Monday, October 30, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: Stake Land (Halloween Bonus)

Stake Land (2010)
In 1967, Joseph Bayly wrote a story called “The Gospel Blimp” about folks from a church who decide to evangelize the neighborhood by dropping Gospel tracts from the sky. The tracts litter yards and clog storm dreams. It’s a very unproductive plan for reaching the community for Christ.

Perhaps you’ve seen the episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in which the radio station drops turkeys from the sky for a publicity stunt. That plan doesn’t go well either, but at least both plans were kindly intentioned. That’s not the case with the church that drops vampires from the sky in the film Stake Land.

Stake Land was produced in 2010 and released to five theaters in 2011. It didn’t have much of a life in the cinema, but it better with home video and, later, streaming on Netflix. The Syfy channel even made a sequel, Stake Land II: The Stakelander in 2016.

The first movie was made the same year that the TV series The Walking Dead came out, and both have a similar feel. In both a plague (in Stake Land of vampires and in The Walking Dead of zombies) has brought down American civilization. Both follow the nomadic journey of survivors looking searching for a place of peace and safety. In both, viewers should beware of investing emotionally in any one character, because even cute children are not safe. Stake Land, though, has less than two hours of carnage as opposed to The Walking Dead’s hundred plus. But neither offers much hope.

Stake Land opens with a Gospel song, “No More, Oh Lord.” A man only called “Mister” rescues a boy named Martin whose family was killed by vampires. With his dying words, Martin’s father tells Mister to save his son. The two try to head for a rumored place of safety in the north, New Eden (Canada). In a voiceover, Martin says, “We avoided the cities, but pockets of civilization survived. We waited for a Messiah, but He never came.”

The two ride in a car and come across a nun who runs into the road, pursued by two men who assault her. Mister kills the two men, and the nun (played by Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame) joins them in their journey. The nun, Sister, says of the men who attacked her, “Those men, they said they were Christians.” Mister expects gratitude for killing the men, but she says, “It’s not ours to judge.”

That night, they meet one of her former friends, Sister Agatha. Sister Agatha has turned to a vampire, so Mister and Martin kill her.

Along the way, the travelers see signs announcing they are entering “God’s Country.” On the car radio, they hear a preacher inviting them to a revival tent in the woods. When Mister, Martin, and Sister enter the tent, it appears that the pews are littered with corpses. But they hear a baby crying and see a crib. As they approach the crib, they find a doll inside with a tape recorder playing a baby’s cries. The “corpses” rise -- they are members of a group that calls themselves a Christian Church, the Brotherhood.

One of the men who assaulted Sister, killed by Mister, was the son of the leader of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven. Loven explains that the Brotherhood believe in Aryan supremacy and believe that God has sent the vampires to purify the nation.  Loven protects vampires and feeds them.

Loven sends Mister, bound, into the night to be killed by vampires and enslaves Martin and Sister. But Mister, Martin, and Sister all escape in their own ways and find their way to a government-run settlement.

They think, at that settlement, they’ve found peace, but at a community social, a dance, the  Brotherhood airlift vampires to the party. Ten people are killed. Martin attributes the attack as coming from “Christians.” MIster gets revenge on the Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood strikes back. Jebedia ultimately comes back as a vampire seeking revenge and calling himself “God.”

To say the least, Jebedia as clergy and the church represented by the Aryan Brotherhood does not come across well in the film. It receives the lowest possible rating of One Steeple.

(Sister, on the other hand, quoting the 23rd Psalm and praying with her last breath, would receive Three.)

Sunday, October 29, 2017

In Theaters Now: Same Kind of Different as Me

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
“It’s revival season!” a woman tells Ron Hall (Greg Kinnear) toward the beginning of the film, Same Kind of Different as Me, “See that path? Follow the bells!” Hall eventually follows the path to a church, where a man, perhaps the minister, walks out the door and invites Hall inside. But Hall refuses and goes on his way.

That moment made me sad -- this blog is about churches and clergy, so I inwardly cheer whenever anyone in a film goes in a church (“Yay! I have something to write about!”)

Still, there were plenty of other churches in the film, especially if we’re a little loose with the definition. Much of the film takes place in and around Union Gospel Mission in Fort Worth, Texas, which is not a church, though it does have a chapel.

