Bereavement is one of the darkest movies I’ve seen in a long time. Let me clarify: I don’t mean mood, story, or ending - although those are all certainly dark as well - no, I mean it quite literally. Lighting-wise, the images that fill your screen for almost two hours are some of the darkest I’ve come across in a long while. This is both the most symptomatically interesting and idiosyncratically unique aspect of the film, a film about which I have an awful lot to say, I want to add at the outset. For reasons passing understanding (well, maybe not passing understanding, we’ll get to that later, but in the idiomatic sense of the phrase) this movie currently holds a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. By now you may be getting the impression that I find this to be a wildly unjustified rating, and you would be right. You may also think that I’m about to launch into a tirade against those who misunderstood the film and thus gave it a poor rating. You would be wrong: I think these people understood all too well what Bereavement was going for, and simply didn’t like what it had to say.
First things first: Bereavement is, on one level, the standard-issue Lifetime made-for-TV movie tale of Allison, a teenage girl whose parents die, and is sent to live with her quiet, gruff, no-nonsense uncle and his wife and daughter on a farm in a small town. She’s from Chicago! She’s used to the big city! He doesn’t know what to do with this girl - he can barely handle the young daughter his new wife brought along from her first marriage! Can these two somehow figure out a way to be a family? Oh, also, she likes the local guy who became an auto mechanic, but (uh oh!) her uncle thinks he’s a ne’er-do-well! Can they work it out? She loves to run long distance track, but all they have at the local school is a cheerleader team! (Sad trombone!) Will she ever…..you get the idea.
Except, here’s the thing: before the credits are even done, we see a girl kidnapped by a mysterious man, hung up in a basement somewhere, and murdered with a knife in front of a young boy (who has his own issues - again, later). At first, when it moved from this to the post-credits introduction of Allison and the small-town life she’s about to begin, complete with generic whatta-backwards-life theme music, I thought the opening gambit was a brutally ill-conceived mistake; it graphically showed the seedy underbelly of this film, laying out more or less the entire notion of a young boy being taught the ways of serial murder, before we even have a protagonist. “Way to give up the game, indie horror film,” I said to no one in particular, with a puckish and downturned mouth. “You may as well be Prom Night, or some other garbage mini-major, PG-13, conform to all the rules piece of trash.” For even considering that, Bereavement, I heartily apologize.
See, the weirdest fucking thing happens in this film: for the first forty-five minutes, we simply cut back and forth, with a jarringly abrupt tonal and visual shift, from the typical drama-rama, cut-rate story of a teen girl making a life change, to a grim, pitch-black, visually and diagetically grim hack-n-slash murder pic. Allison, her uncle, his family, and the town, are all painted in sepia-toned colors so pedestrian, it only takes awhile before you begin to realize the sui generis approach on display here is entirely intentional. The director (and editor, and writer, and musician, and 2nd unit director - this was a real labor of love, and a film that embodies the auteurist theory of movies) Stevan Mena is going after something strange - an upending of cinematic conventions. Not merely a genre mashup, or some pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you shock a la Audition, Mena is trying to see what happens when you literally combine a two-hankie weepie with a brutal Saw-esque slasher, and ends up with something entirely different in the process.
The wicked fun here is in seeing the ways in which the conventions of these different narratives end up pulling the story in unexpected directions. Now, stay with me, because this gets astoundingly unexpected, not to mention unremittingly grim. (As per usual, and the regular readers know this, I now tell you that if this sounds up your alley so far, STOP READING NOW, because it’s about to get crazy spoilery up in here, and also as usual, I HEARTILY RECOMMEND you see this one: it’s incredibly fascinating. I found it to be very good, and even if you don’t like it, I think the reasons people seem to not like it are not because it isn’t smart and effective, but rather because they simply don’t like the intention behind it. It goes places that I think, quite honestly, people would rather not movies go. They don’t enjoy it when this happens. And, weird as it may seem for me to say, I find this totally valid. If I were in a different mood, perhaps this movie would’ve bugged the shit out of me. It really violates a few core rules of storytelling, especially if you - like me - think Joseph Campbell really knew what the fuck he was talking about. But I digress.) SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT, PLEASE WATCH THE FILM AND THEN REJOIN US AT THIS POINT.
As is inevitable, Allison gets pulled into the world of the murderous killer and his young protege. Only, we’re not so sure the kid actually IS a protege. See, the boy, as we learn in the pre-credits beginning, has congenital analgesia - a very rare, but very real condition in which the body is unable to feel pain. When he is kidnapped, the killer uses this to his advantage, saying “See? It doesn’t hurt,” as he slides a knife across the boy’s cheek, drawing blood, right before said knife is plunged right into the stomach of a kidnapped young woman eight feet away. The boy runs, is caught, and punished by the killer. He seems to not like this whole stabby-stabby, blood-and-guts thing. Cut to: Allison, running by the abandoned factory in which this gruesome narrative plays out, when she sees the boy in one of the smashed-out windows. Shortly thereafter, she sees the boy again on one of her runs, whereupon she takes the initiative, heads into the house (and down into the catacombs of the factory that connect to the house), and tries to find the boy and bring him to safety. She uncovers the standard “check out my scrapbook of abductions and murders!” tome that seems de rigeur for any paint-by-numbers serial killler flick, and learns that the boy, Martin, was taken five years ago. She tries to get him home, and ends up tied up and ready to be murdered by our antagonist, the psychotic owner of the abandoned factory. Since she never comes home, our gruff-but-protective uncle (did I mention he’s played by the great Michael Biehn?) comes to find her, going right up to the murderer’s house - only to immediately be shot and killed for his troubles.
