Serial killer films are usually long on thrills and violence and short on characters and motivation. Today it’s all about the sexy killer or the killer with the creative M.O. with very little attention is paid to the underlying pathology. The low budget thriller, Bereavement, with its more character-centric approach, looks to provide viewers with a respite from the thinly developed serial killer movies of the new millennium. Conceived as a follow up that serves as a prequel to writer/director/producer Stevan Mena’s well regarded 2004 film Malevolence, Bereavement looks to go back and explore the origins of a serial killer and discover how an innocent young boy is turned into a monster. It’s a noble aim but, due to some troublesome writing and unclear character motivations, Bereavement unfortunately falls short of its lofty ambition.
On a dreary day in 1989 in the town of Minersville, Pennsylvania, six-year-old Martin Bristol (Chase Pechacek) is abducted from the swing set in front of his house by serial killer Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby). Young Martin has a rare condition, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA), in which his nerves are unable to register sensations of pain and unable to discern feelings of hot or cold. The dangers of CIPA are twofold: first it Makes Martin extremely vulnerable to injury; he could break a bone and not even realize it. Secondly, because Martin has no frame of reference when it comes to pain, he’s unable to empathize with the pain of others. This leaves him particularly susceptible for what Sutter has planned for him. Taken back to Sutter’s home, a former slaughter house, he’s schooled in the way of serial killing.
Flash forward five years. Seventeen year old Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario) arrives from Chicago via bus to the rural home of her uncle, Jonathan Miller (Michael Biehn). Allison’s parents have died and Allison’s going to spend her last bit of time before adulthood with her uncle, her aunt Karen (Kathryn Meisle) and young cousin Wendy (Peyton List). A recreational runner, Allison begins her first full day at her new home with a jog through the rural area. Her run takes her by the old Sutter slaughter house, where she catches a glimpse of now eleven year old Martin (Spencer List). It also takes her past the home of William (Nolan Funk), where she’s almost run off the road by a truck. William offers her a ride home on his motorcycle, which doesn’t impress Uncle J. It seems William has a bit of a checkered past and Jonathan is concerned about the influence he would have on his vulnerable young niece.
Sutter has spent the intervening years continually travelling out to surrounding towns in search of victims. He’s possessed of a need to atone for his part in the slaughter of animals while the slaughterhouse was operational and, for whatever reason, sees Martin as a means to that end. Because Martin doesn’t feel pain, Sutter interprets this to mean that he has a pure soul, unburdened by guilt.
From minute one, Bereavement drips with effective mood and atmosphere. The opening shots are so evocative of a damp, mid-Atlantic day that the visuals almost make you want to reach for a sweater or rain slicker. The opening scenes really set your expectations high, so it’s a disappointment that as the film segues into the main plot it becomes apparent that it is not going to deliver on the promise of its opening scenes that it isn’t going to be able to pull the disparate plot elements together. The actors do a valiant job trying to give the audience a reason to care about what’s happening on screen, but the material simply isn’t there.
The movie takes an admirable stab at human drama and contrasts the two “families” but, as a prequel to Malevolence, it doesn’t do a fantastic job of explaining the things it sets out to establish. Mena wants to give us insight into the Sutter and Martin’s minds, but he has doesn’t impart their psychological motivation to the audience clearly. This is largely due to the choice of making Martin mostly monosyllabic; the two don’t really have a relationship so Mena is left trying to develop Sutter’s psychological state from a purely visual standpoint. This is a daunting task for even the most seasoned filmmakers and he is unable to rise to the challenge. There are scenes that use the visual conceits of a bull skull and a journal that are supposed to occur entirely inside a Sutter’s mind, but that doesn’t come across on the screen at all. Honestly, I had no idea what was happening in those scenes until I listened to the audio commentary. This obfuscation robs Sutter’s scenes of suspense or drama. Watching the film with the commentary on is not just recommended, it’s absolutely essential if you are to understand what’s actually going on; I could not have written a plot summary of this movie without it.
Without potent drama to back up the “origin” of Martin, all we’re left with is a lot of purposeless violence. There are just far too many shadowy scenes of women hanging from hooks and being terrorized and murdered. It’s harrowing at first, the initial on-screen murder is extremely effective, but monotony stets in as the film wears on. There’s no suspense to these scenes because there’s no build up. Victims just appear in the slaughterhouse with no explanation of how they got there and are just as quickly dispatched. We never get a sense of the victim or are allowed an opportunity to get involved with their plight. The fact that the violence is extremely unpleasant doesn’t help matters and the murders are stretched way beyond a reasonable length. There’s nothing here to justify the 107 minute running time.
