Like Sheep

Since horror grew up in the late 1960s, religion has become a favorite theme in the genre.  Although religion had been in horror from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby marked a definite sea change.  More and more religion has been moving from a subsidiary theme to the main vehicle of horror.  Małgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is a case in point.  “Shepherd” is the leader of a separatist religion that consists only of women.  The premise itself is creepy enough, but it becomes clear that Shepherd—the group literally has a flock of sheep—physically abuses the women.  They are divided into two groups: sisters and wives.  When unexplained things happen, Shepherd gives prophetic pronouncements.  His followers are expected to accept everything he says on blind faith.  Many religions do this by proclaiming faith against evidence a virtue.

One thing that I’ve emphasized in various presentations I’ve done is that Christianity, and perhaps all religions, work because believers are great followers.  While Shepherd uses biblical-sounding language, there are no Bibles in the film.  There are recognizably Christian themes, but the doctrine isn’t familiar.  Part of the reason, obviously, is that Christianity has a negative view of sex and Shepherd treats his flock as his harem.  The women follow because he “rescued” them from worse situations and their communal life is better.  Only it’s not.  When a woman director stands behind such a film, there’s clearly a message being sent about male privilege.  Any system set up with male superiority will lead to abuse.  When Shepherd’s enclave in the woods is discovered, they must move.  He instructs the women that they are going to find Eden.

Throughout, the movie is more creepy than scary in the traditional sense.  There are no jump-startles, but the situation makes you sense that something’s not right.  The women, acclimated to this lifestyle, many of them for years, know no other way of being or even where to go.  They have no vehicles.  Forced to move, they walk—Shepherd carries nothing while the women backpack out supplies.  Once Eden, on the shore of a lake, is reached, Shepherd baptizes the sisters and drowns the wives so the younger women can take their place.  You get the sense throughout that this movie is a parable.  Men like to take the privilege of determining women’s fates without understanding women’s needs.  This new kind of horror is insightful and symbolic.  There is no final girl when women band together.  The Other Lamb deserves wider exposure than it’s had.  It’s a good example of what religion can do to those who simply follow.


Having X

The final girl is such a classic horror trope that even horror novels can be titled after it.  You know the drill—teens hanging out, doing things that teens do, end up being killed off one-by-one by a monster or a disturbed person(s).  The one to survive is the virginal girl who doesn’t drink, use drugs, or whatever.  As a long-term horror watcher, I think the trope has been exaggerated, but it does occur enough times that there was clearly something to be noticed.  Enter X.  Released earlier this year, a slasher that rather obviously juxtaposes religion and horror, X features a “final girl” who is anything but virginal and sober.  The religion aspect is blatant from the beginning when the opening sequence involves a televangelist preaching to a viewership of the dead.

The title derives from the premise (which is a throw-back to the classic slasher era) that a would-be independent movie producer wants to shoot a pornographic movie.  Since this is strictly low-budget, he contacts an elderly gentleman on a remote Texas ranch who has a guest house.  With his one male and two female stars, a cameraman/director, and an assistant he drives to the isolated location.  They are all divided into couples, with each of the women having sex with the male star.  What makes this creepy from the beginning is that the old man, and his elderly wife, create a sinister presence.  She sneaks up on the young people, watching them through the window.  She misses her younger days when she was young and attractive.  As night falls the young people are killed off by the older couple one at a time.  What’s more, they’ve done this before.

X is a reflection on aging.  More than that, it’s a reflection on how religion leads to horror.  To say precisely how would involve giving away a spoiler, so I’ll leave the reader to watch the film to find out.  Suffice it to say, the televangelist is preaching about how sex leads to evil and the older couple kills because they’ve been listening to him preach.  X is not for the faint of heart.  I generally don’t like jump-startles and there were a couple of those that caught me off-guard.  (I try to anticipate them when watching slashers, or any horror, for that matter.)  But what of the final girl?  There is one, but it’s one who flies in the face of horror convention, if there is such a thing.  


