Judge David Johnson has never been abducted and forced to watch a madman murder an innocent victim, and it isn't on his to-do list either.
No one gets out alive. No one.
Writer-director Stevan Mena unleashes his debut horror feature after six years of production. From the writing of the script in 1998 to a two-year film shoot, the process that brought Malevolence to fruition is a harrowing tale of an independent filmmaker realizing a vision on a thinnest of budgets. But here's the kicker: The movie ain't bad.
Facts of the Case
Four friends are on the verge of getting into deep crap. Julian (Brandon Johnson), his girlfriend Marilyn (Heather Magee), Max (Keith Chambers), and Kurt (Richard Glover) are planning a daring daytime bank heist. All are amateur criminals, but Julian and Marilyn feel pressed into these extreme actions because of overwhelming debt.
Needless to say, the caper goes awry when one of them takes a bullet. And to add to the mayhem, they pick up a mother (Samantha Dark) and her daughter as hostages. Scurrying away from the authorities, the remaining friends and their newfound bargaining chips take refuge in an abandoned house. Unfortunately, the house was once the dwelling place of a psychopathic killer, who specialized in kidnapping his victims and forcing them to watch the sickest of murders.
Of course, our antiheroes don't know this, and soon enough, as an eerie night settles in, a masked figure wielding a machete begins to stalk his prey. The bungled burglary is small potatoes now compared to the raging lunatic now on their heels, swinging his blade and harboring a dark secret from his past.
Malevolence is scary. Derivative as all get-out, yes, and not the most original of its ilk, but the execution is so top-notch, and Mena has such a command of atmosphere and timing, that the finished product is a notable entry in the annals of contemporary low-budget horror.
Mena made a couple of conscious decisions when forging this movie. For one, this isn't a gore galore flick. In fact, only two people die at the hands of our slasher, and really only one in relatively graphic form. Two is not an impressive body count, even by The Secret of NIMH standards. But Malevolence is not a movie that delivers thrills from Karo syrup and makeup effects.
And as you can already sense from the limited mayhem, the flick doesn't rocket by on nuclear-powered narrative drive. Some may find Malevolence slow, and admittedly I had a few issues with the pacing in some spots, yet the movie lives off the tangible dread of the stalking killer—and to Mena's credit, he unleashes his bad guy early on in the proceedings. There's a really pervasive sense of doom once the victims get to the house, and that is enough to propel the movie. Because, seriously, once the killer arrives on the scene, we're into very familiar genre territory. Idiots scream and do stupid things, and the unstoppable killing force keeps coming. So it would take something interesting to prevent the affair from becoming stale, and Mena's well-placed jump scenes, some very tight shots, and the fact that the audience has no idea where the killer will pop up next scratch that itch.
I was on edge, okay. There, I said it.
Now, Malevolence isn't flawless horror filmmaking. As I said, it doesn't bring anything new to the table, and it often falls prey to the irritating logic gaffes so common to the old-school slasher flicks it emulates (e.g., knocking the killer down and opting not to beat him repeatedly with a baseball bat but instead running back into the dark house—multiple times). But basically, the film does what it chooses to do—develop a tense, disturbing atmosphere punctuated with some excellent jump scenes—very well. Malevolence may not be for everyone, but is a far better effort than 90% of the indie horror crap out there.
Anchor Bay has delivered a great-looking, great-sounding presentation. A big reason Malevolence succeeded for me was the quality of the production. Mena notes on one of the accompanying featurettes that he wanted to stick to 35mm and maintain the professional look. This is a great choice. The movie looks terrific, and the quality film stock further augments Mena's great shots. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is sharp and clear, even in the dark scenes, which take up the final third of the film. A Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is active, pushing Mena's own soundtrack (which, like his film, is derivative but nonetheless effective) and creating some great ambient sound.
Finally, an impressive batch of special features awaits you on the disc. Mena, Brandon Johnson, and producer Eddie Akmal offer an insightful, revealing commentary track; apparently, the most horrifying element of Malevolence was making the thing. A pair of interview-heavy featurettes with Mena and actress Samantha Dark show how much the two love the horror genre. Mena's piece, "Back to the Slaughterhouse," continues the story of putting together a movie on the miniscule budget with unending logistical troubles. Some deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, TV/radio spots, a still gallery, and the script on DVD-ROM finish up the selection.
For a horror film to click with me, it has to do something either (a) new or (b) done before but this time really cool. Malevolence worked because of the latter. Light on the gore and the fast-paced thrills of a body-a-minute rampage, the film succeeds in creating a chilling atmosphere and putting you there, clammy palms and all.
Not guilty, you friggin' wacko.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary by Writer-Director Stevan Mena, Producer Eddie Akmal, and Actor Brandon Johnson
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