When Stevan Mena discusses MALEVOLENCE, he mentions how SCREAM made light of all the conventions of slasher films, and his debut film is a response to that. Instead of lampooning the clichés, Mena intended to embrace them, because those were the elements that made the horror films of his youth so great. This is the double edged sword that is MALEVOLENCE’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw.
The film starts with a textual fact about kidnapping, then a description of how Martin Bristol was stolen at six years old. A brief scene then illustrates a nasty scene from his youth. Following shots displaying lush fields and empty roads act as transition to modern day, where a surly group of young adults have plotted a heist. The robbery goes bad, as one of the group is injured and another kidnaps a young woman and her teenage daughter. When the daughter escapes, one of the robber chases her, right into the lair of Martin Bristol, who has turned out to be not such a nice guy. Holing up in a house, the surviving thieves must deal not only with the fall out from their crime, but also with a knife-wielding maniac.
If much of that sounds familiar, to any horror fan worth his salt it should. The robbery and the subsequent escape plan take up much of the first 1/3 of the film, a la PSYCHO. The maniac isolated in the rural wilds is straight from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and his penchant for knives is derived right from HALLOWEEN. A young, attractive group of protagonists/victims belongs rightly in just about every slasher from the 80s. Mena stuck to his guns and delivered a slasher that could perfectly fit among the Reagan era, right down to the way his shot selection builds suspense and his musical stings heighten the brutality.
All of which makes judging MALEVOLENCE complicated. Does it act as an homage, a pastiche, or just a rip off of the source materials? Does a movie intended to bring back to prominence the greater glories of older works do that if it mimics them? Is there anything fresh in this approach?
Fortunately, upon repeated viewings I was able to find answers for myself. The more I watched MALEVOLENCE, the more obvious it became that Mena doesn’t just love or admire those 80s slashers; he generally respects them. If there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking here, it’s no big sin, because Mena does 80s slashers well. For a first timer, his shot composition, plotting and pacing are all commendable, and the film shows real promise for his career. He’s got pure talent, and the film puts it on display. If MALEVOLENCE had come out 25 years ago, it would have been looked upon as one of the better entries in the genre.
One thing that makes the film stand out is its slasher, Martin Bristol. The main theme in the movie is that a destructive home environment will create destructive individuals, who in this case will harm bank robbers who wander into the wrong hideaway. Again, not exactly a novel concept. But Mena invests some legitimate care into it, and makes it work. Through plot and action, he manages to succeed where Rob Zombie so greatly failed by having young Michael Myers chat with Loomis for 45 minutes of screen time. Interestingly, Mena also contrasts Bristol’s scenario with that of the thieves’ captives; the concept of family is under assault, as the kidnapped mother, bound and mouth duct taped, abandoned by her fleeing daughter, finds herself in peril at the hands of the thieves.
Fortunately, Anchor Bay matched Mena’s prodigious potential with a prodigious set of extras. The two main events are the half-hour documentary “Back to the Slaughterhouse” and the commentary. Listening to Mena discuss the pitfalls of low budget filmmaking for the first time director reminded me of all the behind-the-scenes tales I’ve heard and read so many times about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Mena took great pains in making the movie, at his own cost, both financially and as a test of character. It took years of his life and a lot of ingenuity to get the film finished, but I gather from the way he speaks of it that it was all well worth it for him.
There are also 9 minutes of deleted scenes, none of which would have added anything by their inclusion in the final product. There’s a minute and 20 seconds of rehearsals, too brief for any real enticement. TV and radio spots, as well as the trailer for the film and some other Anchor Bay discs round out the package. Of most joy to me was a DVD-ROM version of the script; as someone who’s had his hand at writing several scripts for horror movies, I like that I can see just how Mena’s words translated to the screen.
Stevan Mena’s MALEVOLENCE is not a revolutionary film. But then, it’s not intended to be. If you can look past the fact that it’s all been done before, you should appreciate that it’s being done extremely well in Mena’s hands. With his second film, BRUTAL MASSACRE, Mena showed that he has a talent for comedy as well as horror. With the premiere of his third film this Friday, MALEVOLENCE’s prequel BEREAVEMENT, he’s got me wanting to see more. He’s a fine young talent, and it’ll be interesting to see if he sticks to the clichés as his career advances, or if he steps out of the safety zone and becomes a visionary in his own rights. With MALEVOLENCE as proof, he’s certainly got the potential to do so.
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