Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with a special edition of AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS. I had a chance to talk about all things slasher with a modern master of slasher horror. Stevan Mena has written and directed a pair of slasher films that have been making a lot of noise in horror circles. MALEVOLENCE and it’s prequel BEREAVEMENT is one of the few series that seems to get better with each film. BEREAVEMENT is available on DVD & BluRay this week. Before I dive into the interview, here’s my review of both films…
MALEVOLENCE (2007)Starring Samantha Dark, Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Courtney Bertolone
BEREAVEMENT (2010)Starring Michael Biehn, Alexandra Daddario, John Savage, Nolan Gerard Funk, Spencer List, Brett Rickaby, Peyton List
Written and Directed by Stevan Mena
Find out more about these films here and on the Facebook page!
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
There are those who poo poo the slasher film as one of the lowest common denomenators in horror. I’m not one of those people. I grew up watching FRIDAY THE 13TH’s and HALLOWEEN and loving every single frame. The problem with those films is that the early ones were made by masters of suspense, amping up the fright of being stalked by a lone, unstoppable madman who continues to advance on you no matter how much you fight back, but the latter ones were made by folks who weren’t as skilled or smart at making a film that gives chills and focused more on showing the killer in plain sight and focusing more on gimmicks than scares. And it appears that writer/director Stevan Mena feels the same way. Mena, in two films, has revitalized the slasher film by doing two things; moving forward and moving back.
With MALEVOLENCE and BEREAVEMENT, one can literally note the forward and back momentum in that the narrative leaps from present day in the first film (MALEVOLENCE) to the past in the second (BEREAVEMENT), but this attention to pushing forward and moving back can also be applied to the films when talking about them stylistically. MALEVOLENCE, in many ways, is an old school slasher yarn. Mena channels early Carpenter in many ways; placing his masked stalker in the background while the unknowing victims talk in the foreground a la Michael Meyers. Focusing on the weapon being used rather than the killer itself is another motif that occurs frequently in the film. The POV shots follow the victim rather than the killer in order to influence the viewer to identify with them rather than the usual focus on the anti-hero common in late eighties/early nineties slashers. Even the music is a throwback to Carpenter’s synth score. Mena’s music (an unholy union of Manfredini’s iconic FRIDAY THE 13th orchestra and Carpenter’s synthesizer) shatters out of nowhere signifying and often intensifying what we are seeing on screen.
In the same sense, in the narrative of BEREAVEMENT, Mena pushes our understanding of the slasher forward by giving a reason why these guys can’t be killed. Early in the film, the mother of the child who grows up to be the killer in MALEVOLENCE explains to a babysitter that her child is special. His brain doesn’t register pain, so he literally keeps on going even though he may be mortally wounded. In that tiny bit of exposition, ingeniously worked into the script in a functional manner, Mena explains why his killer (if not all of these cinema slashers) seemingly cannot be killed or hurt. This sophisticated way of storytelling elevates this slasher film above the rest by explaining something common in all of them.
The story is pretty simple. In MALEVOLENCE, the story begins with a young boy being guided to witness a ritual style killing. The story bops forward to the present, where a quartet of crooks plan a robbery. When the robbery goes bad, the quartet takes a mother and child hostage and retreats to what looks like an abandoned slaughterhouse, but the house is not empty. It houses a man who relentlessly stalks and kills them one by one. It’s nothing new, but done so in a manner that shows that Mena has done his homework. The scenes are gritty and tense. The chills are real. The scares aren’t false. And the killer is a relentless one. In the end, Mena turns in a straight up, unapologetic slasher, intelligently crafted and a worthy successor of both FRIDAY and HALLOWEEN films.
But with BEREAVEMENT, Mena takes it to a whole new level. We go back in time witnessing the killer as a young boy, who turns out to be the right boy for Sutter, the slaughterhouse owner and serial killer himself, to kidnap. Although he doesn’t know it, Martin cannot feel pain, a trait very useful in the killing trade. Sutter trains Martin to be the perfect killer in some extremely graphic and disturbing scenes. Again, Mena focuses on the victims. Here he works with a much talented cast, making it much easier to identify with them. Alexandra Daddario is amazing as a city girl forced to live with her overprotective uncle, (played by Michael Biehn, who gives a strong performance here). The stuff Mena puts Daddario through in this one shows that this actress is one to watch out for. In the end, BEREAVEMENT is stronger knowing what Martin will become. It’s sort of what STAR WARS EPISODE I should have been.
