MalevolenceReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/16/05 20:31:07
The time will surely come when Stevan Mena makes a good, maybe even great, horror movie. But that time is not now. Mena, who wrote, directed, produced, and even scored the indie frightfest “Malevolence,” reveals both a deep-rooted love for the genre and a natural eye for what it takes to make an effective scare. Many scenes on their own show some great promise. But Mena can’t get his film to work as a whole; too many problems boil over to create a film that ultimately leaves the audience disappointed, even slightly bored.At least “Malevolence” - which has the luck of being the first theatrical release from Anchor Bay, the home entertainment company best known as a well-regarded releaser of top notch DVDs of genre and niche films, who has now made the jump from home video to big screen, but I digress - sure starts off on the right foot, the opening scene being a real kicker. Title cards pop up to remind us about the thousands of children who go missing each year. Thunder rolls on the soundtrack. Then we see one such missing kid, along with a greasy abductor and his other hapless victim, tied up in a dank basement, ready for the knife. Cue credits.
I’ll tell ya, that’s one hell of a way to open your horror movie. Mena sets the mood, gets us ready for big frights, and then… well, and then, he drops the ball. A whole load of clumsy exposition follows, something about nervous bank robbers planning their crime, and then something about an innocent, young softball star and her loving single mom, and it’s far too long before the movie gets around to connecting the dots we’ve connected already.
Long story short, mom and daughter get kidnapped, and the hideout chosen to be the robbers’ meeting point also happens to be in the abandoned neighborhood containing the previously seen dank basement.
There’s a lot to want to like in this effort. Even though the acting is mixed (a polite way of saying “even though one or two of the stars are good, the rest of ’em are embarrassing”) and the scripting leaves much to be desired (Mena’s idea of cleverness is to name one character Kurt and another Courtney, ha ha), Mena does know how to direct. The early bank robbery scene, which, probably for budgetary reasons, doesn’t actually show the inside of the bank, works around this limitation and really flies. The kidnapping sequence manages to overcome its predictability by designing tension around the fact that we know what’s coming yet are unable to prevent it; you can whine about the obviousness of this plot point, but you can’t complain about Mena’s handling of it.
In fact, if there’s anything Mena does well here, it’s build tension. He’s learned well from his influences (more on that in a bit), knowing when to go over the top and when to back off. Subtlety is the key why several scenes work - with just the slow zoom in or out of the camera, or with just the quiet opening or closing of a door in the background, or, in the film’s most memorable scene, with just the single shot of an open door, unadorned with camera tricks or musical gimmickry, Mena does more to get the viewer on edge than any annoyingly loud slasher pic of the last few years.
It’s too bad, then, that these effective moments are wasted in what turns out to be a dud. Perhaps a sign of the limitations of a low budget production, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. It repeats itself - people leave, they come back, they leave, they come back. There’s simply too much padding in an already too-brief movie; when the main story winds down around the 75 minute mark, it still feels too long (because although not much has happened, too much time was taken in its not happening). Worse, the script tacks on a series of post-ending endings that make the finale of “The Return of the King” seem downright rushed. (At least the long-winded finale of that Oscar winner fit with the overall tone. In “Malevolence,” Mena’s overlong ending begins with a groan-inducing bit of over-explanation - think the “Psycho” finale, only much more so - that’s too out of place to work, and ends with a build up to a shock final shot that has no real shock. That said, the final shot is well crafted. If only everything in the scene before it could’ve worked, too.)
Other problems. The anonymity of the killer does little to draw us in, and his identity reveal late in the movie is a royal yawn, one of those moments that probably looked cool on paper but does little on the screen. The weakness of the cast does little to make up for the weakness of their characters; such underdeveloped roles need stronger talent to make them keep our interest. And for every subtle scare Mena earns, there’s another that he tries to cheat out of us, using the old make-the-music-really-loud-and-that-equals-scary bit.
Not only is that last one a cheat, but it reveals a copycat mentality that spoils the film. Mena’s so eager to show his influences that he builds a musical score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Not the famous piano theme, but the synthesized stings. Hearing way-too-similar stings here distracts from the movie; instead of being frightened, the viewer just thinks, “hey, isn’t that the music from ‘Halloween?’”
The whole movie becomes an exercise in copycatting. The villain struts around in a pillow case mask, aping Jason in the second “Friday the 13th” (a look that’s far scarier than the hockey mask the series would later adopt, by the way). Elsewhere, the remote, abandoned locations bring to mind a certain Tobe Hooper movie. This sort of familiarity was intended to play as a tribute to the slasher genre. Instead, it comes off like a pale imitation. After all, there’s a difference between learning from your influences and merely repeating them.Again, there are many moments in “Malevolence” - a shot here, a scene there - that clue us in on Mena’s ability to craft workable suspense. Where he needs to focus next is on his writing. If Mena can create a story sturdy enough to match his directorial skills, he’s sure to deliver a doozy of a screamer. As it is, however, all we can do is marvel at what went right, and yawn at what went wrong.
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