Directed By: Stevan Mena
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Spencer List, Brett Rickaby, Michael Biehn, Peyton List, Nolan Gerard Funk, Valentina de Angelis, Kathryn Meisle
Bereavement may be a prequel to the 2004 film Malevolence and share some concepts and characters, but otherwise, it’s an entirely different film. Not only is it an incredible improvement in terms of camerawork, score and performances, but Bereavement paints a horrifyingly vivid picture of the mind of a psychopathic killer whereas in Malevolence, that element is missing entirely. It’s one thing to watch victims lose their lives one-by-one, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re well aware of what makes the villain commit such heinous crimes. Bereavement puts the frames of minds of its killers in the forefront and boy are they powerful.
Bereavement basically kicks off where Stevan Mena’s first film, Malevolence, began, but rather than jumping ahead 20 years after poor Martin Bristoll’s kidnapping in 1989, we linger a bit and get a much deeper look at exactly what happened to the six-year-old boy when Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby) snatched him up. Martin (Spencer List) wasn’t just one of Graham’s many victims, rather an apprentice. Martin has a condition called congenital insensitivity; he can’t feel pain, an attribute that’s key to Graham’s psychopathic and somewhat transcendental methods.
Now here comes the time-lapse, but this time around, we fast-forward just five years. After a family tragedy, 17-year-old Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario) is sent to Minersville, Pennsylvania to live with her uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn), right down the road from Graham Sutter himself. An avid runner, Allison’s only athletic outlet in the tiny town with a high school sans track team is a five-mile run around the neighborhood. Little does she know, her route takes her right by the rundown Sutter family meat packing plant, the building in which Graham continues to teach Martin his horrific ways. It takes just one glimpse of Martin through the broken window to stir her curiosity, drawing her in to the point at which running away is no longer an option.
It’s impossible to call Bereavement an enjoyable film because it’s so damn brutal, but Mena’s focus in bringing us back to Minersville is to scare the crap out of us and in that sense, he succeeds immensely. Mena’s a sick guy – sick, but extremely talented. He juggled a number of jobs while making Malevolence including directing, writing, scoring and editing, but the final product didn’t really justify that he had true ability in any of those areas. However, apparently Mena learned a thing or two from the experience because Bereavement is so above and beyond its predecessor, it really does prove that Mena is a fantastically versatile filmmaker.
First off, the characters are more engaging this time around, which makes the story far more interesting. Allison is an excellent protagonist – likable yet conflicted and interesting. As for Martin, he gives off an incredible duplicitous vibe. On the outside, he’s just a poor little boy who’s been taken away from his family, but there’s also always the sense that he could be harboring some of his mentor’s value. The two of them are surrounded by cliché, but wholly necessary characters. We’ve got the town bad boy with a sensitive side eying Allison (Nolan Gerard Funk), the kind-hearted uncle who’s trying to lay down the law while keeping his niece happy and, of course, the quintessential horror movie madman. The balance between the players is nearly perfect.
One thing that’s a bit difficult to digest is Graham’s evil side. No, not his love for stealing the town’s women and stabbing them to death, but his relationship with an evil bull skull that talks to him. On the bright side, this talking isn’t literal; Graham is basically having a one-way conversation, so it isn’t terribly ludicrous, but it is an element that could have been replaced with a more realistic concept or perhaps just developed a bit more to make it more impactful.
As easy as it is to say some of the people in Allison’s life aren’t fully formed characters, that’s kind of an asset in Bereavement. What sets this film apart from others of its kind is Mena’s complete lack of restraint. Suspense certainly builds from beginning to end, but scene-by-scene, time spent waiting for blood, is time wasted. Graham is no glorified serial killer. He knocks off one victim after the next without hesitation. He’s so clearly established as an unbelievably volatile man that that’s almost all that’s necessary when it comes to keeping the suspense level high. On the other hand, there’s just so many stabbings a viewer can take. Yes, this constant killing generally works in the tone of the film’s favor, but for some, it can certainly be a bit too much.
As clear as it is that Mena made major improvements, the success of the final product is also due to a stellar cast. There’s no other way to say it; the actors in Malevolence just weren’t very good. Their performances are unconvincing and amateurish. Well, here, either Mena learned a thing or two about casting, maybe a little something about directing his actors or perhaps the performers are just immensely talented, but from an acting standpoint, everything works. List certainly earns a place on the list (no pun intended) of creepy child actors and his little sister, Peyton, does a fine job playing Allison’s rather annoying little cousin. Rickaby made an impressively lasting impression even with minimal screen time in 2010’s The Crazies, so it’s no surprise that he makes for the perfect psychopath here. Both Biehn and Funk are a little bland in their roles, but that seems to be due to their formula characters more than anything.
The big winner on the roster is Daddario. She’s able to make Allison feel like a real person in the first portion of the film so that when we get to the more active and violent moments, they’re far more effective. Plus, her transition between the two is quite impressive. For a good chunk of the film, Daddario is basically starring in a teen drama dealing with family issues and dabbling in young love. However, once she gets to the more horrific parts of her role, there are really no transitions; she’s hurled into a nightmare and Daddario handles it beautifully.
Perhaps less praise would be showered on Bereavement had it not been Mena’s follow up to Malevolence, but regardless, there’s no denying that Mena certainly puts to use some fantastic techniques and really knows his stuff when it comes to scaring the viewer. The problem is that sometimes it can be a bit too much. Yes, it’s horrifying to watch a character you’ve gotten to know lose their life in an instant, but sometimes things are happening so fast, they’re not given enough of a chance to sink in. Bereavement is one big bloodbath and that in itself makes for a truly frightening scenario, but on the other hand, when you’re getting death after death, you’re merely just sitting through the film bracing yourself for what you know is sure to come. Regardless, Bereavement is a downright terrifying experience.
By Perri Nemiroff