Devils and Days

The kind of devil envisioned by Andrew Michael Hurley in Devil’s Day may not be the traditional one, but it’s scary nevertheless.  In his follow-up novel to The Loney, Hurley demonstrates that he knows the devil can still be frightening.  The Endlands, in northern England are hemmed in by the moors.  The landscape plays such a commanding role here that this can only be folk horror.  And it fits folk horror to a tee.  Tradition, an unchanging life in a land untouched by technology, and forbidding moors where survival is difficult, all amid an English sensibility brings this tale into the folk category neatly.  As should be clear already, Hurley is well aware that religion and horror belong together.  This novel makes their companionship clear.

John Pentecost (note the name) has decided that he and his young, expectant wife—both of whom hold professional jobs—are going to move back to the family sheep farm.  The death of John’s grandfather means that his own father is left to run the farm alone.  Knowing that he belongs there and that his unborn child will need to tend the farm when he dies, a visit to help with the gathering of the sheep, and the celebration of Devil’s Day, turns into a lifelong commitment.  At the same time, the devil has been body-hopping as sheep are killed and family members die and a family of bullies cause more harm than their due.  There’s an inevitability to all of this and at the end you’re not really sure who the devil really is.

The story builds slowly.  By the day of the gathering you really have trouble putting it down.  Putting the Devil into a story can be a dicey proposition.  It’s been done successfully a handful of times, but that doesn’t make it an easy sell.  Our worldview has moved beyond a literal netherworld and the theology that accompanies it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t spot legitimate evil in the world.  Or that evil isn’t often vested in the garments of righteousness.  Ways of thinking that jeopardize others for theological purposes that simply don’t match what we know to be just and fair.  Powerful exploiting the weak.  Wealthy taking advantage of the poor.  Bullies getting their way through brute force.  In this novel the devil is active in a number of characters for a short time.  And you never know where that devil might turn up next.


Updating Irving

Movie quality is measured by many standards.  It’s pretty clear that budgets can make a difference—Hollywood movies generally outshine television movies.  Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, have been gaining ground here, but they still lack some of the qualia that come from long-term players in the industry.  Often this was measured, pre-pandemic, by box office success.  I’m not sure how it’s all quantified now, but I’m sure it still comes down to money.  To me, the deciding factor about the quality of a movie is often the writing.  Even with a modest budget excellent writing can make up a lot of ground.  Headless Horseman originally aired on the SciFi channel (now Syfy) in 2007, and I wrote a tiny bit about it in a former post.  I recently rewatched it with an eye toward how religion is integrated in it.

Headless Horseman is not a great movie.  Its writing doesn’t inspire and it leaves too many gaps in the narrative to carry the viewer along easily.  Still, religion plays an important role in the story.  This one resets Washington Irving’s tale in the south—from the license plates, Missouri.  The horseman is a serial killer who offered his victim’s heads to the hydra, the serpent that guards the entrance to Hell.  When the killer is stopped and his body sent through the gateway, he comes back every seven years to chop heads.  The town where all this takes place has the biblical name of Wormwood, and everyone in it is literally family.  So every seven years they have to trap seven outsiders to make their offering.  The person who originally stopped the killer was the local priest.

Even this brief synopsis reveals how deeply religion is engrained in this retelling.  Irving’s classic story is set in an overtly religious period (particularly Protestant, of the Reformed variety), and wears this lightly.  Everyone can be assumed to go to church and the Headless Horseman is a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.  Over time, with many retellings, the horror becomes more and more involved with religion.  To the point that the religion itself is the real engine of fear.  A town protecting a Hell-guarding hellion doesn’t exactly make them Satanists, but it does mean they’re not far from it.  The in-breeding is, however, a bit insensitive.  My recent rewatching wasn’t with an eye toward the Bible, as my last viewing was.  When retelling the story, however, it seems religion will surface where once it was only in the background.