We went to a screening of the film hosted by Fresno Rescue Mission (also not a church). The United States is full of rescue missions that feed the poor, shelter the homeless, help people find freedom from their addictions, and do the work Christ calls His Church to do. Most rescue missions in this country are supported by churches, relying on them for financial and volunteer support. So even though the rescue mission in the film isn’t a church, rescue missions do represent the work of Christ in the world as the Church does

Though Ron avoided entering the church during revival season, he does, at his wife’s urging, go in the rescue mission. His wife, Deborah (Renee Zellweger), tells Ron she has a dream about this rescue mission and a man she was going to meet there. The couple volunteer to serve a meal, and during that meal, a man with a baseball bat comes in shouting that he’s looking for the person who stole his shoes. He slams the bat on the table and breaks a window. Deborah reprimands him; he settles down a bit and leaves. Then Deborah tells Ron that the man from her dream, the man with the baseball bat that others in the mission call “Suicide,” is the man God has called them to befriend.

Deborah and Ron continue volunteering at the mission, using their significant financial resources (Ron is a very successful art dealer) to improve the mission. The mission facility is greatly improved and builds its ministry to the community.

And they continue to build a friendship with Denver (Djimon Hounsou), the man known as “Suicide.” Denver Moore, an old man, a homeless man, a black man who grew up in the segregated South, tells Ron, a rich, white, educated man, the story of his life. Denver tells about his encounter with members of the Ku Klux Klan, but he also tells about going to his uncle’s church in Louisiana. We see a flashback of his baptism in a swamp, when the pastor miscalculated his dunk and Denver sank to the bottom. But, Denver tells Ron, he came up “full of the Holy Ghost”.

There’s also a church during a funeral scene. It seems to a Catholic sanctuary, what with the stations of the Cross stained glass windows. Instead of a priest, though, we hear Denver deliver the eulogy, in which we hear the title line as Denver describes other people as the “same kind of different as me.”

So we don’t see much of “official” churches in the film, but we do see good work done through the mission, which is made possible by work of the church. Because of the Union Gospel Mission, the film gets Four Steeples.

One of the nice things about writing Movie Churches is being able to avoid writing about the more thorny issues in a film. I’m just here to talk about how church and clergy are presented in a film as a way of discussing how religious things have been viewed in Hollywood through the decades. If there are other issues of controversy, I don’t have to deal with it.

If, instead, I was writing a review of this film, I’d have to deal with the issue of “the magic Negro.”

The term was popularized by Spike Lee in 2001 in reference to films like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, films where a black character’s sole function is to help the white person, the central character, with their problems. Some would undoubtedly see that problem in this film.

But Ron and Denver, the real people, really were friends, and Denver really did change Ron’s life (and was, with Ron, the co-author of the book the film is based on). I appreciate the film’s suggestion that we might meet someone at a rescue mission who will change our lives for the better. That’s a true story as well.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: Thirst

Thirst (2009)
Are we responsible for our actions when they’re caused by disease? Many people suffering from Alzheimer’s are angry. They can be violent, and they may say hurtful things. Are they morally culpable for their actions? Many would say no. The argument is sometimes made that drug and alcohol addictions are also diseases, and those afflicted are not responsible for their actions. Could the same argument be made for those suffering from the disease of vampirism?

The South Korean film Thirst has a more distinguished reputation than most of the vampire films in this blog. Based on Emile Zola’s novel Therese Raquin, it won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It was written and directed by Park Chan-wook, one of Asia’s most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. Park is also the maker of Oldboy, considered by many to be one of the most disturbing mainstream features ever made -- and Thirst has some disturbing elements as well.

Thirst tells the story of a Catholic priest who ministers in a hospital. (The Catholic Church is a strong presence in South Korea, making up 10% of the nation’s population.) In the opening of the film, we see Father Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) caring for an old man who reminisces about a time he shared his sponge cake with a poor family. They talk about memories and God’s faithfulness (“Remembering is His specialty,”  the priest says.) When the man goes into cardiac arrest, the priest helps give CPR. The patient goes into a coma.

We also see the priest hearing a woman’s confession. She tells the priest she has been considering suicide, and the priest says, “Suicide is worse than first degree murder. It will send one to hell.” (The priest’s views on suicide changes as the film goes on.)

