Slashbacks: Malevolence/The Hills Run Red

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-05-28 18:21
Welcome to Slashbacks, a new (semi) regular column commemorating 10 years of OTH. For this month’s edition, I revisited a couple of overlooked slashers from the last decade…

Malevolence (2003)

When Malevolence arrived in 2003, the slasher genre was at something of a crossroads. By this point, the genre’s slick, Scream-inspired renaissance had all but dissipated, with Freddy vs. Jason essentially closing the loop after the two 80s slasher titans reclaimed their box office throne. Hatchet and Saw would were still a few years away from carving their respective paths for the genre, which would soon be awash in cheeky throwbacks and grim, torture-based evolutions (or regressions, depending on your persuasion). And then there was Stevan Mena quietly dropping an honest-to-goodness slasher homage right in between it all. While Malevolence certainly idolizes the genre in the same way Hatchet does, Mena’s touch is lighter and decidedly less juvenile. Where Adam Green sought to pay tribute with an outlandish farce, Mena crafted something a little more reserved and unnerving. Neither is wrong, but I certainly gravitated more towards the latter; in fact, Malevolence was among the first modern horror movies I went to bat for here at OTH about a decade ago.

Ten years later, that sentiment largely holds up—although I will admit to having a softer spot for Hatchet these days, especially since the release of Victor Crowley. Malevolence, on the other hand, remains one of the more genuine attempts at reclaiming the slasher genre and returning it to its gritty, independent roots. What’s more, he didn’t just dream up the typical slasher scenario involving doomed kids wandering into an isolated location just to be hacked up; instead, he envisioned an entire mythology centered on Martin Bristol, a young boy who was abducted from his backyard by a psychopath who eventually warped the child into a maniac in his own right. By the time the events of Malevolence unfold, he’s a fully-functioning killing machine whose territorial instincts kick in when a group of amateur bank robbers and their hostages shack up in an abandoned home near Martin’s stomping grounds.

To be fair, despite its relatively complex setup, Malevolence does largely play out like a usual slasher, albeit one that’s more committed to tension and atmosphere than most. Don’t get me wrong: Mena stages decent amount of brutal carnage, but it’s hardly the film’s raison d'etre. Rather, Mena makes his bones with menacing atmosphere and unnerving flourishes: Malevolence unfolds under the dusky haze of a dying sunlight before an eerie moonlight blankets the sparse locales, allowing Mena to recapture the evocative ambiance of vintage slashers. DP Tsuyoshi Kimoto is instrumental in establishing this ominous vibe, as his photography flings you to this forgotten hole-in-the-wall, where escape entails trudging through vast cornfields and a decrepit farm.

The landscape only becomes more terrifying once Bristol himself enters the fray: decked out in a burlap sack and wielding a butcher knife, he’s doing his best woodsman Jason Voorhees impersonation. Mena treats him more like Carpenter’s Shape, however, especially during the early-going, where that ghastly white visage is deftly maneuvered about the frame, inspiring some unnerving jolts. Malevolence is at its best when it has its characters scurrying through the woods, desperately trying to escape the inevitability of Martin Bristol’s violence. Never underestimate the power of a cold, calculating madman who shiftily lurks in the background. Mena almost impossibly transforms this derivative slasher into an effective enigma who’s responsible for much of the film’s effectiveness.

Martin’s familiar appearance isn’t the only nostalgic callback, as Mena’s score is also a pastiche of familiar slasher strains. Carpenter-esque stingers punctuate Manfredini-style jangling, heightening the film’s throwback nature: if you were to squint at times, you’d swear you were actually watching an actual slasher movie that fell between the cracks during the 80s. Whether that’s a good thing is certainly debatable: fifteen years after its release, Malevolence might not feel as vital as it did in 2003, when it stood in stark contrast to the likes of Scream and its ilk. Now, it’s sort of another face in the crowd alongside other similarly-minded throwbacks, even if it does still separate itself from that crowd quite well. Granted, it’s rough around the edges: the acting barely warrants a passing mention pointing out how most of it is unconvincing, and at times, it feels a little bit too indebted to the boilerplate slasher movie aesthetic.

However, it’s mostly admirable in its attempt to recapture that bygone era, mostly because Mena simply honors the purity of the genre instead of allowing its clichés to reverberate to the point of parody. You can’t fake the authentic affection Mena has for this material, and I’d take a dozen more slasher tributes like this. Of course, if Mena had his way, we would have had at least two more: while a worthwhile prequel was released in 2010, his third entry was never completed following the tragic death of one of the lead actors, and he has yet to helm another movie since. It’s a shame, too, since Mena has both the enthusiasm and the chops to be among his generation’s most revered genre masters, with Malevolence in particular reflecting his ability to cobble together a solid debut with a DIY ethos on a shoestring budget. But where similar tales have essentially served as cult icon origin stories, this one is the beginning of a story that remains frustratingly unfinished.