Various Plagues

At the encouragement of a friend I watched Roger Corman’s version of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  As I’ve mentioned from time to time lately, making short fiction into movies requires padding.  Poe’s tale is easily summarized: Prince Prospero and his wealthy friends attempt to socially distance themselves during the plague of the red death.  During a masquerade, one of the characters is the red death and they all succumb.  Getting about 90 minutes out of this was something to which Corman was well suited.  The interesting thing, and the reason my friend, I suspect, recommended it, is that Corman did so theologically.  Vincent Price’s Prospero is cruel to others to make them face reality.  He’s also, and not unrelatedly, a worshipper of Satan.

When the red death breaks out in a small village, Prospero holes up in his castle where he tries to win over a local girl that has caught his attention.  He’s drawn to her not only for her beauty, but for her faith.  Francesca believes in the goodness of God as strongly as he believes that Satan will welcome him.  The film is further padded out by blending it with Poe’s story “Hop-Frog.”  Despite the Corman hallmarks of quick production and low budget, this adaptation draws much from conflicting religious views.  In fact, this story centers on them.  Granted, this was in the sixties, but the ideas still resonate these decades later.  Rumors of Satanism still spread panic and spark the same kinds of discussions.

Interestingly, the film ends up suggesting that death is stronger than Satan.  And that justice dictates that at least some of the faithful will survive.  Those dedicated to their faith, their family, and their friends make it through alive.  Death specifically lets them go.  Prospero, however, seals his fate by his selfishness.  Apparently his explanations of his motives do him no good.  Death doesn’t condemn him for his devotion to Satan.  The treatment of his fellow humans, it seems, is the ultimate measure used.  Some would argue that theology is best left to theologians, but it seems to me that we all work with the same data.  Philosophers attempt to convince based on the power of their reason.  Theologians try the same, but there’s always something external and unknowable in the equation.  How you know this unknown is on the basis of sacred texts and sacred tradition, as well as reason.  Why does it seem unlikely that writers and directors might have something to add to the conversation?


Pure Fear

At work we have the opportunity to say a little about ourselves on a shared document for our teams.  This is a fairly new thing, so people I’ve worked with for years have no reason to look at it.  A couple of new hires, however, have noted that I watch horror movies and this has led to some budding friendships.  Since we’re all remote workers it’s mostly a matter of a line or two in an email about whether I’ve seen this or that film.  One of those recommended was the Hulu original Pure.  It’s actually pretty good.  The idea is a bunch of teenage girls are brought to a retreat center for a purity ball with their fathers.  This kind of thing can get very creepy very fast, given the incestuous overtones for such a thing.  Not only is it a religious event, it’s based on the story of Lilith.

Collier’s Lilith

The pastor preaches his first sermon about Lilith, but the girls from cabin 4 sneak out at night to meet some guys.  (Their presence is explained at the end of the movie.)  That night the girls summon Lilith, whom the minister’s daughter says is a demon.  The summoning works.  Lilith begins to interfere with services as the girls are tempted by the guys who are hanging around.  At the end, Lilith “possesses” Shay (the lead girl) and frees them from being controlled by the men in their lives.  The message is a refreshing one, and Lilith ends of being, well, somewhat as Shay puts it, “One man’s demon is another’s angel.”  

Religion and horror make a good couple.  I’ve never seen a movie that features the story of Lilith before.  The thing is, she’s not the scary part of the movie.  The religious believers, the fathers who try to control their daughters rather than giving them support after listening to them, are.  Parenting is tough, no doubt about that.  None of us are born into life with all the answers.  We quite often find ourselves not knowing for sure what we should do.  I couldn’t imagine being a parent claiming to have the solutions for all problems.  I’m a guy who watches horror for a form of therapy!  What I do think, however, is that we can try to be reasonable, loyal, and supportive.  I learn as much from being a parent as I teach.  The same was true of being a professor.  Humility, along with a willingness to continue learning your entire life is the only way that makes sense to me.  Although not a major studio production, this was one of the scariest movies I’d seen in a long time.


