One of the major enjoyments I had as a Long Islander last summer was to see the world premiere of Stevan Mena’s new film BEREAVEMENT at its world premiere in Bellmore, New York. Fellow Long Islander Mike Cucinotta and I were fortunate to be in the audience that past Friday night, and as BEREAVEMENT is finally getting its due with a release in theatres, I thought this was a fitting time to post my review of it here, as well as a look back at the night.
“This Mortal Coil”
The night started out with this 18-minute short from director Sean King, written by Paul Natale. Filmed on Long Island, it tells the story of a downtrodden newspaper boy who fancies vampires. At a late night beer fest out in the woods, he sees a beautiful German exchange student who may or may not be a real vampire. Hoping she can cure him of his… well, humanity, the introverted teen commits some heinous acts.
Everything about “This Mortal Coil” is grim, from the dull, gray skies to the tone and pacing. It’s hard to watch, but it’s a well done piece, if a definite downer. It left me thinking about where this kid’s parents were, as their absence is an unspoken influence in the film. I was ready to call bogus when the credits stated “Based on a true story,” but apparently there’s a real kid in the U.K. who committed the atrocities in “Coil,” as King kindly explained after the film.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN MALEVOLENCE
One of the beauties of horror is that sometimes it takes you to dark places and tells you, “You don’t ever want to go here.” BEREAVEMENT does exactly that. While MALVOLENCE played the slasher card, and did a nice job at it, this prequel delves far deeper into grimness and despair, plunging its audience into those horrifying depths without ever letting them up for air.
The film begins with Graham Sutter’s truck. He’s trolling for victims, as he does frequently in the film. But on this trip, he finds something far more intriguing: a disciple. Young Martin Bristol innocently sits on a swing in his backyard, as his mother explains to an aide in the kitchen that he’s special: he has no physical sensation of feeling. This makes him susceptible to all sorts of dangers. But it has nothing to do with the danger that’s about to kidnap him from the safety of his own backyard.
Before I go further, I’ll say this. The best horror films have a way of making us feel unsafe in our own world, and BEREAVEMENT does exactly that. Martin’s kidnapping takes both him and us along for the dark ride, as a serial killer selects young, female prey, overtakes them, and then slaughters them. Martin acts as our eyes, the reluctant voyeur, forced to watch, helpless to stop the madness. His feeble attempts to intervene only end in punishment and blood, at the hands of his surrogate father. The family unit is shattered, even as Sutter tries to make Martin his convert, all the while answering to the ghosts of his past. The film establishes through Sutter’s psychotic conversations with animal skulls that his relationship with his own father was disturbed at best; clearly he had issues long before he set the film’s events in motion. And now they’ve come full circle.
Mena contrasts the new Sutter family with the Millers, a seemingly everyday American family who, when Mena peels back the onion’s layers, are also dysfunctional. After the death of her parents, teen Allison has come to live with her uncle John his family. As John tries to establish the patriarchal authority over his new charge, Allison rebels. Staying out late and hanging out with local teen William (whose own family is a shattered mess, his father wheelchair bound, his mother a suicide), she seems all too willing to escape her new family, as much as they try to accommodate her. A high school track star in Chicago, she’s constantly running, a nice motif for her desire to run from the many troubles of her life. When she catches sight of Martin in a window, she can only run into despair. Alexandra Daddario’s performance holds the film together, and Mena gets a nice performance out of her, as well as Michael Biehn as John.
Mena’s films all comment on the mess that the American family has become (even in his comedy BRUTAL MASSACRE, where Harry Penderecki’s cast and crew act as an extended family). This subtext is among the many elements that makes his movies stand out among a sea of mindless drivel. He’s out to do more than just scare you; he wants to dig under your skin and unnerve you, by showing you things that could happen in your own neighborhood. Hence, the brutal violence in the film is never gratuitous. There’s lots of blood here, but it’s a necessary component to the story telling. BEREAVEMENT is a darker film than MALEVOLENCE, but it absolutely needs to be.
It’s also a more nuanced film. As Mena develops his technique, he’s starting to fulfill the promise that MALEVOLENCE suggested. He’s coming into his own as a director, developing past the genre clichés that were so evident in his first outing. For a young talent, his shot selection is superb, and he knows how to build tension to a crescendo of madness. The terror is relentless, and he makes the most of his setting, the grim, real-life slaughter house he also used in MALEVOLENCE, including his creative use of a carcass hook, a furnace and a freezer unit. As a writer, he proves he’s also capable of creating a much more textured world than about 99.9 percent of the new horror film directors; he balances this against a constant sense of dread. We know from seeing the first film that none of these characters are going to live, yet Mena finds ways to stun and shock. For this, I applaud him.
Horror’s been in a rut for a while, oversaturated by derivative remakes and backyard zombie flicks. Stevan Mena challenges the system with his output, and offers fresh hope for the genre. If he’s any indicator of a new wave of horror, we have a lot to look forward to. He’s a talent on the rise, and if you consider yourself worth your salt, you must see BEREAVEMENT. It’s a dark place, and I’m telling you, you should go there.
After the film was over, several of the people involved in both “This Mortal Coil” and BEREAVEMENT hung around for a question-and-answer. The hour being so late, I considered this very noble of them.
I was surprised to find the audience took a while to warm up. It’s never comfortable when filmmakers are waiting for questions, and it takes a while for them to come. The audience split its questions evenly between the short film and the feature, which caught me off guard. King and his two young actors explained what projects they were working on now, and how they aged the characters in “Coil” a bit because no one would believe a pre-teen could be such a horror… and then backtracked as he realized Mena’s film did just that. Mena came prepared, and when someone asked him how believable it could be for Graham to move around unnoticed as he kidnapped people, he responded with how serial Joel Rifkin lived in his neighborhood for six or so years doing just that. He’s a savvy guy, and has an incredible sense of humor about his work and himself. He hung around for a long while after the Q-and-A ended, greeting and discussing his career with the fans.
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the world premiere of BEREAVEMENT. The film itself was a revelation on just how strong a horror film can be in the right hands, and getting to chat with Mena was a highlights of my gig working for horror sites on the net. I wish him only the best, and I’m pleased to see BEREAVEMENT got a distribution deal. It deserves to be seen on a wide scale.