Malum opens with a diptych of horrific sequences from 2022. In the first, police-seized footage shows four abducted young women being terrorised in the barn of a pig farm by the members of a Manson-esque cult whose leader John Michael Malum (an understated Chaney Morrow) evidently causes the video to blur and distort by his mere presence on screen. In the second, Captain Will Loren (Eric Olson), who led a successful raid on the commune, is still traumatised by his encounter with the now dead Malum and by his own failure to save one of the four captive women – and so the policeman, dubbed a ‘hero’ by the press, suddenly snaps in his workplace, shooting several of his fellow officers in cold blood before turning the gun on himself.
A year later, Will’s daughter Jessica Loren (Jessica Sula) is about to start her own very first – and last – shift as an officer of the law. Even though a new police station has been built, Jessica has volunteered to serve as the one-person skeleton crew at the old, mothballed Lanford station where her father went postal. She has been drawn to these haunted corridors, still raw with the scars and stains of the past, precisely to seek answers about Will’s atrocities, and to “make sense of” their damaging effect on her semi-estranged alcoholic mother Diane (Candice Coke) and indeed on herself. As Jessica uncovers her father’s secret files and a hidden USB stick full of interrogation footage, a ghostly stir of echoes begins to emerge from the walls, along with an irrational narrative that has had Jessica at its destined centre from before she can even remember.
With the city full of chaotic unrest and cultic activity, and the police in the new station overstretched and not exactly well-disposed towards the Loren name, Jessica settles in for an evening alone. Yet over this long dark night of the soul, she will be visited not only by a distraught homeless man (Kevin Wayne) whose daughter (Monroe Cline) was murdered by Malum’s ‘Flock’, and by a sex worker (Natalie Victoria) who claims to have been held in the cell next to where the arrested cultists hanged themselves, but also by a female caller claiming to have re-abducted the three women who were previously rescued, by a pair of Will’s former police ‘partners’ (Sam Brooks, Christopher Matthew Spencer), by an army of freaky fanatics first besieging and then breaking and entering the building, and by a large sow marked with a Satanic sigil in blood red.
Remakes are hardly an unusual phenomenon, but Malum is a remake of a rather rarefied variety. For not only is it a remake of Last Shift (2014), which itself reimagined John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) as a psychothriller filtered through the mythology of Charles Manson’s serial-killing ‘Family’, but both films share the same director Anthony DiBlasi, co-writing both times with Scott Poiley (to whose memory it is dedicated), and following essentially the same story with minor but significant variations.
Unlike Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, 2007), George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (1998) and The Vanishing (1993), Ken Scott’s Starbuck (2011) and Delivery Man (2013), Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013) and Gloria Bell (2018), Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance (2014) and Cold Pursuit (2019), and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2002; itself expanded from the straight-to-video Ju-on: The Curse, 2000) and The Grudge (2004), this is not a case of a director refashioning his ‘foreign’ film for an English-speaking audience. Rather it is more like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923, 1956), Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, 1956), Yasujiro Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959), and Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire ’82 (1982), as a director revisits his own materials in the same language to ring the changes on shifting times and fashions.
Nine years may seem rather soon for a director to be returning to his own work, but Last Shift came out too close to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement to accommodate its implications, and in the decade that has followed, public perceptions of the police have shifted dramatically. The Flock kept pigs, and fed their human victims to them, but they also repeatedly refer to the police as piggies, collapsing the difference between their own pig farm and the police station (which will soon have an actual pig walking its halls, and become the centre of a cultic ritual).
Like a cult, this station is rife with closed ranks, inappropriate fraternisation and dehumanising attitudes towards civilians and outsiders. The battered prostitute immediately recognises the kindness with which Jessica treats her as a symptom of her rookie status, saying “No seasoned cop would clean me up like this.” The police may see themselves as a last outpost against savagery, but they are also themselves sometimes part of that savagery – and Jessica has her own rôle to play in the unfolding mayhem that she struggles to keep at bay. “That’s what cops do: we hurt people, kill them if we have to,” Captain Will Loren – or at least his ghost – will say, in words that make him sound just like a cultist. “And that day I had to.”
Where in the earlier film, Captain Will Loren was merely killed by the cult, here the Malum Flock has turned Will himself into a damaged, deluded cop killer – and much as this Will is all at once hero and villain (“he was a hero,” as one colleague puts it, “Till he wasn’t”), his daughter Jessica, now mixed-race rather than white, is similarly conflicted, uncertain just what she might have inherited from either her ‘crazy’ black mother or her ‘fucked in the head’ father, or what place a non-Caucasian woman might have in an American police department. Like her father, Jessica too is both an instantiation and victim (a word with inevitable cultic associations) of a force which, at the very least, frequently fails in its duty of care to its own and others, and which is capable of much, much worse.
Spooked by the strange happenings in this supposedly abandoned station, Jessica will make a panicked call to a colleague at the new station, and her words – “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe” – will resonate with a recent, ongoing history of police brutality and racial inequality, all embodied in Jessica. “Stay out of Holding,” Jessica is advised by the gruff, dismissive Officer Grip Cohen (Britt George) as he hands over the keys to the empty station. Holding may be the locus of some of Malum‘s most intense and frightening sequences – but it is also the place where many marginalised arrestees, and not just members of the Flock, have ‘mysteriously’ died in police custody.
So Malum has newly absorbed the best and worst of American law enforcement. Other changes to the original are on a smaller scale. Sanford Police Station is now Lanford. The cult’s leader John Michael Malum was previously called John Michael Paymon – both ‘talking’ names (malum is Latin for ‘evil’), although the intervening release of Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) has perhaps made the demonic significance of the surname Paymon a little too obvious. Like Aster’s film – but also like Last Shift – Malum utterly confounds the supernatural and the psychological. Here everything is carefully ambiguated: Jessica may be suffering the hereditary mental illness or generational trauma of one, other or both of her parents (“You’re crazy, just like your mother,” she will be told by someone whose very presence appears to prove Jessica’s craziness), and reenacting her family legacy; she may be falling under the influence of the black mould that grows rampant on the walls of Holding (“the shit’s toxic,” as Officer Cohen says, “it makes you hallucinate”); or there really may be an intrusion, ushered in as part of Malum’s long-term ‘plan’, of paranormal pandemonium. One way or another, Malum has got into Jessica’s head, much as he did with her father (and perhaps her mother) before.
On any reading, DiBlasi has crafted a(nother) thrilling, disorienting horror tragedy whose soon-to-be-bloody (anti-)heroine, reciting passages from her police handbook as though it were a biblical text to ward off evil, must face the disorder and chaos of the world, both without and within.
strap: With this psychological tragedy, Anthony DiBlasi updates the haunted police station of his own Last Shift to the #BlackLivesMatter era
© Anton Bitel