Shaping Water

When I write fiction the genre’s difficult to define.  The other thing is I tend to be behind when it comes to pop culture.  It can take me years to find the time to watch a movie.  This preface is an excuse for why I’ve only just seen The Shape of Water.  Is it a horror movie because it features a monster?  It is, of course, primarily a love story.  As a parable the story has many gaps but it’s so enjoyable to watch that you don’t even mind.  In the rare event that you missed the hype, it’s a tale about a woman who falls in love with a somewhat more modern version of the Gill-man.  Indeed, one of the captors, Strickland, mentions finding him in the Amazon—certainly a nod toward the Black Lagoon.

There’s much you can say about a story like this, but one standout feature was that the antagonist (Strickland) frames pretty much the entire movie with the Bible.  He’s not a good man, but he uses the story of Samson to keep Zelda, the Black cleaning woman, in her place.  He uses her namesake Delilah (middle name) to note how she betrayed Samson.  He goes on to say that God is in the image of man, either him or her.  But then he adds, “Maybe a little more like me, I guess.”  This gives you an idea of his character.  He also notes that the creature was thought to be a god in the Amazon.  At the end, as Strickland sets out to kill the creature, he again uses Samson to tell Zelda that he’s going to bring “this temple” down on all of them.  That’s a healthy dose of religious imagery for a species of horror film.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon also begins with a biblical quote.  And like in this movie, the real monsters are the white men who insist on destroying what’s not like them.  Monsters and religion have similar pedigrees and share a number of features.  A concern for those marginalized by society pervades true religion as well as monster movies.  Nevertheless, the academy has trouble giving awards to any movie labelled horror.  There are definitely elements of it here.  It isn’t unusual to see horror defined as a movie that features a monster.  This monster is a god. Interesting, how often that happens. The film’s mood, however, is also romance and a very real concern for the other.  We can all learn from movies like this, even if five years late.


Falling Usher

Roger Corman is a name well known to film buffs.  The producer of many low-budget, obviously cheaply filmed movies shot over a matter of days, his early career was prolific.  Often working in genre films, he directed horror (among other projects), occasionally drawing on Edgar Allan Poe.  The problem of adapting a short story to a length required for cinema release could be solved in a number of ways, but padding out the story was common.  I had only a few minutes to watch a horror movie over the weekend, so I pulled out a Vincent Price collection I’d bought some time ago.  A number of them are Corman films and I may have seen them when I was younger, but if so the path recall is completely eroded.  I decided to watch The Fall of the House of Usher.

This story by Poe remains my favorite for its sheer moodiness and imagery.  The premise is brief and the action little.  I knew Corman would have had to have changed quite a bit.  It turns out that he’d brought Richard Matheson in as the writer.  Many films can be made or broken by the writer.  While it doesn’t improve on Poe it is certainly a watchable effort that develops a mood in its own right.  The low budget is evident, but despite that the story is a slow build using many of Poe’s famous concerns such as premature burial and isolation in dangerous locations.  While not scary in the same way as modern horror, and stretched out by a dream sequence and overture, it nevertheless works.

Given my particular angle on horror, I noticed the introduced religious aspects.  While identification is difficult due to the lack of focus, there seem to have been two large, iconic Bibles in the story.  Indeed, the Ushers have a private chapel in which Roderick prays over his dead (?) sister.  The curse of the Ushers has to do with family evil that is being punished, causing Philip Winthrop to quote the Bible in his denial of the passing down of divine wrath.  The paintings of the Usher ancestor as Roderick explains this are the scariest part of the movie.  Not all Corman adaptions of Poe work well, but with the ministrations of Matheson and the rich ground for development from the original story, this is an atmospheric contribution to early horror.  And it works if you only have a few minutes on a busy weekend for your favorite avocation.


