AUGUST 21, 2011
Prior to HMAD, it was very rare that I watched indie horror films (likewise, since HMAD, I see a lot fewer Hollywood films. Time is not an unlimited resource; watching Beneath The Mississippi means missing out on Horrible Bosses or Green Lantern), but I rented Malevolence in 2005 or 2006 after hearing about its numerous tips of the hat to Halloween and early Friday the 13th movies (in that case, I think it’s just the sack mask, which could also be a reference to The Town That Dreaded Sundown). And it was on that DVD’s bonus features that I learned that the film was actually the middle part of a planned trilogy. Thus, I have been excited to see Bereavement for quite a long time now.
Sadly/annoyingly, I had to wait even longer than expected. The film was shot in late 2007, which would usually mean a 2008 release, but it wouldn’t be until 2010 that it had its first screening. Worse, it actually went theatrical in March, but not in LA, so I had to wait even longer. And then the Blu-ray came and was jam-packed with bonus material (plus the movie was just under two hours long), so I had to wait a few more days to watch until I had time to go through it all for the review. Come on, movie, work with me here!
Of course, none of that would matter if it was worth the wait, which it ALMOST is. I enjoyed the film, and give full props to writer/director Stevan Mena for making such a harsh horror film that is, for all intents and purposes, a sequel to an existing property. With a bigger budget and a few name actors, it could have very easily been turned into a more “safe” film, but if anything it makes Malevolence look like the sanitized version. However, it takes a while to get going, and I feel that a big chunk of the movie is sort of anti-climactic because we already know where the story goes after this.
Note – spoilers for both films are unavoidable, since a big part of this film’s success is how it logically ties into its “sequel”, so I would advise not reading until you have at least seen Malevolence (I will avoid Bereavement spoilers as much as possible, for now). I would also suggest seeing Bereavement first, since one of its problems is due to its “prequel-ness”, but if you were watching the story in order it wouldn’t be an issue.
Anyway, in Malevolence we learn that the killer is Martin, a boy who was kidnapped at a young age and seemingly turned into a Jason/Michael-esque masked killer who is impervious to pain. So when Bereavement starts with Martin as he is about to be kidnapped, and then depicts his “training” at the hands of THIS film’s killer, a guy named Sutter, you can quickly sort of guess how it will end up - Martin will take over, leading to the events of Malevolence where he was a stand-alone killer. And it works; unlike a generic sort of “he came from a broken home” excuse, we actually see him shaped into a killer in a way that you don’t often see in a movie. See, his affliction not only keeps him from feeling physical pain, but it also blocks his empathy – he doesn’t understand how anyone else feels when THEY are hurt, either. That, plus the fact that he’s basically raised by a killer, sort of makes him the most unsympathetic, vicious killer of all time.
But it just takes so long to get there. We know Martin eventually turns bad, so the fact that it’s dragged out to around 100 minutes is a bit much for Mena to ask. Especially when it’s repetitive; we see 3-4 young girls get killed by Sutter (with increasing participation from Martin), and these scenes, while fine on their own, feel a bit much in one sitting, especially as they feature a lot of upsetting screaming. See, there are two kinds of screams – the usual sort of “AAAH!” when you see the killer or a dead friend, and then there’s the extended, painful shrieking that occurs when someone is being tied up and/or tortured, which is how this one is. Not since Martyrs have I felt like I should go apologize and/or explain to my neighbors that I was watching a dark and violent film and NOT beating my wife or something, as these scenes didn’t even have music or multiple voices to give away their movie-ness. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – if anything I was impressed (again) that the film was so uncompromising; but they definitely could have cut down on them and gotten the point made, which not only reduce the bloated running time but also keep home viewers from possible angry phone calls from the landlord.
The bloated length does pay off in the other main story thread, however (SPOILERS AHEAD!!!), as we spend a lot of time with the hero family, led by Michael Biehn (playing a normal, nice guy role for a change). Due to an unrelated tragedy, their niece Allison (Alexandra Daddario) has come from Chicago to live with them in their little middle of nowhere town, so there’s the usual stuff about not having anything to do, and of course the only guy in town she takes a liking to is someone Biehn doesn’t care for... typical family drama stuff. But the time we spend with them gets us to know them more than most horror movie characters (even the mother/daughter pair in Malevolence), which makes the tragedy of their arc all the more upsetting and shocking when it occurs.
AGAIN, SPOILERS! REALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME! SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN BOTH FILMS.
And this is another issue where the prequel nature somewhat harms the film. We Malevolence fans know that Martin is alive and still killing folks in that movie, which means that he gets away. We also learn that the Sutter meat plant is still there and loaded with evidence about his crimes dating back years (this movie takes place five years before Malevolence). So, obviously, Biehn or anyone else in his family clearly never told the police about him/the place, which means, uh... they’re not talking, "for some reason". Even if you remove that logic, the last 20 minutes or so revolves around Daddario’s attempts to rescue Martin from Sutter, and this being a direct prequel to the other movie means it has to end with him killing SOMEONE, rendering the outcome of this stuff a foregone conclusion and robbing some of it of its impact. As with Star Wars, knowing how everyone turns out and who is alive when it happens keeps the audience a bit too far ahead of the characters; we know she shouldn’t be trying to save this budding murderer just as we know Amidala won’t be assassinated or trampled by a giant spider until she gives birth to Luke and Leia. To its credit, the Martin character is one of only two that are in both films (the other being a borderline anonymous cop), and it actually has very few “winks” to Malevolence, so this is pretty much the only thing that ties the two together of note. Just a shame it’s something that kills a bit of the suspense.
