Strong leading lady, intriguing house make ‘Malevolent’ a decent horror diversion (Movie review)

T

he new Netflix horror movie “Malevolent” is arguably cashing in on the fact that viewers love haunted house yarns (see also the Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House”), but it undercuts that right off the bat. Four young – and shady – entrepreneurs in 1986 are themselves cashing in by pretending to be ghost hunters. While 100 percent of viewers will correctly guess that the faux-ghost hunters will encounter real spirits in “Malevolent,” the movie has enough worthwhile elements on top of that to be a decent diversion.

As director Olaf de Fleur’s British indie-flavor film opens, the group is pretending to clear a spirit from the house of a grieving widower. They’re decked out with cameras, TV screens, audio recorders and other ephemera. Most of the equipment is a distraction; the trick is as simple as playing a pre-tape-recorded “voice” of the ghost, fooling the client into thinking it’s his late wife.

Pugh has that horror-film leading-lady special something that makes us root for her.

We latch on to Angela (Florence Pugh), because she’s the most uncomfortable with this scam, guilted into doing it by her brother, Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). Also, Pugh has that horror-film leading-lady special something that makes us root for her. Elliot (Scott Chambers) is also sympathetic, as he has an innocent crush on Angela and sees this job as a chance to get some videography experience. Jackson’s girlfriend Beth (Georgina Bevin), who is skilled at doing those ghost voices, rounds out the quartet.

After an excellent jump scare and some exposition, we get to the centerpiece of “Malevolent”: a huge old house in the countryside owned by Mrs. Green (Celia Imrie, one of the Naboo pilots in “Star Wars: Episode I”). It was once a boarding school, where Green’s disturbed son murdered a bunch of young girls. Those girls are now haunting the place with screams and giggles, and as much as Green loved those students, she would like a return to peace and quiet.

At one point, a character falls through the floorboards into a secret room where the only way they can get him out is to lower a ladder. De Fleur establishes the house well enough that it makes an impression, but he also likes character close-ups, and that slightly hampers a viewer’s ability to soak it all in.

Screenwriters Ben Ketai and Eva Konstantopoulos do something smart: By making us think we’ve figured out the twist – that the group of scammers will encounter real ghosts – they’ve created a canvas to add more twists. “Malevolent” has a slow-burn start and lags in the middle, but then pulls out a bravura final act to reward patient viewers.

Those twists and the architecture are honestly overshadowed by Pugh, who went on to land the title role in AMC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” which starts Nov. 19. While Jackson and Elliot are the showier roles, we get to know Pugh’s Angela through her face more so than words. Angela can see ghosts – a gift/curse perhaps passed down by her mother — which makes her even more uncomfortable with the scam. I admit I was thinking “Well, now it’s not a scam anymore. It’s a legit business!” But she has no idea how to shepherd ghosts to the next plane of existence.

“Malevolent” features a few jump scares and a handful of moments of serious violence, but ultimately succeeds as a mood and character piece that’s fun to watch in the dark.