Bereavement (2010)

Bereavement first published by Little White Lies

There is a scene at the centre of Stevan Mena‘s Bereavement in which a high school science teacher describes how “theories on our emotional development” divide between those that privilege genetics, and those that favour environmental factors – but pupil Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario) is not paying the attention that she ought to be.  Of course, she is herself – like all children and adolescents – a living embodiment of the nature/nurture debate. Her father was a one-time Olympic athlete who had always wanted a son, but had settled for moulding Allison in his own image by pushing her, initially against her will, into track events – but after the recent, accidental death of both Allison’s parents, the teenager has been forced to move from Chicago to urban Minersville, Pennsylvania, where the only ‘sport’ open to schoolgirls is cheerleading. Now living with her aunt and uncle (Kathryn Meisle, Michael Biehn) and their beloved “only child” Wendy (Peyton List), Allison comes with few suitcases but lots of baggage.  

Allison’s new friend and neighbour William (Nolan Gerard Funk) exhibits a similar tangle of troubles. Scarred by the death of his mother, and left to look after his alcoholic, obnoxious, invalid father (John Savage), William is on heavy medication and has a bad reputation around town. “You’re no good, just like your old man, good for nothing”, Allison’s uncle says, unfairly reducing William to his genetic profile – but Allison sees more to the wayward adolescent. And then there is Martin Brissol (Spencer List), snatched from his garden at age six by loner Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby) and forced to witness all manner of unhinged atrocities carried out on a succession of women abducted and murdered by the former slaughterman. Now 11, Martin has been kept for half of his life in an abject environment of fear and hate, even if his own genetic inheritance – he has CIPA, a rare congenital disorder that prevents him feeling pain – has proven as much blessing as curse, being the source of what Graham reveres as Martin’s “serenity.” In this psychodrama, Graham, too, though a merciless killer, is himself very much cast as both victim and product of a very unhealthy upbringing. Graham remains literally haunted by the ghost of his brutal father, and is no more able to escape this cruel legacy than he can resist the compulsion to hand it down to the next generation. 

So while Bereavement is certainly a slasher, and never disguises its debt to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (amongst others), it is also a work of considerable psychological depth, concerned less with the mechanics of maniacal murder than with its origins and evolution. For like Chained and Paura 3D – both of which Bereavement preceded by a couple of years – this is a film about how monsters are made, in which every character, hero and villain alike, is figured as tragic prey to genes and circumstance. Although Bereavement, written, directed, edited and scored by Mena, stands alone as a self-contained work of horrific art, it is in fact a prequel to Mena’s little seen 2004 feature debut Malevolence. Yet far from being merely an ‘origin story’ for the Eighties-style masked villain – wordless, heavy-breathing and unstoppable – who executed his more by-numbers slice and dice in that earlier film, Bereavement is a sensitive and nuanced exploration of where evil in general might come from, as well as a surprisingly sympathetic study of a psychopath (or two) whose bloodline can be traced back to Fritz Lang’s M.     

strap: Stevan Mena’s slasher prequel tracks the origin story of a killing machine via the nature/nurture dichotomy

Anton Bitel