DVD Review: Bereavement (2010)

Posted on August 21, 2012 by Ben

Review by Kit Rathenar

Bereavement is a movie that seems to have hugely divided opinion on its initial release, between the claims of a certain subset of critics who apparently reckoned it to be the best thing since Psycho, and the reactions of ordinary horror fans who just wanted that hour and forty minutes of their lives back. Sadly, I’m afraid I’m going to have to throw my weight behind Joe Public on this one. This is not that good a movie.

Bereavement is the prequel to director Stevan Mena’s breakthrough opus Malevolence; according to the billing, it “explores the effect that extreme brutality has on a young child who has not yet learned the difference between good and evil”. Said young child is Martin Bristol, the villain of Malevolence, and Bereavement is supposed to explain how Martin turned out the way he did. Unfortunately, coming to the film cold, all I could think was that Martin’s story was getting in the way of what could otherwise have been a far more serviceable slasher-killer movie. The main antagonist of Bereavement, Graham Sutter, is a tortured psychotic and murderer who kidnaps the six-year-old Martin and discovers that the boy cannot feel pain, thanks to a rare genetic condition. Sutter “adopts” Martin, apparently fascinated by his lack of pain and corresponding lack of fear. This could have set the stage for a really fascinatingly horrific psychological study, but then the plot promptly skips ahead five years and by the time we see Martin again he barely speaks and is acting with a kind of eerie inscrutability that hugely over-telegraphs the film’s “shocking” punchline (after all, we’ve all seen enough scary movies to know what a kid gone wrong looks and acts like). Mena shows us the physical realities of Martin’s situation, and they’re admittedly traumatic enough; but he doesn’t offer us the emotional connection to his character that would have turned this into a real psychodrama instead of a mere horrorshow.

There are things about this movie that I did like, in fairness. Youthful heroine Allison (Alexandra Daddario, who along with Brett Rickaby as Sutter turns in one of the only decent performances in this movie) is a likeable character and her romance with local not-bad-just-drawn-that-way boy William is one of the more charming things Bereavement has to offer. Sutter himself, meanwhile, is one of those characters who feels like he’s trying to chew his way through the fourth wall and demand more attention than his scriptwriter has given him. He’s driven to kill by the the voices in his head, like so many of his ilk, but in his case these voices seem to reside in the numerous cow skulls that hang on the walls of his house and form the heads of the nightmarish scarecrows dotted around outside; they’re the closest thing this film has to a genuinely iconic image and also offer one of its most intense scenes when Sutter, with his mind finally disintegrating once and for all, attacks one of the skulls with an axe. That sequence, somehow, manages to be more chilling than any of the awkwardly-shot screamfest killings that we have to sit through earlier, and personally I’d gladly have seen Martin’s storyline thrown out of this film entirely in exchange for a deeper look at Sutter’s private hell.

The main impression I took from Bereavement is of Mena as a director who has studied the classics, but come away with a tendency to simply copy ideas he likes without fully understanding how and why they work. For instance, he obviously loves those reflective shots of dusty, sun-bathed American landscape that feature in so many classic backwoods horror films, but when he attempts them himself, they’re simply inserted like so much stock footage and the transitions that connect them to the rest of the film feel jerky and ill-thought-out. The same goes for the musical score, which repeatedly sabotages any sense of atmosphere in the slow scenes by leaping in with a miscued “ominous” noise that makes the viewer jump in entirely the wrong way. But possibly the real deal-breaker is the fact that while I’m used to suspending my disbelief on matters of physics, biology and basic human intelligence for the sake of a good horror film, Bereavement repeatedly asks far too much in this regard. The severity of characters’ injuries bears no observable relation to their reactions – one stab wound will kill a character who has no further plot value, while someone who needs to survive to the next scene will endure a dozen and remain conscious. Sutter has been killing for years in what’s clearly not a populous neighbourhood, but none of the locals ever mention the presumably conspicuous fact that their young women keep mysteriously disappearing; let alone, eg, warn Allison not to go out long-distance running on her own. A fire set in one room of a house obligingly remains confined to that room and fails to fill the rest of the building with choking smoke, but only until the characters are done fighting in the kitchen. And so on. There’s a rumour that Mena was forced to cut this film down from a three-hour epic. If it was three hours of scriptwriting like this, I think we should all be very relieved that he did.

I do admit that as I haven’t seen Malevolence, fans of that movie may contend that I’m missing something redeemingly important about Bereavement. But if so, I suspect that that something was put there by the fans’ own wishful thinking, because I’m certain that it isn’t in the script. A disappointing film not least because it could have been so much more.

Bereavement is released to Region 2 DVD on 1st October, from High Fliers Films.