Television Fed

There have been a number of television shows—The Simpsons primary among them—that instead of castigating the media-raised generation, celebrate it.  As I watch the younger, internet-raised generation, I realize that we were the kids raised on television.  Before the fifties and sixties televisions were too expensive to reach into every home.  Although we were poor, we managed to scrape and scrounge enough to buy a color television by the time I was an early teen (what’s now technically a tween).  And even before that I had a television habit.  Dark Shadows, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and the list could go on and on.  Since neither of my parents finished high school, we used television as a window into the wider, more educated world.

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

As an adult I’ve moved beyond that academic stage of being embarrassed about being raised on television.  I’m inclined now to embrace it.  It was forming me long before I started reading and these days I prefer reading to television, which I practically never watch.  Still, I have a great appreciation for its formative influence.  How else are you supposed to learn about the world when you’re poor and uneducated?  Dark Shadows taught me about vampires.  The Twilight Zone made me appreciate the strangeness of life.  Star Trek awoke wonder about space.  Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart taught me to laugh in tough times.  The Partridge Family taught me about music and the Brady Bunch prepared me for Zoom.

For many years I’ve tried to put this behind me as a cause of shame.  I was an academic.  A book-learner.  That way of life, however, shouldn’t deny what has made us who we are.  While following the new rendition of Sleepy Hollow in television format, I came to realize that there was a new direction to go.  Religion in horror had been lurking in the background for many years, even before my career malfunction.  To deny it was to deny the same academic pretentiousness that has refused me a place.  Media can hold meaning for us.  There’s no replacing those younger years in front of the tube, the intravenous meaning that successful writers and media producers of the sixties and seventies were giving us.  When you don’t have the free time for research, you can still access what childhood taught you in the first place.  And perhaps, if you’re lucky, move it forward.


Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Original Fly

Thinking about it made me do it, I suppose.  Watch The Fly, that is.  This is a movie I grew up knowing about.  I knew the basic plot but somehow was never in the right place at the right time to see it.  Until now.  For a movie from 1958 it remains strangely affecting.  I was wondering whether religion would enter into it, and indeed, in a moment drawn from Frankenstein, André Delambre expresses that he knows what it feels like to be God.  No thunder to drown it out this time.  A short while later his wife Hélène asks him what he’s doing as he is relaxing in the back yard.  He says he’s looking at the sky, or maybe looking at God.  In the light of other mad scientist movies this is a somewhat self-aware moment.

The Fly is one of those movies that had great influence on popular culture.  Although critics at the time thought of it as a gross-out (they obviously had no idea what David Cronenberg would do!) it nevertheless managed to find its way into dialogue with other movies.  The correlation to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teevee’s scene is remarkably close.  (Adult’s who’ve read Roald Dahl and who’ve paid attention to the movie know that this is kid-friendly horror.)  I’m also pretty sure some of the writers from The X-Files knew The Fly as well.  The Fly, coming during the atomic age, is clearly a warning about using technology that we don’t understand.  Although the movie made a great return on investment for the time, the message still hasn’t been received.

In many ways The Fly set Vincent Price’s trajectory toward being a horror star.  After all, just two years earlier he’d been in The Ten Commandments.  Isn’t he another connection between religion and horror?  Although not the lead in The Fly, as André’s brother François, Price has the most philosophical line: “The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world and the most dangerous.”  Like the warning about technology, this is a bit of information that might have usefully been heeded.  The political events of 2016 to 2020 demonstrated just how important the search for truth is (and demonstrated religion and horror).  Even with a partial fly brain, André Delambre destroys his notes after making Hélène promise never to reveal what happened.  The truth gets out, of course, leading to the observation behind many mad scientists’ ravings: what is really being sought is the rush of knowing what it feels like to be God. 


