One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. Because it’s Horrors Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re highlighting some of the best unsung slasher movies.
There’s a lot of stabbing in Bereavement. The killer here has no interest in style, so the vast majority of his kills are functional to the point of clinical. A knife slides in and out of someone a few times, and he moves on. For those who watch slasher films in hopes of seeing over-the-top murders and operatic death sequences, this film strays far from the formula. (There is one furnace-assisted kill that’s giallo-esque in its brutality, however.) Yes, there are grisly deaths and lots of bound innocents screaming for their lives, but the film’s interest in murder is purely as a means to an end. What the movie has on its mind is far more ambitious—a fusion of horror with something utterly different, and almost inexplicable upon first encounter.
Bereavement takes a brutal slasher film and weds it to a Lifetime-style weepie, about a young woman who lost her parents, moves to a rural idyll, and meets a nice boy. The film’s tonal shifts for the first hour-plus are just as jarring as that description implies, though it’s by fiendishly clever design. Director Stevan Mena (who truly earns the term auteur here, having written, produced, directed, scored, and carried out enough other responsibilities to make Robert Rodriguez look like a slacker) intentionally creates two different worlds, not just in the reality of the film, but stylistically. The folksy hokum of the Nicholas Sparks-like family narrative takes place in a world of blue skies, sepia tones, and shots framed to give it all a TV-movie vibe of genial inoffensiveness. When grieving teen Allison (Alexandra Daddario, demonstrating why she’s a great actor and excellent choice for a final girl, despite a certain other horror project’s efforts to disprove this thesis) arrives at her uncle’s rural Pennsylvania home, with his supportive wife, their hyperactive daughter, and a brooding but good-hearted boy just down the road, the movie works overtime to give these scenes a lightweight charm and note-perfect checking of traditional character-beat boxes. When she goes for long runs as part of her off-season cross country training, you can almost hear the swells of John Denver-lite Muzak accompanying her.
But the dark other half of the film colors everything you see, and that tactic lends a surreal air to these scenes of gentle pablum. Before even the opening credits, we’ve watched a boy suffering from congenital analgesia (the inability to feel pain) kidnapped by a sadistic and psychopathic killer, brought to the basement of an abandoned factory, and made to watch as a helpless young woman is butchered. Time and again, the film cuts between the feel-good shots and a far more gruesome, often Tobe Hooper-influenced violence, with attendant lighting that emphasizes the harsh blackness of the darkened underground locales, and sickly reds and yellows in the battened-down nighttime of the killer’s aboveground residence. (This is in part a carryover from Mena’s previous film, Malevolence, to which Bereavement is a prequel, though it improves upon its predecessor in every way.)
And the abandoned factory, all windows smashed out and decaying brick facade, serves as the transitional doorway between these conflicting worlds, the clear skies and Norman Rockwell concerns of the hills contrasted to the subterranean nightmare of the killer’s world. Every time Allison runs past it, time seems to slow, the soundtrack warps, and everything fluctuates, caught between the two realities, and embodied in the face of the kidnapped boy, peeking out from the empty windows. It’s almost Lynchian in its melding of small-town nostalgia and sadistic underbelly, smart in its homages to ’70s horror filmmaking, and it reminds you what slashers are capable of, when they sights their sights on more ambitious goals.
Availability: Bereavement is available for rental or purchase from numerous streaming sites (often for a bargain price), or can be found on DVD from your local video store.