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Thursday, April 6, 2023

‘Malum’ and ‘Last Shift’: Companion Films Forged in the Fires of Hell

The following contains major spoilers for Last Shift (2014) and Malum (2023).

Nothing divides the horror community like a remake. For decades fans have debated the merits of cinematic retellings of our most beloved horror films with strong arguments on either side of the equation. The trend exploded in the early 2000s with Platinum Dunes leading the charge to remake or reboot nearly every iconic title available. Recent years have seen the rise of legacy sequels; a curious hybrid that simultaneously continues the original story and (hopefully) takes the franchise in a new direction. Enter Malum. Anthony DiBlasi’s 2023 gore-fest is an expanded reimagining of his own breakout film Last Shift. Released in 2014, this haunting cult horror follows rookie police officer Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) whose first shift on the job goes terrifyingly wrong. 

Co-written by DiBlasi and Scott Poiley, Last Shift is an atmospheric nightmare with most of its terror coming from a less-is-more approach to lighting and sound design. The somewhat gory conclusion follows more than an hour of slowly building dread and a plot that reveals itself in tiny doses. Malum tells Jessica (Jessica Sula)’s story through a bombastic lens. Also co-written by DiBlasi and Poiley, nearly every element of the film is bigger, bolder, and bloodier, from the larger set, the expanded narrative, advanced effects, and a demon that shows its grisly face in the explosive final act. Both versions of the story are exceptionally crafted horrors and picking a favorite will likely depend entirely on viewer preference. From the minimalist Last Shift to the maximalist Malum, DeBlasi’s films serve as perfect companion pieces approaching the same story from wildly different angles. 

last shift welcome villain films

‘Last Shift’

The plot of Last Shift is fairly simple. Officer Jessica Loren reports for duty at a soon to be abandoned precinct one year after a police raid on the farm of cult leader John Michael Paymon (Joshua Mikel) resulted in the death of her father. While alone in the building, Jessica is confronted by memories of his heroism as well as the truth about his killers. After the deadly shootout, Paymon and two of his followers were transported to the station then hung themselves in a holding cell as a sacrifice to their demon god. Their corpses, faces covered by blood-soaked sheets, now haunt the station they’ve cursed with their demonic ritual. 

The first film ends with a tragedy. Tricked into delusion, Jessica shoots three members of a biocontainment crew believing them to be members of Paymon’s cult. Her commanding officer shoots her then calls for backup as she lays dying. The last thing she sees is Paymon and his ghostly followers placing a sheet over her own head, symbolizing that she has descended into hell along with them. The narrative of the second film picks up at a similar moment. After scattered footage of cult members torturing and murdering young women, a hood is removed from the camera’s lens and we meet Jessica’s father, Will Loren (Eric Olson), on the last day of his life. Unlike the original version of Jessica’s father, this officer quickly goes from hero to villain. Seemingly possessed by the cult’s devilish doctrine, he goes on a murderous rampage, shooting three police officers before turning the shotgun on himself. This ominous opening sets the tone for a fascinating remix of the original story. Even audiences familiar with Last Shift will have no idea what to expect. 

Both versions of Jessica Loren are earnest rookie cops hoping to follow in their father’s footsteps. However, given the aforementioned change, these men have vastly different legacies. The elder Officer Loren was a hero who died while drawing fire at the raid on the cult’s ranch. It seems to be nothing more than coincidence that his daughter has been assigned to this shift. Malum’s Jessica has chosen to be there. She requested this shift in order to work in her father’s building and later admits she came to find out why he committed his terrible crime. This change dramatically affects the way she is treated by other officers. Instead of a hero, they view her father as a cop killer and extend their anger to his daughter. Though likely a simple narrative adjustment, it’s possible DiBlasi altered the story to reflect a world dramatically changed since Last Shift’s 2014 release. Not only is Jessica now played by a woman of color, but she is at odds with a frustratingly unhelpful set of officers and Malum has a much less sympathetic view of police officers. 