However, it makes it that much easier to recommend watching them in order, as you won’t be “lost” by watching this one. In fact, I commend Mena for presenting a story that doesn’t seem reverse engineered from the start point of the next chapter the way that Star Wars and other prequels have felt. He clearly had this thing all worked out in his head (at least in general), and never stopped to total nonsense, like showing the younger versions of the characters from Malevolence standing in front of a bank or something stupid like that (i.e. what Lucas did in his movies).
On the flipside, Mena has grown considerably as a director since the other film, something that can fully be appreciated by watching them in release order. The budget wasn’t huge, but it’s a terrific looking film, and I was truly shocked to discover that certain day-lit scenes were shot after sundown, and also at another interior scene that was actually shot inside a partial set in the middle of a snowy field. He blends these elements together flawlessly, and it’s just a plain great looking film to boot, courtesy of (new) DP Marco Cappetta. Rare for a modern low budget horror film, it was actually shot on 35mm film (hurrah!) and this time he went to 2.35 (up from Malevolence’s 1.85), which gives it a bit of that Carpenter/Halloween feel, particularly in the establishing shots of the meat plant and a few scare scenes.
And that’s the other thing - he’s cut down on his Halloween obsession. While his music still sounds a bit familiar (a bit unavoidable, since it IS a sequel after all and should have similar cues), there are almost no obvious references this time around, and believe me I’d spot them. The framing of the scene where Sutter first meets Martin seems like a shoutout to the scene in Halloween where Michael encounters one of Tommy’s bullies, and you can almost hear Brian Andrews shriek “The MYERS HOUSE?!” on some of those slow tracking shots as someone approaches the plant, but otherwise there’s nothing of the sort – neither killer even wears a mask, nor is there much stalking. Even some that might be at least inspired by Halloween (such as when Sutter follows Allison from his truck, not unlike Michael following Tommy) have their own feel/look; stuff you might only realize later on when thinking about it (like I did just now!) instead of instantly saying “Oh, he’s doing Halloween here.”
The performances are also better. I was quite smitten with the female bank robber in the first film, but I am not surprised that she hasn’t been in a movie since, either (and she wasn’t even the weakest in the lot). There’s a few clunky line readings here and there, but otherwise this is a much more solid film on the acting side of things, with Mena getting terrific performances from the two child actors, as well as clearly finding some great screamers for the victims (all with local talent, I believe). And Biehn does some great work, it’s nice to see him playing a normal guy for a change (and not even a cop!). Unfortunately most of John Savage’s role ended up on the cutting room floor; he only appears in two scenes, one of which seems left in just to justify his character being in the film at all. As with the big cameo in Fright Night, I am convinced that if he was just some no-name actor, all of his role would have been excised. A shame, really, but Mena’s explanations are valid.
He talks about it a bit on the commentary, which covers all of the usual bases for an indie production like this: not having time for certain things, calling in favors (convincing a farmer not to harvest his crops so that they could maintain continuity being one highlight), etc. He also surprisingly says little about the ties to Malevolence; at one point we see that red/green door that he was so proud of on that film (as it’s a really clunky reference to Freddy’s sweater) and he doesn’t even point it out. I wish there WAS some sort of “guide” type extra pointing out all of the little references like that, but maybe they are saving it for a 3rd film (which is mentioned briefly, but without as much as a hint as to when it might happen or what it will be about). The track also seems to be edited together from two different sessions, as his voice/recording level changes a few times.
Then there’s a 35 minute making of piece which also plays out in a traditional manner, covering casting and production with a lot of “they were great” sentiment. Savage probably has more screen time here than he does in the feature film, and again, they don’t really talk about Malevolence much (though we do see that the clapper says “Malevolence 2”). Like the film, it probably could have been cut down a bit, especially when they randomly just show the actor playing Sutter goofing off for what seems like three full minutes. Much more interesting is the 7 minute interview with Mena, where he discusses both films a bit more and talks about the story. Then there are about 10 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, not all of the ones that were cut (the film’s first cut ran about three hours, and rough cuts shown to audiences ran over two; even with all of this material put back in we’d still be under 2 hours), but it does have some of Savage’s stuff, so that’s good. Unfortunately most of it deals with a rather silly subplot about Sutter seeing the ghost of one of his victims, something I am glad they cut (Mena also details a little anecdote involving a particular camera problem with these scenes, fun stuff) Nothing that would be missed much, in other words. The trailer, a TV spot, and a still gallery round things out. Overall a decent package; nothing spectacular, but it’s all worth a look if you enjoyed the film.
As for the AV quality, again, the picture is flawless. Detail is vivid throughout, and while the blacks do look a bit crushed at times I think it’s intentional, so it’s not an issue. The sound mix is also above average for a low budget film, though there wasn’t a lot of rear activity beyond some music and ambient sounds. But compared to Malevolence (or yesterday’s movie) it’s a Ben Burtt level THX mix that you should use to show off your system.
So while it had a few missteps and could have used another, more vicious editor, I think Malevolence fans will be pleased, and serial killer fans who are unfamiliar with the story will find it to be an interesting take on the “serial killer origin” tale. Daddario is a great young heroine and ranks as one of the better characters in this sort of role in quite some time, and of course Biehn is always a welcome presence. Now, Mr. Mena, let’s see part 3 sooner than later, yeah? And if you’re reading this, email me about showing Malevolence for a HMAD screening!
What say you?