I saw MALEVOLENCE and BEREAVEMENT out of sequence, but I don’t think that much matters, given that both are powerful films by themselves. I can’t wait to see what Mena has next. Given his talented camera and the intelligent twists and turns he takes, Mena has both honored and redefined the slasher subgenre with these two gripping films.
And now let’s see what Stevan Mena has to say about BEREAVEMENT and MALEVOLENCE!
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): I had a chance to check out both out BEREAVEMENT and MALEVOLENCE. I saw BEREAVEMENT last week and then I saw MALEVOLENCE last night and then I re-watched BEREAVEMENT after I saw MALEVOLENCE last night as well, so I’ve been immersed in these films of yours. For folks who haven’t heard of the film, can you tell people what the films are about? You can start with MALEVOLENCE and then go onto BEREAVEMENT I guess.
STEVAN MENA (SM): Yeah, sure and thanks for the kind words about the film. BEREAVEMENT and MALEVOLENCE were part of a book that I wrote man, many years ago and I broke it up into three stories, so it’s actually a trilogy and the reason I shot them out of sequence is because MALEVOLENCE, which shot first, I thought it would be a lot more interesting if you didn’t really know too much about the killer. I thought it would have had a lot more suspense and a lot more mystery and once you know too much about the killer, it kind of desensitizes you from some of the scares. So I thought it would be a better way to present it that way and then go back and do the character exploration of the killer and what makes him to and see how that whole story evolved. So that’s why I shot them out of sequence and also with BEREAVEMENT I knew I would need a much more seasoned cast and a bigger budget to pull it off, because there’s a lot more drama to that film and the material is a lot more weighted, so I thought I would really need a lot more resources to pull it off whereas with MALEVOLENCE you know I shot that with my credit card, so it was really just something that was thrown together with paper clips and rubber bands.
BUG: Yeah, there’s just an old school kind of slasher feel, but much more modernized as well. As you were going into MALEVOLENCE what kind of films inspired you with that? I’m getting a TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN sort of vibe with the mask that he was wearing throughout the film.
SM: Yeah, it’s funny you bring that up, because I have actually never seen that film and so many people have mentioned that film to me and I haven’t found it yet. I haven’t seen that movie. The mask is very similar to FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and there are a lot of little homages in that film that I was trying to point out and say, “Hey, do you remember this? Wasn’t this really cool?” Because at the time I was thinking about writing MALEVOLENCE I had actually seen SCREAM and you know the way that was a send up of the genre and kind of poking fun at a lot of the conventions and I thought it might be cool to create a film that kind of pointed your finger at those old scenes and said “Hey, this is one of the reasons why we liked this genre in the first place.” So I was kind of standing on the shoulders of other people who had made those films and was kind of incorporating some of those things that I really liked and hopefully a lot of the old school horror fans would have picked it up too. That was kind of the idea behind that, so that influence is from Steve Myer’s film. There’s influences from HALLOWEEN, certainly from TEXAS… You know I was actually a fan of all of those films growing up. I was a huge fan of slasher films. I went to the video store every week and picked up the big box VHS tapes all of the time, so stuff like THE BURNING, but I have never seen THE TOWN THE DREADED SUDOWN, so I really feel bad, because so many people have referenced that I guess because of the mask. I definitely now have to pick that up.
BUG: And I definitely noticed the HALLOWEEN aspect, especially with the music and with the fact that he kind of appears in the windows and just in the back ground in so many of these films and they don’t know that he’s there and it’s kind of that creepy vibe that they are being watched and you see them being watched, but they have no idea it’s going on.
SM: Yeah, I tried to incorporate a lot of camera misdirection which is a big inspiration from the way Carpenter shot HALLOWEEN. You don’t really see it done that much anymore. Usually in a lot of the modern day horror films the killer is marching behind the girl as she is crawling away on the floor and that’s not really suspenseful. For me it’s a lot more fun not knowing where the killer is and the less you see the more suspenseful it is. It’s kind of like with the shark in JAWS, that movie is really effective because you really never know when he’s going to pop up.
BUG: Yeah, so going into BEREAVEMENT, that had to have some challenges, because you kind of addressed a little bit of the back-story at the beginning of MALEVOLENCE as far as there is that sort of small snippet at the beginning that’s expanded on much more in BEREAVEMENT. What decisions did you have to make… where there changes that you had to make going from the first film to the second one?