Jessica Sula in Malum


DiBlasi’s more-is-more approach to Malum can be felt right away. Both films begin with the cult’s eerie song and a foul-tempered commanding officer giving Jessica a half-hearted orientation. However, key differences, some subtle and some overt, result in a significantly different viewing experience. Both versions of the character encounter a sex-worker named Marigold (Natalie Victoria) who was present on the night of the cult’s sacrifice. However, the original Jessica merely talks with her before sending her on her way. Malum’s Jessica cleans Marigold up when she is unceremoniously dumped out of a John’s car. Jessica treats her wounds in the station then watches on in horror as the distraught woman becomes entranced by an invisible threat lurking in the shadows. 

An unhoused man (J. LaRose, Kevin Wayne) also visits the station and pees on both versions of the precinct lobby. Last Shift sees him ransack the evidence room then become yet another victim of the cult’s curse. However, Malum adds a fun Easter Egg. When begging to be let into the station, the man whispers, “Why didn’t you leave?” echoing a question asked by the ghostly voice of Jessica’s father in Last Shift. The updated version of this character has come to the station looking for someone named Betty, likely a victim or member of the cult who’s spirit he believes is still contained in the building’s cells. 

Other nods to the original include glances at a clock counting down the minutes remaining in Jessica’s shift and a glimpse of The Policeman’s Handbook from which Last Shift’s Jessica recites to soothe herself. Interrogation footage of previous interviews with the cult members use similar dialogue though the newer delivery is decidedly more bizarre and emphatic. Both versions of the story feature photos of a young Jessica and her father, though Harkavay’s Jessica notices it tucked away in one of many open lockers. Sula’s Jessica searches for her father’s locker and finds it the only one still locked. After beating it with a fire extinguisher, she resorts to shooting the lock off and finally opens it to find the picture hidden within. DiBlasi expands this revelation to include a clever bit of exposition. Under the false bottom of the locker, Jessica finds a file containing clippings about the Malum cult. Glancing through these headlines, we learn key details about the raid, something DiBlasi originally delivered in dialogue and with the visual trick of mysteriously multiplying crime scene photos.

To break up her lonely night, both versions of Jessica are visited by fellow officers. Her original guest is a kind man named Officer Price (Matt Doman) who has volunteered to check on her out of reverence for her late father. He tells her about the shootout before turning around to reveal a large hole in his head. Jessica realizes he was the second cop killed in the raid and essentially watches him vanish while walking out of the precinct. True to form, Malum ups the ante by visiting Jessica with two officers who died in her father’s killing spree. All three of these ghostly officers deliver jump scares, yet their levels of menace are both calibrated to fit the tone of their respective films. 

Both Malum and Last Shift begin with the cult’s eerie hymn sung by young women promising their lives to the leaders. Aside from this ominous tune, the cults in each film are significantly different. Paymon and his followers seem mainly concerned with sacrificing themselves and wreaking havoc on the living, while the Malum cult is much more ambitious. Led by a man named John Malum (Chaney Morrow) who has become a vessel for the king of hell, they’ve been searching for Jessica for decades and caused the previous year’s massacre in an attempt to claim her as their queen. Last Shift’s Jessica falls victim to the cult by accident, but Malum’s Jessica has been their target all along. 

DiBlasi takes minor details from his original film and expands them to further explain the Malum cult’s sinister origins. In Last Shift, Jessica notices the word “SOW” scratched on the ceiling of the police station, hinting at an insidious hatred for police. Though the raid takes place on a farm, there are few references to pigs throughout the story. DiBlasi takes this imagery and runs with it in the second iteration. Prank callers squeal into the receiver and a ghostly pig roams the police quarters, representing the violence of the cult. The pentacle Paymon paints onto his death shroud is elongated in Malum and appears everywhere throughout the story. It’s sketched onto walls, and bodies, representing the pervasiveness of the cult and its survival past the massacre.

