Written and Directed by: Stevan Mena
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Michael Biehn, and Brett Rickaby
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďIf they can't know fear, then why do they run?Ē
2004ís Malevolence was one of my favorite horror offerings from the past decade, mostly because it was a lean, straight-laced throwback to slashers before that genre got a little bit too silly. When writer/director Stevan Mena announced that it was but the first chapter of a trilogy, I looked forward to seeing what kind of story he would tell across three films (say what you want, but itís nice when a filmmaker has ambitions to craft an actual story out of this type of material). As it turns out Malevolence is actually the middle chapter, as the first follow-up, Bereavement, is a prequel that aims to illuminate the backstory of the killer from the original. Announced years ago with Michael Biehn in the starring role, Mena struggled for years to finally get it shot and released; in the intermittent years, he actually made another film, Brutal Massacre, a pseudo-spoof on the process of getting a horror movie made in Hollywood (which has to be a thinly-veiled allegory for Menaís own frustrations). Itís taken over seven years, but Mena has finally unleashed the long-awaited film, and the final product is a worthy, interesting successor (or precursor?) to Malevolence.
The film begins by recounting the abduction of six year old Martin Bristol from his backyard in 1989; taken in by local madman Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby), heís forced to witness a series brutal slayings in an abandoned slaughterhouse. Five years later, 17 year old Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario) moves to Minersville after the death of her parents and takes residence with her uncle (Biehn) right down the road from the psychopathís abode. In the five years hence, heís piled up more bodies and further traumatized young Martin. Paths begin to cross with tragic results when Allison begins to suspect that something is amiss at the creepy old slaughterhouse.
Right up front, Iíll just say that Bereavement has been worth the wait, if only because itís a compelling addition that refuses to retread ground. While Mena employs many of the same techniques (atmospheric lighting, moody establishing shots, unsettling music/stingers, unrelenting gore) from Malevolence, this really feels like something altogether different. If the first film was a traditional masked psycho slasher where the characters were incidental to the situation, then Bereavement is a bit more of a meditative character study. Instead of casually introducing the main characters and tossing them into grinder, it takes some time to develop them.
Itís typical stuff--Allison is your usual distant, withdrawn new girl in town; I think Daddario does a good job of brooding without moping. She ends up meeting a local boy (Nolan Gerard Funk) who is also suffering from the loss of his mother (which I guess is where the title comes into play) and is charged with taking care of his paralyzed father (the underappreciated John Savage). Biehn is expectedly fine in the role of the somewhat overprotective uncle; truthfully, I would like to have seen him do a bit more, but this is mostly Allisonís story, which is interesting enough. The theme of loss is handled sort of at armís reach; like Allison, the film doesnít exactly brood either as it quickly bounces back and forth between her and Martin.
I have a few more reservations with how the latter is handled; basically, the two halves of the story are completely separate for about an hour, and the stuff involving Martin and Graham Sutter is a little bit repetitive. Itís here that Bereavement is a pure horror film, as it takes characters who are barely introduced (one is a waiter at a local diner) and subjects them to a various number of tortures (whereas Malevolence was informed by 70s slashers, this stuff feels very much modern). Meanwhile, Martin looks on as Graham dribbles out some psychobabble and worships at the altar of that cow skull (an aspect from Malevolence). You can see Mena sprawling out a lot of threads here--father issues, loss, grief, pain, and the cycle of abuse--but none of them really get wound tightly enough. Developing Martinís arc is a difficult task--heís completely mute and actually suffers from a disease that makes him unable to detect pain, which of course is an on-the-nose representation of what Graham is doing to him emotionally as well. As a result, his story seems to amount to watching a lot of people scream hysterically as he watches with grim detachment.
As this is a prequel, you know this stuff is righteously messing with Martinís head and pushing him to a breaking point. However, despite knowing this, Bereavement is quite good when the two stories entangle during the climax. If something can remain gripping and suspenseful even when its outcome isnít in question, itís done something right. The last half hour or so gets back to what made the original work so well, as itís an intense, violent bit of stalk and slash. Mena is uncompromising here, as all bets are off early and often in terms of the body count. As a payoff for the hour of build up, the climax washes away some of those undercooked thematic elements in a torrent of grim bloodshed.
Mena is once again a jack of all trades, as he not only writes and directs, but also serves as the filmís editor and composer. Many of the themes sounded familiar--one thing that always grabbed me about Malevolence was how it mixed up cues from the big guns (Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street), and thereís still some of that here with some new material. Altogether, Bereavement is certainly an improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way, particularly in the acting department (the originalís biggest weakness by far). Above all, Mena seems to get horror as a striking visual medium, as he captures a lot of foreboding shots, particularly in the landscapes. Thereís an eerie sort of Midwest/autumnal vibe that I really love about both this and Malevolence--something about it just signals Halloween, which automatically carries a lot of atmospheric currency. It's also cool to revisit the same sets and locations from the original film--I'm not sure if they're exactly the same, but there's definitely a sense of familiarity.
Iím not sure if Mena is still planning on finishing off this series with a third film, but Iíll definitely be there if he does. Despite his limited output so far, the guy is someone Iíll always keep my eye since he can back up his obvious love for the genre with actual talent. Anchor Bay is finally responsible for bringing Bereavement home, and their DVD is a fine release, featuring a stellar anamorphic transfer and an aggressive 5.1 track thatíll rattle your walls. The bundle of special features includes deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a making-of feature, an on-set documentary, the filmís screenplay, a still montage, and a commentary with Mena. Itís been a long journey on the road to Bereavement, but itís been a worthwhile one--letís just hope we donít have to wait very long for the next one. Buy it!
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