One of the last truly taboo realms in horror filmmaking is the use of children in matters of graphic violence. Some that have tread this path have found themselves either strangulated out of the mainstream (A Serbian Film for instance), or banned/blacklisted altogether. Director Steven Mena (Malevolence, Bereavement) has found a way to walk this tightrope border lining such material with the story of young Martin Bristol – a young boy abducted by a serial killer, forced to learn the ways. I sat down with him to find out how he manages to balance these complicated aspects – as well as where Martin Bristol’s story will go in Malevolence 3.
BD: How do you think MALEVOLENCE manages to walk the tightrope border lining such material, while still becoming an underground cult piece more so respected for its grit and terror aspects than shunned altogether like others have been?
MENA: I try to be very conscious of crossing the line into exploitation. For example, it would have been very simple for Sutter to tear the shirt off one of his victim’s, leaving her naked and exposed. That sort of sexual humiliation, when combined with violence, crosses the line into exploitation and poor taste. I always try to avoid that. Another example is gore. Yes there is plenty of blood in the film, but I never go so far as to get into the accurate anatomy of what should be spilling out onto the floor. Do we really need to see someone’s intestines? No, we get the point. I’m actually very squeamish myself, so putting gore in my films is a choice I make only because I thought the audience would react the opposite way if I didn’t. For example, you can’t base a movie about a guy murdering people in an old butcher place and not show some gore, people will call bullshit. At the same time, most (sane) people also don’t need much to get the point. It’s like pouring syrup on pancakes, at some point it’s enough! But there are those wacky few who like to drown ëem. I guess those films you mentioned are like drowned pancakes.
BD: How much flack have you had to absorb from people or groups sensitive to the subject matter of MALEVOLENCE and BEREAVEMENT?
MENA: None, except for the occasional, “dude you’re messed up in the head” comments. To be honest, the reason BEREAVEMENT seems so over the top is because of the dramatic elements in the film. I very purposefully slowed the pace in those sections to let people get immersed in the family, get to know them. It must have worked because most of the negative feedback I’ve read if any has been from people who were mad that characters they liked came to harm. Stuff like “how could you kill that person???!! Because they were invested in the character. That was the whole idea. So my response to them is I’m glad you hated the ending, I wanted you too. If you didn’t you’d be a very cold person. The subject matter of any horror/slasher film is horrific. And if we were shown the true nature of murder we would turn away from it in disgust. It’s all in the presentation. My film isn’t over the top gory, but because a child is present, and because it’s devoid of humor, Or because you got to know the character and actually feel a real sense of loss, it seems more intense. Children see bad things everyday all over the world. It’s a reality. People want to see horror, but they don’t want to feel guilty about it. So when a film comes along that doesn’t pull any punches, that seems real, some get offended by its honesty. I actually felt that way the first time I saw SE7EN. I hated it. I was so angry they killed Gwyneth’s character. Today it’s in my top 10 favorite films.
BD: Was there anything relevant to the story – when you were writing MALEVOLENCE and BEREAVEMENT – where you had to stop yourself, or edit it from actual filming, because it just went too far?
MENA: Yes, all (three) films are based on a book I wrote. In the book, the violence perpetrated on Martin was much worse. I didn’t have to go to those extremes to get my point across. Even a slap to a child is enough to turn people’s stomachs. So just a small dose is enough in this case I thought. Some people have actually complained they didn’t see more of Martin’s abuse at the hands of Sutter. My response is just one instance is enough. People are very smart. It’s not a subtle point I’m making.
BD: The first two films in the trilogy seemed to be two different flavors – a difference between the underlying styles. MALEVOLENCE was a raw, serial killer film that delivered a visceral tension that most slasher films lack. BEREAVEMENT opened up the back story of Martin, and even though you knew where it was headed, BEREAVEMENT played with your moral compass: was Martin a victim, or a cold blooded killer. Where might his story be headed in MALEVOLENCE 3?
MENA: What will be revealed in the third film is that Martin truly was the ultimate evil. Worse than Sutter. His disease prevents him from feeling any empathy towards his victims. Combined with his indoctrination into violence against others at the hands of Sutter, riding shotgun in Sutter’s truck of madness, he’s too far gone to ever be reasoned with. He’s far more dangerous than Sutter ever was. Because you can’t reason with Martin. Sutter at least had conflict, which prevails with his epiphany in the end that his quest for absolution was horribly flawed. But Martin has no conflict. He’ll kill anything that crosses his path. And not think anything of it. It’s recreation to him. So when Sutter’s lair is gutted by police, Martin is forced to flee to the only other home he ever knew. Anything and anyone that crosses his path is in mortal danger. With Agent Perkins hunting him down, it will be a fast paced film, with a much more suspenseful bent, since unlike Sutter, Martin enjoys slipping in and out of the darkness, mercilessly toying with his victims, patiently waiting in the shadows to strike.
BD: Does Sheriff Riley weigh into the third film?
MENA: Riley was a clueless bonehead sheriff, who “never thought it could happen here”. In his defense, Sutter never kidnapped any girls in his jurisdiction of Ironton, he usually traveled a few towns over to places like Minersville to get his victims. So Riley was blindsided by the violence right under his nose, as was the rest of the town. His job, or lack thereof, is done.
BD: Have you played with the idea of, or envisioned, what you’d like to work on when this trilogy is complete? By the time its complete, it will have taken up a decade of your filmmaking career. Surely during this time you’ve been brewing up other ideas, or offers?
MENA: I was working with a major company to produce my supernatural thriller called TRANSIENCE, which was going to be my largest film by far to date. Unfortunately there are some incredibly dark forces at work in Hollywood, stuff I never dreamed I’d encounter. But I did. If you google TRANSIENCE and Lawsuit, you can read about it. It was a script I worked on for 7 years. It was going to be my next project, but now instead it looks like I’ll be jumping right into MALEVOLENCE 3. I’ve gotten many other offers, but I haven’t seen anything that excited me. I invest too much of myself in these pictures to take on something that I’m not 100% into.
BD: MALEVOLENCE won best film, and BEREAVEMENT was an audience favorite, at the New York City Horror Film Festival – which may have seen its final year, due to the passing of its heart and soul, festival director Michael J. Hein. Being a filmmaker from New York City, he must have had an impact on your life. He was an unselfish, avid supporter of lifting independent horror. Its like New York City lost its horror Chief.
MENA: Michael and I were good friends. I spoke to him 2 days before he passed away. I met him in 2003 when Malevolence won Best Feature at one of the first NYC Horror Film Festivals, and we had stayed in touch ever since. he was truly a great guy. And a friend to all independent filmmakers. I miss him and the festival WAS him, I don’t know how it can continue without him. At the same time I hope it does because I know he would have wanted it too. I’m still in shock by it all. Michael was a guy who would never let you buy your own drinks, anyone you talk to who knew him well will tell you it’s an awful loss, not just to his friends, but to the horror community, and the film community. I still can’t believe it. Miss him greatly.