Reluctant criminal Julian and his girlfriend Marylin plot a bank robbery with her brother Max and associate Kurt. During the heist, Max is mortally wounded and the gang are forced to separate, agreeing to rendezvous later that night. Unfortunately Kurt complicates matters by picking up two hostages along the way - young mother Samantha and her teenage daughter Courtney - and if that wasn’t bad enough, the rendezvous point is very close to an old, seemingly deserted house that holds a terrifying secret.
Malevolence is the writing/directing debut for Stevan Mena, and if nothing else is a testament to the dedication needed to make a low-budget horror film. Shot over a period of years, the production was beset by a painful catalogue of disasters - from theft of the negatives to the crew being arrested for vandalism - but Mena stayed loyal to his project well past the point that many might have jacked it in. The resulting film is uneven and derivative, but also provides moments of well-crafted terror and an atmosphere of dread missing from many more accomplished films.
The film opens with a short, scary flashback that shows a woman, tied to the ceiling of a darkened basement, brutally murdered by an unseen assailant. It quickly switches into crime thriller mode, as the mismatched quartet execute their bungled robbery, and although these scenes aren’t helped by their generic nature and some variable acting, there is a compelling sense of unpredictably during the first half-hour. Are these the good guys or the bad? What does it have to do with the opening scene? How do the mother and daughter we keep cutting to fit in? Everything eventually slots into place as Kurt, with the kidnapped Samantha and Courtney in tow, arrives at the rendezvous with the stolen money. Courtney manages to escape and flees to a nearby farmhouse - Kurt follows her, and the film enters more familiar territory. Put it this way - the film isn’t set in Texas and there are no chainsaws present, but Kurt’s tour of the old house and his not-unexpected demise does bring to mind a certain 1974 horror classic. Yep, there’s a crazy killer in that decrepit building, as Julian and Marylin are also quick to discover when they arrive to collect their share of the cash.
Mena took the admirable (and costly) decision to shoot on 35mm film - which for a low budget filmmaker is almost unheard-of in this age of low-cost digital photography. Given that 75 percent of the film is set at night, the film stock allows cinematographer Tsuyoshi Kimoto to really make full, claustrophobic use of the darkness, and it lends the film a professional (if still gritty) look that puts it far above other films of its type. Mena is clearly a horror fan and knows how to push the right buttons, building the tension well and injecting some nicely-timed shocks, as the mysterious, masked killer stalks the remaining victims round both his house and the one where the gang arranged to meet.
Inevitably though, Malevolence suffers from being just too eager to pay homage to its influences without offering anything particularly original of its own. However well-directed individual scenes are, we’ve seen most of this too many times before, and in better paced, better written and better acted movies. The bank robbery/kidnapping is an interesting spin, sure, and it’s slightly refreshing to have a bunch of victims who aren’t sex-crazed teens. But once the ‘heroes’ have arrived at the old house and crazy farmboy is hunting them down it’s the same old story, from the shot of the killer’s hand smashing through a door a la Halloween, to his predictable inability to stay dead despite begin beaten with a metal rod and shot at close range. And Mena’s own synthesizer score doesn’t help matters either, which at best sounds dated and at worst almost comical, some terrible synth-stabs accompanying the film’s big shocks. As a first film, Malevolence shows plenty of promise, and Mena is clearly a director with both talent behind the camera and respect for the genre. But like too many (admittedly much worse) films, it never truly escapes from the shadow of its influences and stakes out its own identity.
[Anchor Bay have done a good job with their DVD, and extras include ‘Back to the Slaughterhouse’, a documentary detailing the arduous process to get Malevolence to the screen, an interview with lead actress Samantha Dark, an audio commentary from director Stevan Mena, star R. Brandon Johnson and producer Eddie Akmal, rehearsal footage, deleted scenes, original trailers and TV/radio spots, a gallery of stills and the original screenplay on DVD-ROM]