In 1978, John Carpenter opened the splatter-film floodgates with the success of his low-budget masterpiece, Halloween. For most of the next decade, underfunded imitators hacked and butchered oversexed teenagers at a rate that would challenge the Geneva Convention’s definition of genocide. Halloween begat Friday the 13th, which begat A Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, the appeal of these films was obvious. Pick a remote location, cast your friends, hit the hardware store for a tool/weapon and start mixing the jugs of red food dye and Karo syrup. Voila! Insta-movie.
The reign of the knife-wielding maniac came to an end with the phenomenal success of The Silence of the Lambs (essentially a horror film with art-house pretensions) and the irony-drenched Scream films, which probably drove the final stake into the heart of this genre.
If you pine for the heady days of no-nonsense brutality, stilted dialogue and bad synthesizer music, then look no further than Malevolence (and add another star to this review). Troy-based Anchor Bay Entertainment (no stranger to horror films) has backed this humorless retread of ’80s slasher films. Right from its Texas Chainsaw Massacre opening, Malevolence plays like a cover band’s blood-soaked medley of the genre’s greatest hits — Halloween being the most obvious influence.
A trio of bank robbers agrees to meet at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere to split their ill-gotten gains. When one of the gang is forced to take a mother and her young daughter hostage, he attracts the notice of a deranged neighbor and the bloodletting begins. While the criminals get their just desserts, the mother-daughter team struggles to escape the maniac with a butcher’s knife in his hand and a potato sack over his head.
Some might say Malevolence pays homage to its predecessors by borrowing their ideas, atmosphere and style. However, without letting us in on the references or finding an original twist to its story, stealing might be the more appropriate term.
Writer-director-editor-composer Stevan Mena must fancy himself a horror auteur à la John Carpenter, but falls far short of Halloween’s revolutionary execution. Carpenter’s script was simple but well-crafted, and his direction was nothing short of masterful. Malevolence, on the other hand, boasts a hodgepodge of influences with no real personality of its own. Even its bank robber setup is lifted from the lesser-known horror flick Scarecrows (which in turn borrowed the idea from the granddaddy of slasher films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho).
Mena’s most notable failure, however, is his inability to effectively construct the killer’s “legend.” Friday the 13th had Jason, A Nightmare on Elm Street had Freddy, and Halloween had Michael Myers; in all these films, the murderer’s motive is a dark mystery to be solved by the protagonist. Mena bookends Malevolence with an underdeveloped origin, but never integrates it into the overall film. As a result, the characters discover nothing of their adversary and the film’s trick ending comes off as a predictable cheat.
Still, as a director, Mena earns a few points for his restraint when it comes to the film’s bloodshed. Much like the work of Carpenter and Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, the killer’s savagery is suggested rather than shown. It’s a smart choice that lends authenticity to the violence. Malevolence also manages to find its pace in the final act and effectively delivers a few suspenseful moments. Too bad it’s too little too late.
Mena claims that Malevolence is the second part of a psycho killer trilogy. Given the 10 Jason films, eight Halloween sequels and seven (and counting) Freddy Krueger movies, I have to commend the filmmaker on his self-control. Unfortunately, given his less than fatal “stab” at the genre I also have to question his optimism.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak); 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].