Malevolence (2004)

The making-of documentaries included in DVD packages can go a long way toward generating sympathy for a mediocre film. In the case of the micro-budget indie horror film Malevolence, the documentary details a labor of love that stretched over nearly five years; by the end, you’re amazed the film was completed at all.

Writer-director Stevan Mena’s DVD commentary displays the shell-shocked calm of someone who has gone to hell and back to make his film (or in this case, Allentown, Pennsylvania and back). Touring the film’s locations, he rattles off a battery of incredible-but-true stories, including one about a crew member who kidnapped the negatives and held them for ransom, and another about a guy who pretended to be a production assistant, and ran off with a pile of cash. Just before principal photography, Mena recalls, he secured the rights to film in an abandoned house scheduled for demolition. After completely wrecking and redressing the place, he got word that the “owner” who gave permission had defaulted years ago, and that the house belonged to the bank. Mena and his crew were actually arrested for vandalism and left without a location two days before principal photography was to begin. Such is the stuff of indie nightmares.

Nevertheless, it is a bad sign when the making-of doc is more interesting than the film itself. Malevolence kicks off with a genuinely disturbing scene and even more disturbing premise: a serial killer enslaves a very young and unwilling apprentice. Unfortunately, Mena’s script instantly abandons this idea in favor of a lockstep walkthrough of the slasher flick, circa 1983.

And so the film begins again, as a trio of young bank robbers flee from their crime — crazed and vicious Kurt (Richard Glover), wily Marylin (Heather McGee), and hand-wringing Julian (Brandon Johnson). Their heist gone awry, they wind up at their rendezvous house with a couple of hostages in tow: soccer mom Samantha (Samantha Dark) and tweenage daughter Courtney (Courtney Bertolone). It turns out that the house is next door to the home of a deranged serial killer and, onscreen titles inform us, the current action takes place 10 years after the events in the first scene. This information will lead the attentive viewer to certain conclusions about the identity of the killer (more on that later).

From here on out, the movie toggles over into autopilot, following the flight path established years ago by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. The masked killer lumbers in the background as various characters make dubious decisions in the foreground. Unsettling tableaus are discovered in the lair of the monster. The killer shambles like a zombie in some scenes, moves like greased lightning in others. Would-be victims turn the tables and leave him for dead, only to discover that he isn’t quite dead yet.

We’ve not only seen this stuff a thousand times before, we’ve seen it elevated, updated, satirized, and deconstructed in the Scream franchise. Mena admits that he lifted the film’s structure directly from Hitchcock’s Psycho, and that he deliberately avoided “modernizing” the formula: “I wanted to go back and explore what made those original movies so effective in the first place,” he says. What made them effective is that they were fresh and inventive — 25 years ago.

Like Carpenter, Mena also composed his own original music for the film. The best movie scores work on a subliminal level, heightening emotion as your conscious mind assimilates the language and images. The score to Malevolence, on the other hand, should have its own billing, considering its scene-chewing presence: “And Starring the Wildly Intrusive Synth-Chord Score as… Itself.” The soundtrack suggests the essential problem with the film as a whole — it’s derivative in concept, and clumsily executed.

Given the information presented in the first part of the film, we assume that the crazed killer next door is the unwilling apprentice from the first scene. So there’s gotta be a twist, right? We’re going to learn of an unknown relationship between the killer and his victims, or get some kind of creepy backstory tying the first scene to the rest of the movie. Well, no. That’s actually all there is to it. The killer’s identity is confirmed in a climactic scene that we see coming from several nautical miles away. I felt despair as I realized the plot was not going to a deliver a payload of any kind.

Mena must have felt that despair, too, because toward the end of the movie, we get several tacked-on scenes in which a couple of FBI agents deliver some postmortem exposition concerning that pesky 10-year lapse. Perhaps Mena has a sequel in mind. Or maybe this is part four of a nine-part arc. In any case, it ain’t on the screen in Malevolence, and that’s a shame.

Mena’s atavistic approach is finally just puzzling. It’s like recording a faithful cover song of a famous pop song, adding nothing new, and playing it poorly. What’s the point? If we are to subscribe to the idea that horror movies reflect their eras — the sexual anxiety of the 1970s, the self-conscious irony of the 1990s — then Malevolence reflects only thoughtless nostalgia. Or maybe it’s just a bad movie. Sometimes a bloody meat cleaver is just a bloody meat cleaver.