SM: I mean the inherent storyline was always the same and the core of it was always the same with regards to exploring Martin’s back-story and being kidnapped and being exposed to all of the violence and the whole aspect of “nature vs. nurture” like “Was he born bad or was it the experience that made him bad? That kind of thing… But I think what changed was a lot… Being on the set we never thought we would actually find an actual slaughterhouse that was a working slaughterhouse when we were doing location scouting, so that was really great luck on our part to find that place and then while shooting MALEVOLENCE just being there there were a lot of things that we experienced that kind of got incorporated into the script, like one thing for example is at the end of MALEVOLENCE when he’s reading from that ledger about Gram Sutter and about the past, that was never in the script. I found… Actually Brandon Johnson, who was the star of MALEVOLENCE, he found an old ledger in that place that was from like the 1930’s and it had all of this accounting stuff in it, but it also had all of these really weird recipes and weird things like almost a person’s diary of like his daily activities.
BUG: Oh wow.
SM: Yeah, it was really creepy and so we thought “How creepy would it be to actually find a diary that had an account of all of these brutal killings and stuff that went on there?” That’s how that whole scene evolved, it was never in the script… Some of those things actually got incorporated into BEREAVEMENT as well, it kind of helped us expand the story a little bit.
BUG: Yeah and those lines that you did with that actor talking about... just from the ledger that you were talking about, so that was all made up after the fact? That wasn’t in the books or the other stuff? Was it taken from somewhere else?
SM: It was never in the script. I mean obviously he was describing what happened in BEREAVEMENT just so you know it’s kind of detailing what you are going to see when you see BEREAVEMENT, but the idea of some guy standing there from the FBI and reading it from the ledger, that was never in the script. I mean that was pretty much a last minute decision born out of finding this book. We all thought it would be a really cool way to kind of allude to the fact that this is going to be part of a series of film.
BUG: It was a really effective scene. And so with BEREAVEMENT you start out talking about how this kid, he’s basically born without feelings, that’s correct? He can’t sense pain? Is that how it’s described?
SM: Yeah a long time ago I read this article about this disease called CIPA, with is congenital insensitivity to pain. It’s a really horrific disease. It’s much worse… It’s very, very rare, but it’s much worse in real life than it is portrayed in my film, because these kids actually bite their own fingers off, they poke their eyes out, and they usually don’t live past 20. It’s a really horrible disease. You don’t realize how much you need your pain. But I thought it would be really cool to incorporate that, because for obvious standpoints for the multiple layers of how it affects Sutter and Sutter is perpetuating this myth that because of what his dad told him about animals not feeling pain, it them becomes people not feeling pain as he goes insane and Martin is kind of perpetuating this myth by not feeling pain and it confuses him, because he doesn’t understand the disease and the kid doesn’t even know he has it. I also thought from a fun standpoint that you know in so many slasher films the killer gets hit over the head or shot and he keeps coming at you and I thought “How interesting would it be when I get that question ‘Why does your killer keep coming after you?’ I have a plausible response and that is he’s got this disease where he doesn’t feel pain. So that’s why he keeps coming back, he doesn’t realize he’s been injured.” So I thought that would be kind of a cool twist to an old cliché.
BUG: Definitely and it’s almost like you have come up with an explanation of why Jason and Michael always keep coming after you as well. So you said this is going to be a trilogy, are you working on that now?
SM: Yeah, I mean the script for MALEVOLENCE 3, which is the tentative title right now, it’s been in revisions for seven or eight years, so it’s really just a question now of casting it and actually going out and shooting it. We are in the early stages of preproduction right now, but a lot depends on how BEREAVEMENT is received. If people like the film and they dig it, then obviously I would want to go out and complete the trilogy. If there’s a demand for it, I would really love to do it.
BUG: I hope there is, because both of these films were just really fantastic. It felt like I was going back to kind of simpler times when I used to love those slasher films and they were all new and fresh and everything, but also…
SM: Oh awesome. Thank you.
BUG: But also it felt like it was kind of pushing it forward with the explanations that you were talking about, that it kind of updated it for modern, smarter, more savvy kind of viewers. I think both of them did really well doing that. As far as the cast, what was it like working with this bigger cast? Was this just your second film?
