Writer/director Stevan Mena succeeds in accomplishing the unusual by creating a prequel that surpasses the original.
DIRECTOR: Stevan Mena
CAST: Alexandra Daddario, Micheal Biehn, Brett Rickaby, Nolan Gerard Funk, Spencer List
MPAA RATING: R
MALEVOLENCE was a decent low budget slasher that showed it’s writer/director could probably create a quite good horror film if given the right resources. It suffered from a few problems that did take away from the overall experience though. The cast of inexperienced young actors weren’t quite up to the task of performing to a level that could elevate it beyond it’s budget constraints. The productions quality also suffered. It can generally be taken as a good sign when a film’s biggest problems are related to it’s budget and not it’s ability to create a compelling story and characters though. If a film maker can’t craft a good story and characters the audience feel compelled to watch, no amount of money can change that. A big enough budget can distract from that problem, but it doesn’t solve it.
BEREAVEMENT, the prequel to MALEVOLENCE, solves the budget problems and succeeds in taking the most interesting aspects of the first films story and adding to them successfully. By being able to solve the problems in production value that the original film suffered from, Mena is able to create a much more engrossing world for his characters to inhabit that doesn’t subtract from how well told his story is. That story, and it’s characters, especially the central characters, Martin Bristol (the villain from the first film, played here as a young boy by Spencer List) and Allison Miller (played by Alexandra Daddario) are what separate BEREAVEMENT from the slew of low budget slashers hitting theaters, store shelves and VOD lists every week.
BEREAVEMENT is a story about the creation of the kind of mythic villain that’s central to the slasher genre. Mena’s focus on character, the basics of storytelling and keeping all of it grounded in a plausible reality lay out an example for young film makers on how to do the most with less. If the added budget were what Mena had chosen to focus on, given the tone of this film, it would have been a joyless experience. He’s following in the footsteps of the better entries of the slasher genre though, and creating a story on a more epic scale that is centered around the creation of his villain. He veers away from the tropes of the genre though by making Martin Bristol fully human. He isn’t a character imbued with superhuman abilities through some kind of supernatural occurrence or source that isn’t fully explained. BEREAVEMENT is the story of just exactly what makes Martin Bristol the killing machine he is and it finds a few smart and unusual ways to give an actual explanation to the existence of this character and how he’s capable of what he is. By taking some of what was alluded to in the first film and creating a full story around it, he’s succeeded in creating one of the more interesting villains in recent horror history.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Mena isn’t turning his nose up at the slasher genre either. He hasn’t made a film that’s some kind of post modern critique on what’s wrong with the genre. It’s following directly in the trail of some of the genre’s heavyweights. There are certain aspects of the story that recall some of the better films that made the slasher genre so popular. There are bits of story and pieces of cinematography or dialog that will make anyone familiar with those films smile and nod with the kind of knowing recognition that comes from a shared passion. It all ends up presenting a feeling that Stevan Mena is doing his absolute best to take the things he’s found most interesting and most captivating about the genre and create something completely his own, without the kind of trickery that gets passed off as simply being self aware these days. He obviously loves those films and he wants Martin Bristol to stand alongside Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface, and he’s not attempting to cheat in any way to make that happen. And in the instances when he strays furthest from the tropes of the slasher film, they serve the story and help create a more satisfying experience than any of those characters have been a part of in years.
As a prequel, BEREAVEMENT also succeeds in making the story from the first film stronger. Where the first film was concerned with the discovery of Martin Bristol, and probably it’s strongest aspect was the degree of mystery involved with that discovery, BEREAVEMENT gives explanation to those events and what the audience was shown in the first film. It may not be in a viewers best interests to watch them in reverse order (seeing BEREAVEMENT first) but it definitely makes for a satisfying experience when the two are taken in order, and considered as pieces a bigger story. It’s not just another installment in the franchise with more of the same, by any means.
The films trailer gives away the basics of the plot, so discussing those here shouldn’t be too problematic, and the only way to discuss some of the stronger aspects of the film is to do that. If you’re interested in the film though, and haven’t seen a trailer for it, as always, it’s best to go into it with as little information as possible. You’ve been warned.
