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. It’s successful home video run led to a bigger-budgeted prequel, Bereavement, and an upcoming sequel. With Malevolence’s story set to conclude later this year, now is the perfect time to re-visit the original chapter.
In 1989, six-year old Martin Bristol was abducted from his backyard by a depraved serial killer. 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, cash-strapped Julian is convinced to commit a burglary by his girlfriend, Marilyn, along with her brother, Max, and another lowlife accomplice, 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 one of the most common criticisms of Malevolence is how familiar much of 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. Like the iconic skater killer, Bristol is filmed 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 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.
Some Genuine Chills and Disturbing Imagery
Credit has to be given to Mena who, in spite of the film’s micro-budget, delivers several good jumps. There is no special effects magic, no Tom Savini make-up. But the lack of stylish editing and jaw-dropping death scenes is offset by Mena’s grasp for the aesthetics of grindhouse filmmaking. Malevolence boasts some disturbing imagery and Mena plays it straight, giving things a level of 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, the recycled iconography fits well into Mena’s 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 was a low-budget outing, one need look no further than the performances. Certainly no one is really watching this type of horror film for the acting, but the performances here teeter very 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’; Magee, on the other hand, is extremely 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.
Mena Spins a Decent Slasher Mythology on a Discount Budget
By the end of Malevolence, in spite of its transparent flaws, slasher fans are likely to be satisfied. 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-