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The next film for the 31 Days challenge is another one that’s been around for a while and has built up a little reputation. It combines the straightforward scares of “Texas Chainsaw” and other backwoods slashers, with some mature themes (and some real nihilism) thrown in for good measure. Written, directed and produced by Stevan Mena, it’s actually a prequel to his earlier film “Malevolence”. That was a psycho thriller where bank-robbers unwittingly find refuge in the territory of a deranged killer, a film I have to admit that I haven’t caught yet. As such “Bereavement” still feels like a standalone film, but also works as an origin story for those that have caught “Malevolence”. In fact there’s a post-credit scene that ties straight into it. This one benefits from a larger budget and the presence of Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese and Corporal Hicks forever!) and Alexandra Daddario (just as she was going through her scream queen phase) in leading roles. Interestingly, a third film in this “saga” was very nearly finished, but was cancelled at the last moment by Mena due to budget issues and other reasons. But this never felt like it was going to be a barrel of laughs at any rate…

It opens in the small prairie town of Minersville, Pennsylvania during 1989. Slap-bang in the middle of nowhere, an abandoned meat factory sits decaying in scrubland. A baseball-capped man emerges and gets into a rusty van and starts to cruise into town. Ominously he slows down to look at children passing by, until he comes to young Martin Bristol’s house. Martin suffers from congenital analgesia, which means he can’t feel pain (a fact handily given as exposition as his mother talks about him to a prospective babysitter). Drawn to the boy, the man kidnaps him and disappears back to the factory. Five years later and student Alison Miller (Daddario) is dropped on the outskirts of Minersville by coach, and picked up by her uncle Jonathan Miller (Biehn). Alison’s parents were killed in an accident and the grieving teenager is now to live with him and his family. Meanwhile across town, the capped stranger (now revealed to be local loony Graham Sutter played by Brett Rickaby) is in the act of abducting a young waitress and taking her back to his home in the factory. A seriously deranged individual, given to conversations with animal skulls, he still holds Martin (played by Spencer List) as a captive. He treats him as a witness and servant, as he imprisons and butchers young women for unknown reasons. As the displaced Alison tries to find her place in the town, all the players will come together in a grim story of blood and violence…

Strewth! You might want to keep a box-set of “SpongeBob Squarepants” or something handy after this, to cheer yourself up! It’s a dark and disturbing take on horror, which mixes warped character studies in the style of “Halloween” and “Texas Chainsaw”. Sutter himself (nicely played by Rickaby) has a definite touch of Ed Gein about him, and is a psychopath of the most primal and disturbing kind. He has an obvious hatred towards women (which seems to have been ingrained in him by his father), but beyond that he works under motives that go unheard by the viewer, as they’re driven by internal voices. His is the sort of antagonist that you can’t reason with, and will perform the most brutal acts without compunction. The bastard.

And the film is unrelenting with some of the violence as well. Whilst it’s not necessarily overly graphic, it’s the brutality of some scenes that gets you (and the victims) in the gut. A horribly protracted moment with a meat-hook and a furnace stands out, and the last act has a series of cold-blooded murders that are all the more effective for the fact that the film has taken time to build up characters and empathy for most of the cast.

The first half of the narrative is split evenly between two sub-plots. There’s the attempt by Alison to settle into her new life, with the help of her caring Uncle and a possible romance with the local bad-boy mechanic. This is juxtaposed with the crimes of Sutter, as he abducts and kills, and tries to shape the young boy into a protégé or assistant somehow with his warped psychology. This means that some mature themes take up the slow-burn of the story and integrate themselves into the plot. There’s the effect that grief and loss can have on individuals, shattering the psyche of those prone to madness. More ideology is thrown in with the plight of Martin (and others), laying down the old nature-or-nurture question; is someone born bad or are they driven to evil by their upbringing and external influences? (NB: The film seems to suggest the latter.) Then there’s the way that parents try to enforce their ambitions and beliefs onto their children. It’s all heady stuff, above the usual slasher fodder, but it does become a more straightforward dark psycho thriller as it nears the end.

Biehn is solid as the strict-but-well-meaning uncle. Daddario is really good value as well, although she does become a bit of a stereotypical tight-t-shirt final-girl at the denouement. It certainly doesn’t rush the slasher element and might not appeal to many with its downbeat ethics and actions. It’s definitely a film prone towards nihilism and the dark side of humanity as well. This isn’t a glass-half-full film. It’s a film that tells you your glass is half-empty, it’s got a leak, and you’ve just badly cut yourself badly on a sharp bit. Those that have watched “Malevolence” will have a clear idea where it’s heading (and be pleased by the Easter egg at the end), but everybody else may well be taken aback by the particularly grim events that unfold at the climax. This is dark Indie horror, bereft of studio changes and test screenings.

It’s certainly not going to be to everybody’s taste, and it becomes so misery-laden and bereft-of-hope, that it sometimes feels a little farcical. The police are missing for 99% of the time, and they seem to be useless assholes who can’t solve a spate of multiple disappearances and a 5-year old abduction … even though they’re committed by the widely recognised local nutcase who lives in a creepy factory alone … and drives around kidnapping people in a van with his own freakin’ name on the side of it!! There’s a hell of a lot of authentic-sounding screaming on the audio here as well, so you might want to tell the neighbours that you’re not watching (or doing) anything illegal beforehand.

That aside… this is an effectively dark and surprisingly nasty variation of the small-town slasher, even if it’s not always 100% effective in its aims. You won’t feel like whistling a happy tune afterwards, but you might want to check out “Malevolence” as well. And it is Halloween after all…

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