The astute fan of indie horror cinema may recall a not-half-bad offering from 2004 called Malevolence. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, it told the story of a bank robbery gone (seriously) awry when the criminals choose the wrong patch of woods to hole up in. And that's an understatement. A clearly low-budget and scrappy indie, to be sure, but one with a few fresh ideas in its head -- and an impressive commitment to not softening its blows. Mena came back a few years later with the horror farce known as Brutal Massacre, which earned some fans on the festival circuit, and now he's returned to "straight" horror with Bereavement.
To those who remember the story of Malevolence, Bereavement will work as a suitably crafty prequel. To those who've never even heard of Malevolence, good news: the new film works perfectly well on its own. The connective tissue between the films is this: we jump back in time to see how the killer from Malevolence became so damn, well, malevolent. And it's not a pretty story. Basically he's kidnapped as a little kid and raised by a raving psycho who murders all sorts of people. Since Bereavement is a prequel, we know that "the kid" is destined to survive, but that's not to say that Mr. Mena doesn't have a few harsh surprises up his sleeve.
Set in the early '90s, Bereavement focuses mostly on a sweet young gal named Allison, who has gone to live with her aunt and uncle's farm after the death of her parents. Long story short: Allison starts to notice a strange little kid inside of a neighbor's barn, and her curiosity (eventually) reveals some decidedly terrifying secrets. To say much more would rob the simple tale of its punches, but Bereavement exhibits a surprisingly deft touch between drama, suspense, horror, and black-hearted nastiness.
The prequel also trumps its predecessor by boasting a bulkier budget, a more confident filmmaker, and an unexpectedly interesting cast. The adorable Alexandra Daddario proves to be curious and sweet, but not stupid, and scattered about you'll find some strong but quiet work from folks like Michael Biehn and John Savage. Brett Rickaby, as the lunatic, is also rather strong -- and lord knows that's helpful when you have a psycho who actually has dialogue. And while certainly not shy about bleak, even confrontational, moments of ultra-violence, the director is still intent on composing small and unsettling moments of "set-up." While Mena clearly had more to work with on Bereavement, it's still a low-budget horror film -- and yet it still "looks" good.
At times Bereavement may feel like just another horror flick in which people are chained up and made to suffer, but there's something quietly novel about Mena's approach to the material. He ups the ante by introducing a small child as witness to numerous horrors, but strikes a crafty balance that never tips into outright exploitation. Strong but quiet proof that not all "video shelf horror flicks" are created equal, Bereavement is evidence of a group of filmmakers who take their horror seriously. One has no doubt that these guys could do something even cooler with a bit (or a lot) more money to work with.