Earth Haunting

I’m still not sure what I saw.  I’m not even sure how I learned about it (it was likely either Theofantastique or Horror Homeroom), but In the Earth is a very strange film.  I can’t say it’ll be on my shelf of favorites—there’s a little too much Wolf Creek here for that—but I can say it’s something I’ll be thinking about for some time.  Body horror isn’t my favorite, but I do like to remind myself periodically of the dangers of going into the woods.  Released just last year, In the Earth is a pandemic-response film that critics say is funny (I kind of missed that aspect, I’ll admit) about a scientist and a ranger who are journeying into a particularly fecund woodland outside Bristol for research.  Martin, the lead, has an ulterior motive in that the researcher already in the woods is a former girlfriend.

Martin heads out with Alma, the ranger, and they fall into a trap set by Zach, and I suppose the humor comes in Zach’s constant observations that Martin’s wounds have gotten worse and require backwoods surgery.  The couple escape Zach (who’s clearly deranged) after he drugs them and poses them in odd clothes to propitiate the spirit of the woods.  They find their way to Olivia (the researcher/former girlfriend) and her research station only to learn Zach is her ex-husband.  And here things get weirder.  To communicate with the earth, Olivia first used an old ritual book that includes the Malleus Maleficarum and additional material.  This ancient book tells how to decipher the language of the earth through the use of light and sound with the aid of a runic standing stone that’s on no map.

Religion plays a major part in the horror here.  Olivia and Zach both want to sacrifice Martin at the runic stone.  Anyone who can watch this without seeing echoes of Abraham and Isaac probably has fewer religious nightmares than I do.  Martin, they all say, is so innocent and straightforward.  Alma keeps on trying to get Martin out of the woods but either Zach or Olivia, or the forest itself via a toxic cloud of mushroom spores, prevents them.  There are so many flashing strobes and intercut images from the spores and oddly disturbing sounds to make out what really happens at the end of the film, but one thing is clear.  Zach and Olivia have taken a religious text too literally and doing so leads them to sacrifice the innocent.  Almost biblical, no?


Maudren Saint

Saint Maud is one of those movies that requires some thought.  (And I’ve been giving it plenty.)   It follows a brief time in the life of Maud, a hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of one of her patients.  Maud has direct experiences of God, like Teresa of Ávila but the film doesn’t make it clear, until the very end, if she suffers delusions.  After the traumatic loss of a patient at the beginning of the film she becomes a devout Catholic and when she feels she isn’t succeeding in her mission she punishes herself by using medieval-level means.  She hears God talking to her and what he (yes, he’s male) demands makes the viewer wonder if she’s found the correct spiritual entity.  Moody, edgy, and theological, Saint Maud is another example of how horror and religion work together.

It’s one of those movies that, when you finish it you start looking around for someone to talk to about it.  Of course, I watched it alone, wearing headphones, so I had dialogue with my own imagination.  One of the founding principles of cinema was the realization that viewers liked to discuss what they’d just experienced.  The other horror fans I know tend to be academics far removed from here.  I don’t know any of them well enough to pick up the phone, or call up on  Zoom, and say “Hey, let’s talk about Saint Maud.”  The thing is, I understand some of the doubts and motivations of Maud.  It’s always that way when religious interactions are with an invisible, petulantly silent deity.  Kind of like watching horror movies alone.

Horror has proven to be a kind of therapy for me.  The stresses of life are many and unrelenting.  Watching someone even worse off can help, as long as it’s fiction.  The world we’ve created is a very unfair place.  Many people suffer so that a few can enjoy more than they deserve.  Their lifestyle is protected by lawmakers that they buy while others suffer.  I’d just spend a day hearing about such injustices, and then paying hefty bills, and it seemed that some weekend horror was just what the doctor ordered.  I’ll probably watch Saint Maud again once I’ve had time to recover, and to think about the implications of the story.  Horror and religion have a viable partnership.  Such films occasionally become blockbusters, but sometimes they’re smaller affairs waiting to haunt us on weekends after hearing about the sad state of the Frankenstein world we’ve all created together.


