Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bereavement: The Darwin Fish to the Slasher Genre

The face of slasher films is changing. Slowly but surely the Leslie Vernons and Martin Bristols have come to kick ass and chew bubble gum and they're all out of... well you know the line. Remember when you could count on a slasher sequel per year for your favorite juggernaut wielding a sharp metallic object? I think we can safely say that those days are done even if studios continue to make them. Maybe they aren't exactly done, but they are outdated. Some of you might throw out titles like Wrong Turn X or Saw X. You might even throw Hatchet in there. These films are fun, but they are not the evolution of the slasher genre. They are, instead, attempts to live in the late 1980's. They are remakes, re-imaginings or even attempts at copycatting movies like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street; they are movies designed to play off the fan adoration that we have for the sequels of those classic slasher originals. What is Hatchet but a step toward Friday the 13th Part 6. Wrong Turn runs smack dab into the Hills Have Eyes 2 (not quite the 80's, but it might as well be). So the modern day slasher film isn't dead, and it's not a regurgitation of a series of 80's tropes, what exactly are we watching? We are watching Bereavement, one step forward in the evolution of the slasher film.

Martin Bristol, 6 years old, is kidnapped and forced into a life of apprenticeship who's teacher is a "master" in the art of murder. He is forced to endure abuse beyond comprehension in his daily training. When a new, teenage girl comes to town fresh on the heels of her parents death, she will find herself in a world of questions that have answers that she would prefer not know.

Learning to be a serial killer... doesn't that seem a little Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer to you? Maybe we've seen that story in a slightly different variations. One could look to Carpenter's Halloween or even Pieces. How does the young boy become the big bad slasher man? Someone surely must teach him. That's where this picture differs from quite a few of the slashers of the 80's first and foremost. The 1980's wanted you to fear the bad guy, root for the good guy and don't ask too many questions about the back story; there be holes in those masks and they aren't eye holes. The modern slasher film takes the back story of the serial killer and makes it the focal point of the film. The films are still body counts, but the body count tally is secondary to the horror that lies behind the eyes of a killer. Which ultimately leads to the question, Why? Why do killers kill and more specifically why do slashers kill in such large quantities? The answer to that question is the plot device of your new age slasher film.

Bereavement is a perfect example of the new slasher. Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby) is kidnaps young Martin (Spencer List) and shows him as a father would a son. You know that old drug commericial, "I learned by watching you," well that's the relationship between Sutter and Martin. Martin challenges his teacher/father figure and Sutter loses his patience. The dynamic between the two is chilling and at times you might catch yourself with your hand on the telephone planning a phone call to some ridiculous rights group. These two actors are compelling and with the subject matter as it is, you have to prepare to feel a little sick. No one's attacking you from the other side of dreamland. If you're gettin' killed in Bereavement Graham Sutter is doing it for all the reasons we see serial killers in reality do their dirtiest; and while you die, a kid will be taking notes behind frightened eyes (the blackest eyes... the Devil's eyes).

This picture has no shortage of excellent actors. Michael Beihn (Terminator, Grindhouse) was underrated for too long. Yes, he has an absolutely important role in Terminator and Aliens. He also appeared in my personal favorite Grindhouse and in the faux trailer included in the double feature, Thanksgiving. In all of his work he comes off as a rebel, action movie hero; sometimes more lucky than others. In this film, his role as father and mentor to his niece, Allison (Alexandra Daddario)isn't overly complex at first look. When one realizes that there is actually a parallel between the relationship of Jonathan Miller (Beihn) and Allison to Graham Sutter and Martin, Beihn's ability to convey wisdom and warmth is revealed. Daddario has a great scream. Combined with her blazing blue eyes that scream "I am not a victim, but I might end up that way", you get a real heroin; not an extra from an action picture; and not an extra from a porn flick. This in itself does not necessarily advance the sub-genre, but it does set it apart from some of its modern day slasher contemporaries.