The film begins with Martin Bristol being abducted. It serves as more than just the opening of the film and giving us the reason that a young boy is in the company of a complete madman for the rest of the film. It also serves to give the audience a particularly important piece of information related to Martin’s character. There are probably going to be some scoffs and some naysayers about this particular aspect of the character and the story, but it’s definitely an inventive way to allow Martin to become what we were shown in the first film and still keep the entire story grounded in a plausible reality. For the pretentious and skeptical who are already of the opinion that horror and slashers are the lowest form of cinema, it’s bound to be taken as or labeled as simple storytelling trickery or laziness. For those of us who aren’t coming to the film with that kind of preconception, it’s an elegant solution to the kind of problem that has sent other franchises careening off the track toward greatness and plunging into the abyss of stupid absurdity.
From there, the rest of the film story moves back and forth, following Martin and then following Alexandra Daddario’s character, Allison Miller. She’s given a compelling back story that makes her a sympathetic character, and Daddario does a good job in carrying off the role. Michael Biehn plays the uncle she is coming to live with when they’re both introduced, and it’s a good role for him. Biehn has been typecast as the tough guy in the last fifteen years, and that unfortunately misses what the stronger aspects of his performances were in the films that made him a genre veteran. In both THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, he does play the tough guy, action hero kind of character, but in both of those cases, those characters were also given an underlying humanity and sensitivity that made them more human, likable and sympathetic. Here, he’s playing the uncle now charged with taking care of his niece and he does a better job than he has in many of his more recent low budget appearances. It’s just a better character, and given better writing, Biehn is obviously capable of being more than just the steely eyed hero.
The relationship between the two characters also helps to elevate the film as a whole, and is one of the things that is central to making it better than the majority of slasher films and other low budget horror films being cranked out under the assumption that blood alone will equate with box office or home viewing sales. Stevan Mena also does a relatively remarkable thing by being able to make some of the nuanced and subtle implications of a relationship like the one shared by Daddario and Biehn’s characters apparent in the middle of what is otherwise a pretty hard core horror film. The difference in the quality of performance between the first film and this one makes the difference between professional actors and inexperienced amateurs crystal clear. The cast of MALEVOLENCE may have some raw talent, but it has yet to be shaped into a real tool. The cast of BEREAVEMENT may not be winning any Academy Awards any time soon, but it’s clear that they are professionals who take their works seriously and have have put in the work to develop what talent they have into actual tools of the trade.
All this talk of character and story isn’t to say that BEAREAVEMENT doesn’t have it’s fair share of blood and brutality either, because it does. It’s to Mena’s credit that this isn’t done as mere exploitation or the kind of sadistic voyeurism that drives too much modern horror. Even in it’s blood and brutality, BEREAVEMENT is focused on moving the story forward and making sure that each scene adds depth to at least one of it’s characters, whether it’s Martin Bristol, Graham Sutter, the madman who has abducted him or Allison Miller. Where other franchises became festivals of blood and boobs, interested in not too much more that giving the audience some kind of creative kills to show off their special effects (and on a personal note, awe of the creativity of practical effects was one of the first things to stoke my love of horror), Mena is using each moment to help create Martin Bristol’s character and succeeds in making him the kind of tragic villain that taps into some of the great underlying themes that makes horror great as a part of the cinematic art form. The blood and brutality are an added aspect of telling the story, not the main attraction.
BEREAVEMENT ends up being a satisfying film, both on it’s own and in the context of the larger story Mena is telling about Martin Bristol. There’s enough gore to satisfy the gore hounds, but it also gives more than enough attention to story, plot and character that more traditional movie fans are going to be looking for. It may be slightly too dark and bleak for many audiences, but that takes nothing away from how well made it is in a general sense. For a film of it’s budget and size (it may have a bigger budget than MALEVOLENCE, but it’s still a small film in comparison to most studio films), it also has some great cinematography and some memorably striking visual moments that may help to propel it to a larger cult audience over time. Mena’s dedication to telling a good story and his eye for detail have become even more pronounced as he’s been given the tools to put more of those traits on the screen. BEREAVEMENT delivers.
It’s worth mentioning that there has also been a recent announcement of another film to continue the story of Martin Bristol. It’s going to be interesting to see where Stevan Mena goes with the next film, whether he can expand on the story as well as he has here and if so, how. Count me in as being enthusiastically excited for more news on the third film. I’m hoping that the third film is good enough to bring the entire series more attention from the horror community because the Martin Bristol story has all the makings of one of the great slasher icons.
You can currently see BEREAVEMENT on DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Watch Instantly.
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