Oh, hey, at this point, there’s still forty minutes left to go. What?
Let’s get to the meat of it: Allison, with Martin’s help, escapes, though the boy she likes comes to help and is also murdered for his efforts. The killer drives ahead of them, back to Allison’s house, and stabs the mother and sets fire to the house. Allison returns to stab HIM before he can kill the little girl, except - ruh-roh Shaggy - Martin reveals his true colors and stabs her! (Shocked trombone!) Then Martin heads upstairs and kills the little girl! Before returning to his abandoned-factory-cum-home-sweet-home and finishes off the serial killer Allison stabbed ten minutes earlier! See, everyone dies. Horribly. And the little boy who showed some ambivalence about the fine art of serial killing turns out to not be so ambivalent about it after all. He embraces his instruction and lives up to his stab-stab potential. (Just in case you had any doubts about whether or not he really does, the end credits have a stinger announcing “FIVE YEARS LATER,” the whole point of which is just to show a random young girl run up to the ramshackle house, asking for help, so we can see the now-teenage Martin, still wearing a bloodied sweater, slowly turn around and regard the girl with a look that all but announces he will be filleting her in roughly an hour.)
The cinematography is quite lovely, really, once you realize that in certain shots they’re going for a very filtered look intentionally. The beginning shots in particular have some great tracking work, that hearkens back to the great Carpenter films of the 70s and 80s, as well as some of the better Wes Craven pulls. Although, honestly, when the final shot does the exact same thing, showing young Martin at the window, as we pull back in what must be a smartly-executed crane shot, it reminded me of Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas as much as anything, which longtime readers will know I would count as high praise indeed. Mena has a real way with his camera - I was honestly impressed by his tightly-wound use of space. He almost never includes more than he needs to in any shot - the economy of diagetic reality is admirable, and something rarely noted by many young horror directors today. In addition, I want to single out his use of black as noteworthy. The common refrain today is for the “like I’m looking right through a window!” image of truemotion TV adjusters and the foolhardy thought that brighter is better. (The Onion had a great piece recently that dealt with precisely this plague.) I’m pleased to report that Mena has given a hearty middle finger to this change in cinematography, preferring to embrace the uncertainty and blindness of deep blacks in the frame. So many minutes are illuminated by the barest light, you find yourself straining, uncomfortably, for any glimpse of incandescence - this is exactly what good horror should force you to do. The anxiety of not-seeing, as always, is the most effective tool in the box, and Mena employs this to profound effect.
Not only that, but it serves a deeper purpose, story-wise. Bereavement is about the triumph of nurture over nature, the practice of ideology as successfully shaping any soul. A useful quote to kick off the film would be Pascal’s wager: “kneel, move your lips in prayer, and belief will come.” You don’t have to start off with faith in God, Pascal argues; you can just go through the motions, and eventually, faith will come all on its own, because you’ll need to justify your own actions so profoundly that the impetus will arrive via mere repetition. This is not a popular view, especially in today’s society, where personal enlightenment is so prized, the very idea that you could be doing something for less-than-acknolwedged reasons is tantamount to admitting that you’re not a genius. In this era, when everyone is taught what a special and unique snowflake they are, how could this possibly be true? Stevan Mena has crafted a devilishly smart, but by definition equally unappealing for most people, answer.
Though unappealing does not even come into the equation when it comes to the aesthetic choices in this film. Well-shot, well-acted, and not only do we get the magic of Michael Biehn, but I have been introduced to the gorgeous and raw nerve acting of one Ms. Alexandra Daddario, whom I will be seeking out performances by in the future. Mr. Mena knew what he was doing in casting. Speaking of which, he seemed to know what he was doing in almost every aspect of this film. He wrote, shot, edited…basically did everything but craft services for this film. I look forward to his next work. Movies like this are why doing this site is such a joy for me: the unexpected pleasures that pop up when you least expect them. Here’s hoping everyone sees this film, and has the temerity to stomach a story and message they will find profoundly upsetting and unappealing. And that, my friends, is a recommendation.
(Addendum: the film is technically a prequel to the 2003 film Malevolence, though I think that has no bearing on it. Any film should be able to stand on its own merits, as Pauline Kael said, and this is a case of a “prequel” that trumps its predecessor.)