Movies We Like
One of the most remarkable things about the movie Malevolence is how much it authentically captures the vibe and spirit of the early '80s “slasher” films it tries to homage with such reverence. In fact, after I initially saw it in its limited theatrical run back in 2004, I immediately jumped online to confirm that it was in fact a recently made feature film and not a long lost gem from the '80s that was only just then surfacing. Sure enough, upon a bit more research, I discovered that the goal of writer/director Stevan Mena was to emulate the horror films that had had such a profound impact on him growing up. And in that regard, he completely succeeded.
Malevolence opens with the kidnapping of Martin Bristol, a 6-year old boy from Pennsylvania who is forced to watch the evil deeds of his deranged captor, serial killer Graham Sutter. The film then cuts ahead 10 years later where we’re introduced to Julian (Brandon Johnson) and Marylin (Heather Magee) who along with Marylin’s brother Max (Keith Chambers) and Kurt (Richard Glover) are planning a daytime bank robbery. When things don’t go according to plan and the robbery is completely botched, the criminals flee with 2 hostages to their rendezvous point out in the countryside of Pennsylvania, just next to the old Sutter place and meat & poultry slaughterhouse. When they venture out towards the Sutter property, they inadvertently garner the attention of the long dormant killer at the house and uncover the horrors that have been going on there for over a decade. From then on, it’s just a matter of trying to survive the night.
What’s great about the film is not only how it manages to tell a solid straightforward horror story, but how it also crosses genres. The first portion of the film that involves the bank robbery plot unfolds like a heist film that somewhere along the way crashes right into a horror movie. So as a first time director, you’re able to see Mena’s ability to tell a story in two different types of genres within the same film. As far as its horror story goes, this is where die-hard horror fans and purists have strong opinions. Some will argue that Mena is merely “ripping off” films such as the original Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But those that look beyond those similarities can identify that the filmmaker is simply taking the elements that worked so well in those films (i.e. the scares) and putting them all consecutively in one movie filtered through his original story. That’s exactly what a good homage is supposed to do. The movie could easily play as a modernized reinterpretation of Halloween and while the film shares a lot in common with John Carpenter’s flick (right down to the synth score), visually and stylistically, it’s more in line with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And sharing similarities with 2 of the greatest horror films ever made is not a bad thing!
You have to keep in mind what was going on cinematically in horror at the time that Malevolence was released. The Scream series had come and gone & made somewhat a mockery of the '80s “slasher” films by pointing out all of their flaws. The only other genre films playing in theaters around the summer of 2004 were Aliens Vs Predator and The Exorcist: The Beginning and considering how universally panned both those movies were by fans and critics alike, there was very little hope that horror enthusiasts would get the chance to see something unique, original and scary on the big screen again. Malevolence helped steer horror back in the right direction. (At least for this writer.) And note that key word I just dropped. Scary. It’s damn scary! While the first half of the film unfolds at a slow place, as one reviewer wrote at the time of its release, “once the scares start, they don’t stop” and that holds totally true. Mena manages to build up enough suspense that once everything starts to go down, it’s pretty much scare after scare after scare until the very bitter end. The killer sports a white sac over his head for the majority of the film (similarly to Jason Voorhees in Friday The 13th Part 2 or the killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown), but stalks his victims with the precision and creepiness of Michael Myers, making him one of the genre’s scariest new movie maniacs.
Also worth noting is the score that I mentioned briefly before. Much like John Carpenter had done with Halloween, Stevan Mena himself composed the score to his own feature, and while it definitely shares a lot of similar themes to Carpenter’s famous music, it also plays as an amalgamation of Charlie Bernstein’s melodic score for A Nightmare On Elm Street and Wayne Bell’s sound design work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The “theme” for Malevolence that plays over both the opening and closing credits is among one of my favorite pieces of music in a horror movie ever. It’s that powerful and haunting.
Another thing that makes Malevolence stand out amongst the other horror films of the “slasher” sub-genre is the fact that it’s the middle part of an intended trilogy, as Mena reveals in both the DVD’s commentary track and the making-of documentary. He chose to tell the center portion of his 3-part story first because it would make the most logical sense for the low budget he had to work with. It would also make a lot of the film’s story reveals and twists more surprising without the audience having the prior knowledge of what happens before Malevolence’s story begins. And while the prequel does now in fact exist (it’s called Bereavement), I’d still strongly recommend watching them in the order they came out. You’ll be rewarded by the surprises of both films by watching them in the order of their release.
For horror fans that argue “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” here’s one horror film that is exactly made with the love and respect of those classic films you already hold so near and dear.
Fun fact: Stevan Mena’s 2nd film Brutal Massacre: A Comedy is loosely based on his troubled shoot for Malevolence.