This week sees the release of the Malevolence Trilogy on Blu-ray thanks to MVD entertainment. All three independently produced horror films were written, produced, and directed by Stevan Mena, who has dedicated the last two decades of his life to the trilogy, which takes place about two hours from me in rural Pennsylvania. To be honest this was a blind watch for me, although I do remember seeing the Anchor Bay release of the “Divimax” edition of the first film in stores. Remember those?
The first film, Malevolence (2004), was shot over two years on 35mm, with a budget of $200,000. It has an intriguing premise that is a hybrid of Psycho and Halloween, that starts out as a heist film and later evolves into a slasher. The film begins with a bank robbery gone wrong when one of the robbers is killed and another’s getaway car breaks down. The robber then resorts to carjacking a minivan and kidnapping the woman and her daughter inside to get to their hideout. But it just so happens their hideout is next door to the old Sutter Slaughterhouse, home of a serial killer that makes both the criminals and their captives his prey. It’s the cat and mouse game of the slasher, intersecting with the robbers double crossing one another, that makes this indie a fun watch.
While Malevolence was a bit rough around the edges, it had some interesting ideas at its core, and it was way ahead of the trend of ‘80s slasher throwbacks. While the cast was predominately made up of first timers, they made a great ensemble that managed to carry the film’s genre-hopping narrative rather effectively. The fact that it was shot on film definitely adds to the look of the film, thanks to the cinematography by A&E documentarian Tsuyoshi Kimoto, who adds a very realistic vibe to the violence and action. This combined with Mena’s synth delivers a solid start to the series that had me curious to see what the director would do for his follow up.
Next up was Bereavement (2010) or Malevolence 2, which functions as a prequel. This film really examines the idea under the hood in the origins of “nature versus nurture” as we see the young Martin Bristol, who would be the killer from Malevolence, abducted from his family and groomed by the deranged Graham Sutter in the slaughterhouse. Of course, we get this interesting nugget that Martin suffers from CIPA Disease, a disorder of the nervous system, which prevents the feeling of pain or temperature. This adds a bit of explanation to the unstoppable killer we witnessed in the first film. Stevan Mena contrasts Martin’s story with the story of Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario), who comes to rural PA from the big city to live with her uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn) on his farm with his family after the death of her parents. They live in the hideout from the original films, so you kind of know where this is heading.
The two stories run side by side concurrently as we see Martin slowly conditioned into the killer as his path and Allison’s eventually intersect.
While the first film was intriguing, Mena really won me over with this film thanks to its focus on characters and motivations, not falling into the trappings of the slasher genre. Bereavement is a much more mature film compared to Malevolence, both stylistically and narratively. This just feels like a big budget studio horror film with a very singular sensibility. The cinematography really captures the lush PA farmscapes, and the cast here really elevates the material as well. Michael Biehn does a lot of these smaller films, but I felt like he actually did something other than a two day phone-in, as he genuinely does something interesting with his and Alexandra Daddario’s relationship. This was shot right before the actress hit it big with her role in the Percy Jackson films, and it wouldn’t be the first horror film for the young actor, who would also make an appearance in Texas Chainsaw 3D. Out of the three films, Bereavement for me felt like the strongest that I think really captured Mena’s ideaology for the series.
The third film released last year, Malevolence 3: Killer, was crowdfunded and tragically lost its lead with only 75% of the film shot. This led to the film being reconfigured/re-shot and re-edited to work around this. With a budget a quarter of the original, this film has Stevan Mena acting as his own DP in a film that unabashedly leans in heavily to the Halloween influence of the earlier films, complete with an almost shot for shot homage at the end. Malevolence 3 begins with the end of first film, showing Martin Bristol escaping and hunting down the only survivors from the first film, only to return to his childhood home. Of course, upping the skin and sleaze factor for this entry, he finds it home to three nubile female college students he torments and murders over the course of the film.
Malevolence 3: Killer loses the momentum generated in the previous film with its more trope-heavy slasher approach. While the last film played with some heavy ideas and was a competent character study, this film is content with making sure we see each actress undress as they are knocked off one by one, with barely any character development aside from some superficial flourishes. As soon as we were introduced to our stereotypical final girl in the plucky Elle (Katie Gibson), I knew exactly where this was heading and honestly I was a bit disappointed. The film delves slightly deeper into the character of Martin while leaving just enough wiggle room for another sequel. But I personally think unless Mena takes a step backward to what made the second film as good as it was, I would advise against it for the director. That said, Adrienne Barbeau as Martin’s grandmother was the rare bright spot in this otherwise rough genre exercise.
All films are presented on DVD and Blu-ray, usually paired with a “making of” and trailers. The transfer on Malevolence is a bit rough, with a lot of print damage. Before I knew it was actually shot on 35mm, I just thought someone got a bit overzealous with a print damage filter. That being the only nitpick, the films presented here have good color and contrast and really highlight the cinematography of the series. While I understand with the issues with shooting the third film and how it might have suffered, it still feels compromised compared to the first two that have a very uniquely focused sensibility on character and its examination of the serial killer in slashers. I will say overall the films worth a watch and worth picking up for fans of the series and for those into smaller regional horror productions.