The mark of a good horror director is seldom in onscreen gore, but rather the ability to make every anticipatory moment tingle with dread. On that level, Stevan Mena's first feature "Malevolence" scores well, building a grim atmosphere to tell its tale of bank robbers who choose the wrong abandoned rural house to hide out in.

The mark of a good horror director is seldom in onscreen gore, but rather the ability to make every anticipatory moment tingle with dread. On that level, Stevan Mena’s first feature “Malevolence” scores well, building a grim atmosphere sans “Scream”-style winking to tell its tale of bank robbers who choose the wrong abandoned rural house to hide out in. Eventually pic turns into a formula slasher over-indebted to the usual “Texas Chainsaw” and “Halloween” models. But until then, Mena’s direction (if not his script) suggest he’s ready for bigger-budget assignments.

Prologue shows the 1989 kidnapping of a young boy who’s taken to a farmhouse where he witnesses his captor killing a teenage girl. Ten years later, nice guy Julian (Brandon Johnson) is reluctantly roped into armed robbery by Marylin (Heather Magee), the greedy and vindictive g.f. he’s inexplicably devoted to. The job is meant to take two bloodless minutes, but things go horribly wrong.

Perps (also including Keith Chambers as Marylin’s violent brother and Richard Glover as wounded sidekick Kurt) flee in two cars, one of which breaks down. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, an unlucky mom (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone) are carjacked and dragged along to the designated meeting point. Unfortunately for all, this country location is next to the murder site of a decade prior, and some unseen maniac now starts to pick off and/or abduct the new visitors, whose presence soon also attracts a local cop (John Richard Ingram).

Like the original “Halloween,” the simple premise is lent tense urgency by shadowy visual strategies, credible performances and strong use of locations (Long Island standing in for Pennsylvania). Yet as the mystery killer grows more omnipresent, he also becomes more rotely Michael Myers-like — seemingly unkillable, complete with by-numbers “Gotcha after all!” coda. In the vein of “Psycho,” there’s a gratuitous late scene in which FBI agents explain the case in yakkety, buzz-killing detail.

Feature was shot over two years due to budgetary woes, but result betrays no signs of disruption. Tech/design factors are spot-on, including ominous ambient score penned (a la John Carpenter) by the helmer.

Still making the genre-fest rounds, “Malevolence” gets released on DVD this month — a pity, since the 35mm package plays creepily well on the bigscreen.

Malevolence

Production

A Painted Zebra Releasing and the Solari Group presentation of a Magnetic Media and Caffeine Entertainment production. Produced by Stevan Mena. Executive producer, Alex That. Co-producer, Robert Vinci. Directed, written by Stevan Mena.

Crew

Camera (color), Tsuyoshi Kimoto; editors, Eddie Akmal, Mena; production designer, Andy Pan; music, Mena; set decorators, Pierre Vial, Jose Pavon; makeup, Lance Orlando; special digital FX, Molten Lava; sound (Dolby Digital), Jason O'Neill. Reviewed at Fearless Tales Genre Festival, San Francisco, April 2, 2005. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Samantha Dark, Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Courtney Bertolone, John Richard Ingram, Keith Chambers.
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