Malevolence (2004)

Starring Brandon Johnson, Samantha Dark, Heather Magee, Richard Glover

Directed by Steve Mena

Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment

Last night was the world premiere Malevolence, a film that I’ve been reading about off and on for a few years now. The movie debuted in Worcester, MA, about an hour away from my home, and the PR company and director were nice enough to invite me out, to what ended up being a near-capacity crowd for a film that almost no one was expecting to be as good as it was.

Malevolence is the result of a film lover that spent their entire life striving to be the best they can, and it’s a great example of how good an independent film can be. There are issues, which we will get to, but I swear if every debut from an indie director were this strong, we’d be seeing new horror movie deals signed every other week.

First, the story: Julian and Marylin (Johnson and Magee, respectively) are a young couple up to their ears in debt, the kind of debt that leads to broken body pieces if not repaid, and decide to rob a bank thanks to the encouragement of the Marylin’s brother Max (Keith Chambers), a frequent visitor to many state penitentiaries. Once the robbery goes wrong, as we all know it will, the three of them go one way and accomplice Kurt (Glover) goes another, their plan to meet at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere to divide up the money.

Kurt breaks down on the way and takes hostage a woman and her daughter on their way home from a softball game. He forces them to drive him to the house, but once they get there the daughter breaks free and makes a mad dash for safety. Unfortunately for her, “safety” comes in the form of an abandoned slaughterhouse that’s been home to a serial killer for the last decade. When Julian and Marylin show up, things go from bad to worse, and since no one planned for them to have a run-in with a seemingly unstoppable psychopath, their only choice is to try and get away before they all become statistics.

Let me just get my issues with Malevolence out of the way first and foremost, than we can talk about how good it really is.

In an attempt to build almost palpable tension, director Mena optioned to let a long period of time go buy in which characters are just walking slowly through house and/or hallways, with a possible jump scare thrown in here and there. For the most part this is effective, and when the mayhem starts it really does make you jump, but the slow build is a little too slow in my opinion. I’m not saying this as an ADD-riddled American viewer, I’m saying this as someone that appreciates all Japanese films that utilize the same technique, which was more or less pioneered by Carpenter. It just serves to drag the movie down too much, and I almost wished for a few more expendable characters just to keep things moving.

Other than that, the acting is about the only other problem I had with Malevolence. It’s pretty much bad throughout, though the lead (Johnson) has his moments and the mother of the young girl (Dark) does a good job. Thankfully, not much of the movie is based around long drawn-out dialogue scenes (though there are a few), so it’s not so distracting as to make you lose interest. It just seemed…forced through most of it.

But we all know that sometimes bad acting is expected, nay, embraced in horror movies. Maybe that’s not what Mena was going for here, but it’s a forgivable sin if you look at the overall quality of the movie as a whole. Written, edited, produced, scored, and directed by Mena, what we have here is (as Gunner Hansen described it while intro’ing the movie, and no I have no idea why he was there) a John Carpenter for the 21st Century. And if Malevolence is how Mena’s getting his start, hopefully it won’t all fall apart in 20+ years with his own Ghosts of Mars.

The score is the first thing you will notice, most likely (that or the lighting, which is fantastic in the opening scene) and the element that keeps coming back to you throughout. Sometimes subtle, sometimes smack-you-over-the-head, and occasionally a good mixture of both. To say it’s similar to a Carpenter score is a credit to the director and his influences, and Mena knows how to use music and musical ques to effectively wet the pants of unsuspecting moviegoers. I shit you not, when the killer finally make his move you’re not expecting it, and I heard almost an entire audience scream. It must’ve been damn good to be Steve Mena right about then.

The direction, the lighting, the cinematography; all of these elements are at a level most directors strive to reach, and this is only his first film for God’s sake. It’s a throwback to the way a stalk-n-slash should be done; slowly, menacingly, and with zero self-referential bullshit. The bloodshed is minimal, you don’t see copious amounts of gore spraying down the walls, but the killer is suitably insane and vicious and the tension is what really makes the over package so effective.

Though there are some issues with Malevolence, their sum total does not surpass all the potential this movie shows for a new director. I hope Anchor Bay treats it well when they finally decide what to do with it, cause I know a lot of horror fans are going to dig it.

3 ½ out of 5

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Johnny Butane