In stark contrast, the regular human drama is much better handled, at least in the sense that the motivations of the characters are clear. The story still relies too heavily on soap opera level dramatic clichés, but at least the scenes are comprehensible. It’s textbook storytelling but it still serves as a nice reprieve from the obtuseness of the other plot. On the commentary Mena reveals that a lot of Williams’ relationship with his father hit the cutting room floor in the editing process, yet in the few scenes that remain I have a far better scenes of who the characters are, why they act the way they do and how they feel about each other than I was able to glean from all the scenes between Sutter and Martin.
So, half the movie is maudlin family drama and the other half is what’s intended to be an intense psychological thriller, but there’s not much connection between the two halves. For most of its running time watching Bereavement feels like switching channels between two entirely different movies. When the two stories do eventually meet the connection is made in such an arbitrary way that it doesn’t feel satisfying. There needed to be more scenes bridging the two stories; not just scenes of Allison jogging by the slaughterhouse but scenes where she interacts with Sutter before he abducts her - something to make the two halves of the story feel like they belong together.
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about top-billed Michael Biehn. That’s because he’s barely in the movie and his role is the dullard uncle. Looking at the cover, you’d think that it was a serial killer movie starring him as the killer (which would be awesome). You’d be wrong. Instead, he’s wasted in forced, mawkish scenes of domestic drama before being unceremoniously dispatched from the film without kicking any kind of ass, whatsoever.
If there is a bright spot, it’s the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Daddario. With her piercing, icy blue eyes and her open, vulnerable face she’s an instantly appealing screen presence, able to project both innocence and unforced sensuality. She also has a couple things in common with classic scream queens, such as Jamie Lee Curtis…if you catch my meaning. Not only is she striking but she actually has acting chops, and is still able to create a sympathetic character from the very thin material. I look forward to seeing her in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D next year.
For such a low budget movie, Bereavement looks slick and professional. The picture quality is fantastic. There are some really fantastic vistas on display here, from the palpable wetness of the misty opening scenes, to the amber orange light during the scenes establishing the Miller family. It’s certainly done justice by the transfer here. Colors are rich and deeply saturated when appropriate. Flesh tones are accurate. Source material is pristine and I didn’t notice anything in the way of compression issues. Detail is great in dark scenes as well as in the light of day. Bereavement is a really nice looking film.
No matter how slick a movie looks, its budget is almost always apparent in its soundtrack. Such is the case with the adequate but unspectacular Dolby True HD 5.1 track included on this Blu-ray. As is typical of low budget productions, it rarely ever makes good use of all five discreet channels. It’s pretty much just a stereo track with some music echoed in the back channels and a bit low end thrown in. In the front, everything is well balanced, though dialogue can sound overly canned. None of the audio’s shortcomings are surprising considering how costly a great sound mix can be and shouldn’t count as a huge black mark against the film or disc.
As already eluded to, the audio commentary with writer/director/producer Stevan Mena is an absolute must-listen. He clears up plot incoherencies, and gives character insight that’s lacking in the film but, even beyond that, he’s a competent technical craftsman who knows how to churn out professional looking product on a low budget. Whatever your opinion of the film itself, aspiring filmmakers will probably get a lot out of the commentary.
The Making of Bereavement (34:37) is a typical behind the scenes piece: interviews and behind the scenes footage interspersed with footage from the movie proper. It’s interesting enough but, after the enlightening commentary, I was kind of hoping for something a bit more revelatory.
First Look: On the Set (7:06) is pretty much the same deal as the full-on making of featurette, in truncated form. Again, some interesting clips but, again, I must direct anyone looking for insight to listen to the commentary instead.
7 Deleted Scenes with optional director’s commentary (running a total 10:45), dealing with William and his father, a short scene extension between Jonathan and Allison and a deleted subplot about the ghostly visage of a victim that torments Sutter. Watch Biehn’s eye line in his scene and count how many times he checks out Daddario’s chest (not that I blame him). On the commentary, Mena explains the rationale behind the deletion of the scenes. Not sure that it’s totally necessary since the reasons are pretty apparent. Even with 10 minutes cut out, the feature still feels overlong.
Rounding out the supplement is a collection of promotional materials: A Theatrical Trailer (1:45) that’s not as professionally assembled as the film its advertising, a TV Spot (0:32) that feels even chintzier and an animated Still Montage (4:57) of promotional and behind the scenes pics, set to the film’s main theme. Nice that they’re included for the sake of completion, but not really worth the time it takes to watch them.
Bereavement is a nice effort but ultimately a failure at its primary aims. The cinematography is fantastic and there are moments of interest for those who choose to watch it, but there’s not enough substance here to justify the bloated 107 minute running time. The screenplay could have used a polish or two before going before the cameras. Barring that, a little more judicious editing might be able to minimize some of Bereavement’s shortcomings. As it is, however, it’s far easier to appreciate than it is to like or be entertained by. Fans of Malevolence might get more out of it than I did, but if it’s truly a prequel then it should work equally well for those without foreknowledge of Mena’s prior film. I can only think of two reasons to recommend Bereavement, and they’re both located on Alexandra Daddario.
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