SM: No, actually this was my third film. I did a film in between called BRUTAL MASSACRE: A COMEDY which actually had a lot of genre vets in it. It had Ken Foree from DAWN OF THE DEAD, Gunnar Hansen from the original TEXAS CHAINSAW and David Naughton from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. It had all of the girls from the EVIL DEAD and a couple of comedy veterans too, like Brian O’Halloran from CLERKS, and Gerry Bednob from 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, so it was kind of a mix and it was a send up of making a horror film and something I did for fun. I was kind of actually inspired by the making of MALEVOLENCE, because a lot of things went wrong on that shoot and we were wanting to poke fun at ourselves.
BUG: I saw the preview to that before BEREAVEMENT and it does look fantastic. I have to seek that one out, it looks really funny.
SM: I think you can actually watch it on NetFlix on Instant, but I mean with BEREAVEMENT it was definitely cool… I mean working with Michael Biehn, working with John Savage and working with Brett Rickaby was a total trip. That guy is just really one of the coolest guys I have ever met and then of course Alexandra Daddario who is really exploding right now on the scene. She’s starring in the new TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, she’s in PERCY JACKSON, and so I was just really fortunate with this cast.
BUG: So you worked with a lot of children in these last two films, what’s that like? What do you say to their parents that you are going to be doing these pretty horrible things with these child actors? Are they cool with that?
SM: (Laughs) It’s funny you say that, because when the kids are feeling uncomfortable, they kick them in the butt saying “Hey get back in front of the camera. Come on, keep going, it’s not so bad.”
SM: It’s funny, because Spencer List who was nine when we made the film, when I was first in casting with him I asked him what experience he had making movies and he told me about the movie he had just made where he stabs a nun and then drowns her. I’m like “Oh, okay we are starting off right on the right foot here.” And he loved it, I mean he was a total gamer. He loved the blood… In fact, the whole movie he was begging… His sister is Peyton List who plays Wendy in the film, so they are twins and so it was really convenient having one parent for both kids on the set, but he spent the whole shoot trying to convince me to let him kill her on screen, so just to give you an idea of this kid’s mindset. And he’d never say he was done with it before I got to it.
BUG: Oh good. Okay, well that’s good. (Laughs) Well you know what, both of these were really fantastic. I look forward to seeing the third one. I can’t wait to see where this all goes. Are you going to be going foreword in time or further backward in time? It does suggest that Sutter is talking to someone throughout the films. Is that something that you want to expand on in the third one?
SM: Actually the third one starts off right after the end of MALEVOLENCE. It’s all about Martin leaving that place and then returning home, back to the suburbs and then all hell breaks through with that. So that’s what that conclusion of that part of the story is, but there is actually a lot of material that could be explored, because you’ve got the entire relationship with Sutter and his father which I have never even gotten into which is only alluded to in BEREAVEMENT and there’s of course the demons that he is struggling with throughout the film that he’s talking to and there’s an entire section of the time, almost ten years, where I’ve never even explained all of the different murders that happen and all of the horrible misadventures that he takes Martin on, again only alluded to. So there is a whole other three or four films you could go into just to explore all of that material. I’m not necessarily saying I would want to do that, but if someone did, certainly there’s enough material to take it in a new direction. I hate sequels that really have nothing new to offer, so if I wasn’t adding layers to the story I would never add a sequel, but if there was a place I could take this story that is something that is unexpected and a surprise, then I would definitely be up for it.
BUG: Yeah, it just seems that there are a lot these different layers that can be explored in here and I can’t wait to see what’s coming from you next. So thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I’m going to try to get this interview transcribed and up hopefully by next week, early next week, so that it’s in time for the release of the DVD. It’s coming out on Tuesday, is that correct?
SM: Yeah, it comes out Tuesday the 30th, that’s right.
BUG: Well thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with me today and yeah, congratulations on the films. They are really fantastic. I love them.
SM: I really appreciate that. Thanks Mark, thanks a lot.
BUG: BEREAVEMENT was released this week on DVD & BluRay and MALEVOLENCE is also available on DVD. Seek out this double feature of slasher fun.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Mark is also a regular writer for FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and will be releasing FAMOUS MONSTERS first ever comic book miniseries LUNA in October (co-written by Martin Fisher with art by Tim Rees) Order Code: AUG111067! Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the covers to purchase)!
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