall Greig Fulton, Nicola Grier, Stephen McCole, Daisy Mathewson, Charlotte Allen, Shelley Conn, Ian Milne. (Unrated, 88 mins)

A British import acquired by Netflix, MALEVOLENT doesn't break any new ground as far as ghost stories go, but Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur and rising star Florence Pugh (who won significant acclaim with 2017's LADY MACBETH) make sure to hit all the right notes in a first hour that holds your attention and has a few effective jump scares. But then MALEVOLENT shits the bed in a way we haven't seen since DON'T BREATHE broke out the turkey baster, with a shift in style and tone that's so jarring that you might think the last 30 minutes came from a different movie that was just thawed after being frozen in ice since 2007. Co-written by Ben Ketai (THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT), and set in Glasgow (in 1986, for no particular reason), MALEVOLENT focuses on two American siblings--college student Angela Sayers (Pugh) and her older brother Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Holmes)--who run a ghostbusting con act with Jackson's girlfriend Beth (Georgina Bevan) and nerdy tech guy Elliott (Scott Chambers), who can barely conceal his unrequited crush on Angela. With prerecorded sound effects, they pretend Angela has an ability to communicate with ghosts left behind, convincing them to leave the house. It's a scam they learned from their late mother (Nicola Grier), an unstable sort who committed suicide after clawing her eyes out. With their American father out of the picture, the Sayers' only family is their irascible Scottish grandfather (the great James Cosmo), who knows Jackson is a fraud just like his mother. D-bag Jackson's also heavily in debt to ruthless loan shark Craig (Ian Milne) and needs a lucrative supernatural hustle to settle a debt.





He gets his wish when they're contacted by widowed Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie), who was once the headmistress at a foster home for orphaned girls until her maniac son Herman (Niall Greig Fulton) killed six of them after torturing them and sewing their mouths shut. Mrs. Green lives alone on the massive property in the middle of nowhere, and she insists it's haunted by the constant cries of her son's victims. Figuring she's a crazy old woman, Jackson sees some easy money and Angela reluctantly goes along. This immediately proves to be a different gig, as Angela actually sees one of the dead girls walking around, even leading her to a hidden basement room where tattered wallpaper covers up disturbing drawings and messages left by the girls before they were murdered. So far, so good. There's nothing here that's original (J.A. Bayona's THE ORPHANAGE comes to mind more than once), but an excellent performance from Pugh (though she and Lloyd-Holmes do both occasionally let their American accents slip) and de Fleur establishing an ominous, foreboding atmosphere--eerie, droning sounds, hissed whispers of "Angela!" and garbled voices heard on walkie-talkies--give it some unexpected cred. But then there's a twist and someone is revealed to not be what they claim to be, and what was a serious and reasonably compelling supernatural horror film turns into an over-the-top, blood-splattered torture-porn throwback, more or less kicking Pugh's performance to the curb and becoming the trashiest horror film to feature the distinguished BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL co-star Imrie since one of her earliest roles from the beginning of her career in Pete Walker's HOUSE OF WHIPCORD. For about an hour, MALEVOLENT seems well on its way to being not a classic, but a pretty good sleeper scare for the season. But when it abruptly crashes and burns in the last 30 minutes, it's haunted not by the vengeful spirits of the dead orphaned girls but by the long-forgotten ghosts of played-out horror subgenres still sticking around a decade past their sell-by date.


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