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Released six years after Malevolence, The Hills Run Red similarly found itself at a genre crossroads: while the slasher had experienced another resurgence by 2009, it had taken on a decidedly different, torture-based form thanks to the likes of Saw and Hostel. Some throwbacks—most notably in the form of Black Christmas, House of Wax, and the aforementioned Hatchet series—also remained tethered to the past, where The Hills Run Red also pitched its tent, at least at first glance. This couldn’t be more obvious considering the setup, which finds obsessed horror geek Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) on a quest to find The Hills Run Red, a lost film from enigmatic director Wilson Wyler Concannon (William Sadler!). Billed as a film so scary and gruesome that it was removed from theaters and destroyed, Hills very much looks the part of an 80s slasher: before the film properly begins, we’re treated to a “vintage” trailer for the feature. Familiar sights—like a madman in a babydoll mask terrorizing campers—introduce us to the sort of tenor director Dave Parker is aiming for here: his film isn’t quite as over-the-top as something like Hatchet, but it’s also clearly out to deliver as much gratuitous nudity and violence as possible.

Thankfully, Parker maintains that tone throughout, and, even if The Hills Run Red has an elaborate setup to arrive at the same old backwoods hack-and-slash, it at least makes the attempt at recapturing the genre’s glory days. In fact, it seems very much made for the crowd that was raised on a diet of VHS splatter: who among us hasn’t been drawn in by the allure of a movie that was deemed too fucked up for consumption? In essence, we’ve all been Tyler at some point in our lives, at least to a certain extent. Granted, he takes it a bit further than I would hope any of us would, as he eventually finds himself squarely in the middle of a decades-long plot that’s made victims of those fans who came before him, their singular goal met with the frightening truth that The Hills Run Red is more real than they could have ever imagined.

It’s a killer hook, to be sure, and Parker mostly delivers on its promise. While the setup is a bit belabored (and an unnecessary subplot involving Tyler’s girlfriend having an affair with his best friend especially so), it finds a nice groove once the group—which also includes Concannon’s junkie daughter (Sophie Monk)—ventures into the woods near the director’s old compound. Between the clips from the fictional Hills film and the carnage that unfolds surrounding Tyler and company, viewers are treated to an assortment of incredible (and incredibly practical) splatter gags. That it’s all perpetrated by a hulking maniac whose mask would have looked right at home on a clamshell case at your local video store in 1989 is certainly a welcome cherry on top.

The story—which was co-written by genre vet David J. Schow—takes some deliriously twisted turns towards the climax, too, when Tyler learns just how fucked up the Concannon clan truly is. It’s at this point that the film tries to keep up with its contemporaries by turning towards that torture-based direction, but Parker does maintain a pretty light touch with it. Well, as light a touch as one can manage when you’re staging the horrific slaughter of innocents, I suppose. There’s something kind of juvenile in this particular brand of provocation that keeps Hills more akin to its 80s forbearers—it’s not trying to genuinely disturbing so much as it’s looking to coax hoots, hollers, and a sort of bemused disgust. Ultimately, The Hills Run Red is kind of silly, but it’s the right kind of silly, driven by the increasingly wry, sadistic performances from Monk and Sadler.

One could perhaps make the argument that Hills squanders some potential with these low aims. Its hook almost begs for some kind of meta-fictional commentary on the transgressive nature of on-screen violence and the audience’s complicity in it, but it’s dismissed in favor of snuff film theatrics that allow Sadler some nonsense, lunatic ravings (which, let’s be fair, isn’t a bad substitute—one could do worse than have William Fucking Sadler going HAM). I also have to confess that this is one of those films where you find yourself wishing you could also watch the fictional film involved in the proceedings, at least when the story here starts spinning its wheels for a bit. The sparse footage from Concannon’s Hills is gloriously vintage 80s splatter that the “actual” film doesn’t quite live up to.

Otherwise, The Hills Run Red has aged fairly well during the past near-decade. At the time it was released, I found it to be a nice diversion, if not a worthy update of the slasher genre; now, I would count it as one of the genre’s notable efforts from this era, one that should have endured—and perhaps would have if the Warner Premiere label had persisted—with the follow-ups teased during the mid-credits sequence here. Like Malevolence, The Hills Run Red feels sort of like an unfilled promise. However, where Martin Bristol had one more outing, the further, gore-soaked exploits of Babyface have been lost to the ether, leaving us to imagine another reality where we could have three or four Hills Run Red sequels to pluck from the shelf.

Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTH’s first 10 years.
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