Perhaps no other horror sub-genre is better-suited to low-budget, DIY filmmaking than the slasher film. Malevolence is one of dozens of micro-budgeted slasher films produced and released since Scream re-invigorated the sub-genre. Yet unlike most of those other movies, Malevolence somehow secured a limited, albeit unsuccessful, theatrical run. Written and directed by Steven Mena, Malevolence was far more successful on home video courtesy of Anchor Bay Studios. Following its successful home video run, Mena filmed a bigger-budgeted prequel, Bereavement. Now With Malevolence’s story set to conclude later this year with a belated sequel, now is the perfect time to re-visit the original chapter.
In 1989, a depraved serial killer abducted six-year old Martin Bristol from his backyard. Instead of killing Bristol, his abductor becomes a twisted mentor, forcing the boy to watch as he tortures and kills his victims. Ten years later, Marilyn convinces her cash-strapped boyfriend Julian to commit a bank heist along with her brother, Max, and lowlife Kurt. When the robbery goes wrong, Max is killed and the remaining robbers end up taking a mother and daughter hostage to an abandoned farmhouse. However, there plans quickly go awry when they discover that the farmhouse isn’t abandoned.
Derivative or Homage?
Easily the most common criticism of Malevolence is how familiar the movie feels. It’s not necessarily the story or specific plot points from Mena’s screenplay that feel derivative. Instead there’s arguably a distinct familiarity around Malevolence’s villain, Martin Bristol. Mena’s clearly a fan of John Carpenter’s Halloween, and Bristol gives off a Michael Myers’ vibe. Mena films Bristol as an omnipresent source of terror. His character is seemingly always present somewhere in the screen.
Where Malevolence mostly succeeds in its imitation is that, by and large, it works. Mena nails the look and feel of a gritty slasher, tilting Malevolence closer to homage than shameless rehash.
It’s worth pointing out that much of Malevolence’s familiarity is by design. The film’s synthesizer score, also composed by Mena, will have 80’s horror fans feeling right at home. Even the film’s ending that squeezes in that final jump is an obvious nod to the 80’s influences. Where Malevolence succeeds in its imitation is that it largely works. Mena nails the look of a gritty 80′ slasher. As a result, Malevolence feels more like homage than shameless rehash.
Malevolence Delivers Genuine Chills and Disturbing Imagery
To his credit, Mena delivers several good jumps in spite of his limited budget. There is no special effects magic, no Tom Savini make-up. But Mena’s grasp of grindhouse film-making offsets the lack of stylish editing and jaw-dropping death scenes. Malevolence boasts some disturbing imagery. Indeed, Mena plays it straight and ensures that there’s an intensity absent from many horror films. Abandoned farmhouses and animal bones have become almost as familiar to horror fans as haunted houses and pentagrams. Fortunately, Mena does an admirable job fitting this recycled iconography into his atmospheric chiller.
Malevolence boasts some disturbing imagery and Mena plays it straight, giving things a level of intensity absent from many horror films.
Martin Bristol’s backstory also gives Malevolence a much richer mythology than what’s found in most slasher films. Twenty years removed from the golden age of the sub-genre, Mena’s screenplay has seemingly benefitted from the waves of serial killer literature. As a result, Bristol’s tragic background is far more grounded and twisted than some of the sillier ’80’s fare. Mena also wisely elects to keep enough mystery around Bristol to increase the chill factor.
Stiff Performances Give Away the Low Budget
If you needed a reminder that Malevolence is low budget, you don’t need to further than the performances. Certainly no one is watching this type of horror film for the acting. Nonetheless, Malevolence’s performances teeter closely to undermining the movie. Most of the actors – including leads Brandon Johnson and Heather Magee – had sparse resumes prior to Malevolence. Tellingly neither has done much since. Johnson fares a little better as the reluctant bank robber ‘Julian’. In contrast, Magee is pretty stiff in her dialogue delivery.
Despite a similarly sparse filmography, Samantha Dark arguably delivers the film’s most competent performance as the mother-in-peril. Everyone else in the film manages to do just enough to not drag things down. As Martin Bristol, Jay Cohen is hidden under a hood for most of the movie and isn’t asked to do much. For the most part, he looks suitably creepy.
Mena Spins a Decent Slasher Mythology on a Discount Budget
Slasher fans are likely to be satisfied with Malevolence, warts and all. As a writer and director, Mena exhibits surprising restraint, spending ample time with his characters and not overindulging in needless bloodshed. With Martin Bristol, Mena has also committed one of the more interesting slasher villains to the screen in recent memory. If Malevolence is derivative, it’s at least effective in its imitation and benefits from a much richer and disturbing mythology than other imitators. Here’s hoping the upcoming sequel builds on Mena’s early triumphs and delivers a satisfying conclusion to Martin Bristol’s story.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-