‘Last Shift’

Last Shift’s Jessica’s first suspects something is wrong when she receives a 911 call on a line that was supposed to have been rerouted. A girl named Monica (Erica Lea Shelton) calls for help after escaping her captors in the woods. Fellow officers suspect they are prank calls from surviving cult members, but we later learn that they are coming from the last victim of the Paymon massacre. The stripped and mangled body of another victim stalks Jessica through the precinct. Malum adds action and gore to this tragic story. On the one year anniversary of their death, the remaining cult members stage protests at the new station and explicitly target Jessica. They prank her and threaten to kill a girl named Monica. The officer at the new station later turns out to be Malum himself. Another mangled corpse follows Jessica, but her face has been so badly distorted (and her leg apparently chewed off) that it’s impossible to tell if she’s seeking help or intending to cause harm. 

One significant deviation from the original film is an expansion of the role Jessica’s mother plays in the story. In Last Shift, Jessica receives a few calls from her mother who clearly hates that her daughter has joined the force. Diane Loren (Candice Coke) is a much bigger part of the second story and we first meet her at her husband’s grave. Later revelations show that she was once a member of the Malum cult and that Jessica was baptized in the blood of the leader shortly after her birth. She must be present for the arrival of what Malum calls the low god and was always meant to be a part of the cult’s devilish plans. 

In addition to an expanded ideology, the two cults differ in the amount of blood they spill. Paymon appears after his death with a reversed pentacle cut into his face, imagery that has since become synonymous with the film itself. His body menaces Jessica and his corpse hangs between his dead followers in the holding cell, but other than a few brief appearances, he haunts Jessica from the shadows. A particularly ominous scene involves rolling chairs launched from unseen hands occasionally filled with the sheet-covered bodies of spirits while interrogation footage plays. DiBlasi uses this bed sheet imagery to his advantage when Jessica watches a flashback of the original sacrifice projected on a mysteriously billowing sheet in the cell. As she stares, the ghost of Paymon emerges from the memory and chases her through the station. In another scene, his body (face wrapped in the sheet) is dragged across the floor by an invisible force and walks like a puppet towards her. We only meet one of his followers, a woman who was left behind on the night of his death and shoots herself in front of Jessica to prove her devotion to the malevolent leader. 

Malum demon


In Malum, DiBlasi turns this violent imagery up to eleven. The living cult member shoots an innocent victim rather than herself and Jessica is forced to return the gunfire. We see the rest of Malum’s previously rescued victims murdered throughout the night. In one particularly vicious scene, Jessica finds a young woman hanging by her neck in a holding cell and rushes to save her as the rope tightens on its own. The poor girl’s head literally explodes, drenching Jessica in blood. 

Malum’s crowning achievement, however, is in finally depicting the demonic entity both cults worship. In a clover homage to Paymon’s mangled face, this massive monster is built from muscle and viscera with a mask made from sheet-like skin. Instead of Paymon’s pentacle, this demon king covers his face with a pentagram, the skin twisted into a star and fastened to a large iron ring. As Malum’s corpse watches from his hellish throne, the demon rips its face off and places the mask over Jessica’s own, a nod to the sheet that covers the final frame of Last Shift. This symbolizes her indoctrination into the cult and the same distortion of reality that ended Jessica’s life in the previous film. She attempts to shoot the demon only to realize that she has actually shot her mother. Jessica watches her bleed to death while the ghost Will Loren wails over the body. Unable to deal with what she’s done, or perhaps victim to the same spell that killed her father, Jessica dies by suicide as well, her bloody corpse taking it’s place on her own infernal throne. 

Despite their many differences, Malum and Last Shift are best enjoyed as a pair. The slowly mounting terror of Last Shift is an accomplishment in itself and should be watched in as dark a setting as possible. With Malum, DiBlasi has seemingly achieved the impossible; improved and expanded upon a successfully scary film without ruining the mystery of the original. Resisting the temptation to overcomplicate the relatively simple narrative, DiBlasi revels in the excesses of a larger budget and bigger scope. If Last Shift is a cup of strong black coffee, Malum is a triple espresso latte with foam in the shape of a pentagram. 

The post ‘Malum’ and ‘Last Shift’: Companion Films Forged in the Fires of Hell appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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