Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.
Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.
The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.
Posted in Bible, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Alice Cooper, anti-christ, exorcist, Gnosticism, John Carpenter, Prince of Darkness, Satan, self-sacrifice, The Thing
The movies of Guillermo del Toro, despite their success, must be watched with an astutely analytical eye. Although my movie watching runs a few years behind at best, a recent viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth left me feeling a little hollow and very reflective. The gruesome story is well told, and the fantasy world, even at the end, is hardly believable. Like most films that deal with disturbing issues, religious concepts are not far from the surface, or sometimes, the depths. In this case, the distinctly Christian trope of self-sacrifice opens a portal to a mystical world where a God-like father sits on a shining throne. But is it real? We are warned from the very first scene that this will not end well for young Ofelia, that “heaven” is but a fantasy seen through the hopeful eyes of a dying child. Even the faun (“Pan” of the English title) wears horns that suggest to modern minds the slightly diabolical, although he is in the service of the mystical king. I was so conflicted by end that I was glad the next day was a workday.
It is not difficult to notice that the heroes of the film are the female characters. Even the good men are generally ineffectual, but the strength of Ofelia and Mercedes bear the weight of showing any hope at all. Captain Vidal betrays his name of “life giver” time and again unless life is understood as unremitting pain and torture. Even the end of the film is set up as someone having to pay the price; the king demands innocent blood—will it be Ofelia or her baby brother? Of course, the girl must pay the price. In an interesting interpretation of the sacrifice of the only child, the daughter here becomes the savior.
Fantasy often has the power to heal. This is a key aspect that it shares with religion. Scientists have sought in vain a mechanism that would explain the brain’s remarkable ability to heal the body under conditions of belief. At times we’re reduced to name-calling, suggesting that somebody’s got something up their sleeve. After all, could a disreputable character like Rasputin really hold the key to physical wholesomeness (to say nothing of moral rectitude)? And yet, there are those who are made well by the most unlikely means.
The peoples of northern Europe believed that the veil between this world and the next was severely effaced at this time of year. Darkness is more prevalent than light. Pan’s Labyrinth begins and ends in darkness, and even the daylight—when it briefly occurs—is subdued. With Halloween behind us, the most veracious season of the year
lies ahead. Let us hope that this labyrinth contains fantasy.