MALEVOLENCE **** USA 2004 Dir: Stevan Mena. 85 mins
Writer / producer / director / composer Stevan Mena’s feature debut is a lean, scary back-to-basics slasher film that ditches the self-conscious jokes and ironic dialogue of the SCREAM cycle while returning to the suspense-driven set pieces (and evocative electronic music) of the original slasher era. After a text-based, documentary-style title card familiar from the 70’s horror films it frequently apes, MALEVOLENCE opens in 1989 as an abducted boy watches a screaming girl repeatedly knifed – the kind of past-trauma prologue familiar from post-HALLOWEEN horrors. Mena enjoys some PSYCHO style misdirection, the story taking the form of a crime / hostage melodrama as a trio of fright-masked felons (Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover) stage a doomed bank robbery, take hostages (Samantha Dark and her moody pre-teen daughter) and set down at a remote, abandoned slaughterhouse in the fashion of TEXAS CHAINSAW. The kid glimpsed in the prologue has grown up to be a relentless psychopath who dons the disguise of the first criminal he kills and stalks the others.
Although the killer’s choice of headwear echoes the Jason Voorhees of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (itself a costuming choice borrowed from THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN), Mena is more closely influenced by HALLOWEEN, from the Carpenter-esque score and musical stings to the relatively bloodless stabbings, shots of the white-masked killer looming out of the shadows and extended chase sequences that incorporate direct visual quotes from the 1978 film. As a feature length homage it works well and, as a calling card for Mena as a filmmaker, it packs in bags of atmosphere and tension, some bonafide scares and even a DePalma-infused coda with an impressive pay-off despite its reliance on a well-used device.
BEREAVEMENT (a.k.a. Malevolence 2: Bereavement) *** USA 2010 Dir: Stevan Mena. 107 mins
An unrelentingly grim prequel to MALEVOLENCE that provides us with a backstory for the earlier film’s young psychopath, Martin Bristol, while succeeding as a stand-alone feature. At ten years old, Martin (Spencer List) is abducted from his back garden in Pennsylvania by sadistic weirdo Brett Rickaby, who abducts and tortures girls at his family’s old meat-packing plant, its earlier closure resulting in their economic ruin a la TEXAS CHAIN SAW. Martin is forced to witness the brutality meted out on various females though a rare medical condition means he doesn’t feel pain of any kind, despite Rickaby’s best efforts. Five years later, their paths are destined to cross with those of buxom teenager Alexandra Daddario, who moves in nearby with her uncle (Michael Biehn, a strong presence as ever) and his family, following the tragic deaths of her parents.
BEREAVEMENT follows an early 21st American horror trend for prequel stories while offering various scenes of screaming, bound women that were de rigeuer for the post-HOSTEL, post-Guantanamo Bay U.S. horror cycle. It is reliant on cliché and contrivance: the backstory is old-hat and pretty girls foolishly wander into the path of danger to keep the plot going. More jarring is Rickaby’s ability to drive around in a dirty old van with the legend “Sutter Meats” while clobbering women in broad daylight, without raising any suspicion. Nonetheless, Mena (who also composed the melancholic / intense score) is a clearly evolving filmmaker, crafting atmospheric widescreen compositions and boldly capturing a disturbing tale of a child terrorised and inducted into violence. Numb to the brutality and expressionless, young List figures in distressing scenes of Martin physically abused by his captor / mentor and showered in blood as Rickaby eviscerates victims right next to him. The relatively leisurely first hour spends time developing the central characters and making Daddario (later the star of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D) a sympathetic character before a genuinely harrowing finale that ranks among the slasher genre’s bleakest denouements. After avoiding in-your-face graphic violence for much of the picture, Mena unleashes a nihilistic conclusion echoing the child-centered violence of notorious 80’s flicks like NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN.
MALEVOLENCE 3: KILLER ** USA 2018 Dir: Stevan Mena. 89 mins
Stevan Mena is a smarter filmmaker than his unwarranted return to his MALEVOLENCE franchise would suggest: in between the tense MALEVOLENT and disturbing BEREAVEMENT, he made one of the wittiest satirical horror films of the decade, BRUTAL MASSACRE (2007). The generically titled KILLER has little to offer other than further visual nods to HALLOWEEN, lethargically revived old slasher tropes and a poignant but sadly under-used Adrienne Barbeau as the killer’s grandmother. The third chapter in the saga follows the grown-up protégé of the original MALEVOLENT, whose psychopathic evolution was documented by BEREAVEMENT. It opens in the middle of a standard slasher flick stalk / chase before the adult Martin lurks in Carpenter-inspired daylit suburbia while the camera follows a trio of soon to be imperilled young women. Heroine Katie Gibson is a violinist at a performing arts school, which allows for an amusing cut between the raised knife of a kill scene and a music rehearsal – and a dull FBI agent fills in the narrative blanks while on the trail of a killer who, as a child, went missing ten years earlier.
This time around, Mena too frequently falls back on loud false-jump scares: the kind where someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend will jump out of nowhere with a “I didn’t mean to scare you!” face. Voyeuristic, closet-dwelling p.o.v. shots of pretty girls undressing (while the sluttiest girl goes topless for a sex scene) reflect Mena’s love of vintage slashers but feel dated in a way the two earlier films didn’t. The kills are short, sharp, old-school slasher murders and, echoing BEREAVEMENT, the filmmaker pulls a lengthy DePalma-esque only-a-nightmare fake ending. In the absence of its predecessors’ genuine tension, the movie gets increasingly weary as Martin, following the tradition of too many 80’s slashers to count, endlessly bounces back from what appears to be certain death. Mena wrote, produced, directed, and shot the film, while casting his own daughter Victoria (as a character named Victoria), who is tied up, gagged and threatened with a knife. Good to see him working out his issues.
Reviews by Steven West