Day of the Lord

The kindly folks at Horror Homeroom recently asked me if I’d review the new movie, The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.  Since I’ve been occasionally writing on religion and horror for them for a couple of years now, they knew I’d be interested.  The review just dropped and you can read it here.  Since this blog is a less formal place I’ll say a bit more about the film here, while encouraging you also to read the review.  They won’t be the same.  The movie, which is independent of any of the big studios, is hands-down the most theological horror I’ve ever seen.  That’s because it’s fully based on a religious idea.  It consists almost entirely of dialogue, so some will doubt it’s horror at all.  What is being said, however, can be quite scary.

Using only two characters, the movie would work well as a stage play.  The story revolves around a couple on a romantic weekend getaway.  Far from any other people, they’re enjoying a fancy cabin in the woods when suddenly he (Michael) reveals to Gabby (her), that he’s God.  Not all the time.  In fact, he’s come to her at this moment without Michael even knowing it because she’s going to die that weekend.  He wants to ensure she can get to Heaven.  Throughout the weekend Michael switches back and forth between being himself and being God.  Gabby fears she’s trapped with a psychopath, but as God Michael knows things about her that she’s never told him.  They discuss the problems with God’s existence and the issue of theodicy as Gabby slowly comes to accept she will die there.

My Horror Homeroom piece has spoilers, but I won’t put them here.  Horror fans might claim this isn’t horror at all.  There’s no bloodshed, very little violence, and no monsters play a role (unless you count the Devil).  Still, it is psychologically tense and it raises some scary questions.  I was raised as a Fundamentalist.  The fear implanted early that you might die not right with God has stayed with me all through my years of working in religious studies.  From my perspective this was a pretty scary film.  The script is very well written.  So much so that I wonder if Jared Jay Mason, the writer, hasn’t taken a course or two in theology.  My formal review gives quite a bit more detail, but you might want to watch the movie also.  I found it surprisingly effective.


After This

It didn’t rock the critics, but it is distinctly creepy.  After.Life came out in 2009 and quickly fell from sight.  It’s an interesting movie nevertheless.  Any film that features an undertaker, for one thing, gets edgy.  The story of a young teacher who never really felt loved and who is killed in a car crash sounds tragic enough.  Then she finds herself conscious in the preparation room where the funeral director, Eliot Deacon, talks to her, assuring her that he can speak with the dead.  As the movie progresses we begin to wonder if Anna, the teacher, really is dead or if she’s being killed by Deacon for having given up on life.  His name is suspiciously religious, fittingly for a film that deals with such a topic as the afterlife.  Overall, however, it’s pretty bleak.  One of Anna’s students also sees her after she dies and Deacon befriends him, offering to teach him his trade.

Although the critics didn’t like it, it is spooky on many levels.  Not the least of which is the question never satisfactorily answered of how to know when you’re really dead.  The movie presents the soul as a fact, and even dead bodies can move around when the situation merits it.  Death is one of those areas that religion generally enters.  Some secularists maintain their lack of religious thought even in this situation, but many people find religion helpful at this ultimate transition and the soul seems entirely natural then.  It’s unclear in the movie whether Deacon is good or bad.  He’s certainly obsequious, accommodating the wishes of families even when unreasonable.  With the dead, however, he takes a firmer stance, having to convince them that they’re no longer living.  The movie’s a bit confusing in the case of Anna—we’re never really sure if she’s dead or not.

Even with commercial interruptions (it’s free to watch that way) I found myself getting caught up in the story.  Deacon kept asking what it is the living really want.  He’s shown throughout doing the work singlehandedly, from picking up the bodies, to embalming, to even digging the grave.  His loneliness is ameliorated by his ability to speak to the dead, each of whom he photographs and puts on his bedroom wall.  Religion may be behind the soul, but no obvious religious talk pervades the film.  I have to wonder if this might not be the reason it fails to frighten its many critics.  Horror that uses religion effectively often becomes successful.  Those that avoid religion like, well, death, often fail to convince even secular critics.