Cults and Religious Frights!
By Kristin Battestella
Rural or international, old school, medieval, or modern – these tales of good versus evil, devils, voodoo, and cults provide enough unique horrors and spiritual frights.
The Church – Three films claim to be Demons 3 in the somewhat confusing Italian Demoni series. Fortunately, this 1989 Dario Argento produced stand alone sequel opens with galloping knights versus witches, scary organ music, demonic signs, prophecy, torches, and head chopping slaughter. So what if it is kind of small scale, the helmets look like spray painted buckets, and kids literally have baskets on their heads! Crosses, stonework, church bells, Gothic spires, and gargoyles bring the medieval ecclesiastic yet sinister atmosphere to the modern day prayers, Biblical quotes, maze-like catacombs, and dusty library tomes. The titular temple was built to sanctify mass burials and keep evil caged below, and the tale sticks almost exclusively to the sanctuary setting as Indiana Jones temptations for buried treasure lead to coded parchments, architectural clues, suspicious altar sounds, and ghostly horses. A crusty old bishop, the new librarian reading backwards Latin, an art restorer cleaning morbid murals, the rebellious custodian's daughter – innuendo, icky saucy, and nasty behaviors increase as evil seeps out over this interesting variety of trapped people also including a school trip, one bickering old couple, and a couture photo shoot. Even dripping water becomes suspect once the bloody spouts, blue smoke, booby traps, gruesome deaths, and reptilian hands spread evil manifestations and infestations. Frightening confessions, decaying bodily possessions, literal bleeding hearts – today's audiences may not appreciate the slow burn one by one, but knowing it is just a matter of when adds to the robes, stained glass, rituals, and chanting. How can one fight the bestial Satan when he's entered the hallowed itself? Although the past and present connections can be confusing and remain unexplained beyond a happened before and will again warning, the skeletons, gory bodies, wings, and horns make for a very wild finale. This picture is not shy with its imagery nor its parallels – the demons only escape because human corruption was already there, using unleashed horrors to remind us that it's safer to leave well enough alone.
Sacrifice – Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black), Rupert Graves (Sherlock), and David Robb (Downton Abbey) star in this 2016 adaptation of Sharon Bolton's novel beginning with brisk New York pregnancy emergencies before moving to Scotland's great mountains, rocky coasts, and end of the world island isolation for an adoption. Standing stones, jokes about mistaking “runes” for “ruins”, and talk of Druids, Normans, and ritual sacrifice pepper the scene setting job interviews, hospital tours, and dinner with the wealthy, well-connected, but secretive in-laws. A dead animal on the property reveals a buried body, and our lady obstetrician butts into the police investigation of this bog discovery, studying creepy photos and x-rays of the corpse to suggest the victim had recently given birth before her insides were excised. Quality science, Tollund Man references, and flood clues jar against trow myths, unique folklore, and inscription evidence. The authorities don't want to hear any of that old sacrificial talk, but these mothers and lady cops are intelligent women talking about history and murder rather than men or gossip. While the well-paced, multilayered investigations may build the spooky versus facts with suspicions and tense cloak and dagger, this is not an overt horror picture. The story here feels caught in the middle when it should have been either a straight crime drama or gone with all out fantastics. There are some plot confusions as well – who is who and all the details aren't totally clear, leaving an abrupt end with serious unanswered questions. Fortunately, surveillance, shadows, chases in the dark office at night, and lights going out add suspense. Late wives, a clinic full of pregnant but anonymous women – who doesn't want this medical mystery solved and why? This is a small island, and not being in on its secrets can prove fatal with dangerous bridges or fiery car accidents. Body switches, clandestine interviews, identifying tattoos, hidden passages, and bagpipes tossed in for good measure seemingly tidy the case, and a likable, mature cast anchors the maternal fears and cult demands of this unique little thriller.
Voodoo Moon – Charisma Carpenter (Angel), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and John Amos (Good Times) anchor this 2006 blend of voodoo motifs and Biblical parallels with crows, skulls, casting stones, flooded steeples, rusty sickles, and naked chicks strung up on crosses. Yowzah! Evil shoehorns itself into a decaying body where it doesn't really fit or belong, and mausoleums add a whiff of New Orleans macabre alongside a few flayings alive and backwoods Tennessee mood. Tested faith, psychic connections, and prophetic drawings escalate as this team of multi-faith mystics with varying gifts come together against possessed priests and a devil in their midst. Some flashbacks and character backstories are hokey, but the better seen than told addresses the absurdity of “some psychic holy war against the devil.” An old bed and breakfast sanctuary sheltering the fun and likable cast also makes up for the lame, trying to be suave villain – most of the time here is spent with the people battling such evil elements rather than spectacle wham bam. Granted, when we do have them the fire and lightning effects are meh; the music is over the top, zombie henchman are confusing, loud effects are bemusingly bad, and weak humor or evil exposition get corny fast. There are silly floating in the air battles, unused underwater possibilities, unnecessary people, and unexplained powers – how does the good guy have all the same powers as the bad guy? This introductory, at times light or blasé feeling over the decidedly dark themes and supernatural character focus with potential for more seems almost like a backdoor pilot, which could have been an interesting series. I wasn't expecting much and the title is misleading, however, the audience gets invested in the fight fast. We care about the people in this avenging religious battle and want to see them through their demons both real and fantastic.
Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return – Black silhouettes and orange sunsets open this 1999 sixth installment branching from the original Stephen King source with Stacy Keach (Prison Break), Nancy Allen (Robocop), and an adoptee born on Halloween returning to her Gatlin birthplace. Despite car accidents, bizarre police, warnings to leave, and a Bible toting hitchhiker quoting Hannah name origins and Samuel prophecies, the snooping about town goes on undeterred with snotty hoteliers, creepy hospital machines, and road rage chases. Unfortunately, slow motion, obnoxious music, and town in on it scares meander in the first half with dusty scenery and corn mazes cluttering the plot holes rather than setting the rural mood. Poor bookend narrations don't help the pointless filler, nonsensical moments, and padding on the standard new person in town sacrifice/pregnancy we know to come. Although the teen rule is juvenile by design, dated millennial looks, hip lingo, a lame sex scene, and fake shocks are DOA – dead birds and bloody writings don't add spooky atmosphere but delay the inevitable with silly visions and laughable visuals. The golden patina looks like October, but the palette is often too dark to see the crazy patients and ward action. Creative or vengeful deaths don't get anywhere until the finale, and the adult characters deserved more. The ties to the initial film, however, remain interesting. The devout waiting for Isaac to rise from his coma and these children of the children plots should have happened sooner in the series, as now the audience is left scratching our heads wondering how and when a comatose boy had the time to get busy. The hospital horrors, insemination fears, and outdoor rituals come too late to correct the connections to the first film, leaving this a predictable, messy not scary tale in need of a watertight rewrite. Everyone has Children of the Corn movie they prefer or loathe – mine is the bad glory of Urban Harvest – yet each entry feels pretty interchangeable. This leg is good in a fall marathon of the series when the details are fresh in your mind, but one also has to let logical thought go to have fun here.