Perhaps one of the great advancements in the slasher film to date is the attempt to make the pictures artistically sound. You could either have a movie per year that will have gratuitous violence, an array of breasts randomly thrown in your face and the same old bad guy coming at you or you can release a movie once ever few years that will really pop. The cinematography in Bereavement may be some of my favorite to date. It's a visually stunning picture with cascading landscapes that make you feel like you're in a serene place that you could call home. It sets the edge. One minute your ready for a Bambi and a horde of animals to appear on the edge of a wooded glen, the next your on fire in a giant furnace hanging by a meat hook from your leg. The colors are bright when you need them to be and desperate and melancholy when appropriate. There are shots in the movie that you have seen other directors attempt and fail; especially in main stream slasher films. This movie will make you look at horror filmmaking a new way. There are echos of Argento in the use of colored lighting and even some camera focus. Beforewarned: Horror films are becoming works of art again not unlike Suspiria or the remake of Cat People. Get used to it.

Speaking of color, I always like to talk about the blood. Bereavement has little in the way of new kills. After all, this isn't a body count movie. You don't need Jason Voorhess slamming someone into a tree or turn a victim into a cockroach. Reality is real in. This means simple kills with dangerous looking weapons. The blood in this film is dark and brooding and is spilled in appropriate amounts. If lightly colored blood (Crayola as I call it) is campy, body count film then the blood used in Bereavement must be the friggin' blood of Christ. Dark. Thick. It's some good looking blood. If you were about to eat a steak, cut into it with your favorite steak knife and then saw this blood come out of it, you'd ask for a bib.


If you've read my review of Malevolence by adoration for Bereavement might come as a little bit of a shock. I thought that Malevolence was trying to push the boundary of the slasher genre but ended up rehashing old concepts. Still, it showed promise. I can definitely say it's not my favorite film, but that if Stevan Mena was up to the challenge he could change the slasher genre. He succeeded in evolving his vision of this sub-genre past his previous vision. It seems like that was his intent all along from the Making of on the DVD. I'll have to re-watch Malevolence after seeing this picture. I want to know how much Mena eluded to the new world he would assist in creating.

I talked about how this movie seemed to take a page out of the Argento playbook. This seems to be happening more and more. Take Amer for example. That movie is filled with some beautiful camera work. Its use of blue and red color must also pay homage to Suspria just as Bereavement does (or at least I think it does). Some of the disjointing imagery in both these films seems to be capturing the spirit of Alejandro Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre. It is no secret that I am not a fan of Santa Sangre, but the surrealistic vision of Sutter's own mentor in the form of a steer head and subsequent steer scarecrow, frankly, give me the willies. It's partially the way the skull is shot with (Dracula esque lighting), but beyond that it's reminiscent of the devil and displays just how human and based in reality the devil image really is. That and I wouldn't want it to pop out of my closet.

If you want to evolve... if you want to start getting over the 80's slasher craze where teenagers are hamburger for Satan then watch and love Bereavement. Don't get me wrong... I'm gonna watch Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 at least once a year if not more until the day that I die. It's not that rehashes of earlier slasher classics don't have their place.Even less sophisticated modern slasher/gore epics have their place in the sub-genre. After all, we're here to be entertained. Alongside Behind the Mask you can see where directors can take the seemingly used up concept of the slasher. Modern day horror fans are some of the most intelligent film goers I know. It's nice to see some brilliant directors letting us know they think so too.

-Dr. Terror

Note #1: Compliment this film with another viewing of Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher film and then ask for a sequel to that documentary entitled Going to Pieces 2: the Fall and Rise of the Slasher film.

Note #2: I live about an hour away from Allentown where Bereavement was shot. Watching this movie is basically like looking out my window. I may or may not have passed by some of the locations. I still can't be certain. Expect a trip there soon. All who'd like to attend please RSVP... in blood (or pen). HorrorHound always does that piece where the visit older film locations now and take comparative shots; then and now photos. Well I'm thinking of doing a now and now comparison. Shots from the film that you can find with in five miles of my home.


  1. I absolutely loved Bereavement. Great review of it!

  2. Thanks man. More people need to get their hands on this flick. I'm trying to get some folks together to "expose" them to it.