Father Sang wants to do more, and when he hears about medical experiments he volunteers to be a guinea pig to fight the deadly Emmanuel Virus. (The film never explicitly notes that “Emmanuel” means “God with us.”) He is concerned about the disease because it first broke out in Africa where many missionaries were affected by the disease.

When he leaves to be injected with the disease (and treated for it), he tells the hospital and friends he’s taking a retreat to a luxury hotel, and initially, the treatment doesn’t go well. His health deteriorates, his skin breaks out in boils, he requires blood transfusions, and eventually he is declared dead. But he miraculously revives.

News spreads throughout the nation about the priest’s miraculous recovery, and people flock to his church. They come to see the “Bandaged Priest” (he’s covered with torn sheets as bandages for the sores on his skin) and ask him to pray for their loved ones. He prays for a woman’s son who has cancer, and the cancer immediately goes into remission.

But all is not well. It turns out that one of his blood transfusions was from a vampire. That explains his recovery, but he also begins to suffer the afflictions of a vampire. He can’t go in the sunlight. And he requires blood. He steals blood from the hospital blood bank, and then takes blood from his comatose friend in the hospital (“He wouldn’t mind, he always shared with those in need.”)

The appetite for blood isn’t the only appetite that grows. Father Sang’s sexual appetites grow. He stays in the house of a friend and finds himself lusting for his friend’s wife. Though he tries to beat himself to overcome his desire, eventually he gives into the temptation and has an affair with her. When she leads him to believe her husband has beaten her, they plot to kill the husband.

Murder and adultery are, to put it mildly, bad form for a priest (or for anyone). But is he to blame for his actions, or are they just symptoms of his disease of vampirism?

Things get worse when the priest’s mistress is turned to a vampire; she has much less moral restraint than the priest in the choice of victims.

Ultimately, the priest comes to see suicide and murder as the only possible solution to the threat that he and his mistress pose to all around them.

Another clergyman is featured prominently in the film. Sang’s bishop is blind and sick. He asks Sang to infect him with vampirism in hope he will regain his sight before he dies. Sang kills him instead.

When it comes to rating the clergy in this movie, should I give any leniency for the ravages of the vampire disease? I think I will, especially because Sang does seem kind and selfless at the film’s start. I’m giving Sang (and his bishop) a Two Steeple rating.

(The film merits its R rating with gruesome violence, sex scenes, and nudity.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: From Dusk Till Dawn

Sometimes, you expect that a salesperson isn’t telling the truth, and that’s alright. For some people, buying a used car is a game, and no one in the conversation really believes that a little old lady only drove the car to church on Sundays. Still, if the pastor of that church doesn’t believe what he’s selling, you might feel differently. A member of the clergy who thinks the church’s doctrine is hooey is worse -- their product should be “truth,” or at least the search for truth.

That’s why I appreciate Jacob Fuller’s (Harvey Keitel) decision to leave the ministry in the 1996 vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn. When we’re introduced to Jacob, he’s at a roadside diner, having breakfast with his two teenage children. With Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), he’s traveling south towards Mexico in in an RV.

Kate tells her dad she’d called and checked messages on the home answering machine. “One of the messages on the machine was from Bethel Baptist, and they said they wouldn’t permanently replace you until you came back.”

When Jacob says he’s not going back, Kate asks, “Don’t you believe in God anymore?”

He responds, “Not enough to be a pastor. I know this is hard on you kids. The congregation needs spiritual leadership. My faith is gone. To answer your question, yes, I do believe in Jesus, yes, I do believe in God. But do I love them? No. “

The Fullers go to stay in a motel, because Jacob says he wants to sleep in a real bed one last time (the RV beds don’t qualify). While there, they encounter bank robbing homicidal brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Richard (Quentin Tarantino) Gecko. The brothers kidnap the family and hijack their RV to cross the border.

Jacob drives while Seth literally rides shotgun (well, at least literally gun) and goes through Jacob’s wallet. He sees a picture of Jacob with his wife and asks, “Where’s the old lady?”

“In Heaven,” Jacob responds.

“How did it happen?”

“Car accident.”

“Die right away?”

“She was alive about six hours, trapped in the car.”

Seth sees something else in the wallet and asks, “Are you a priest?”

“I was a minister.”

“Why’d you quit?”

“I’ve got as up close and personal with you as I’d care to get,” Jacob responds.

Seth smirks and says he agrees.

As the audience, we can see fairly clearly that Jacob has left the ministry because of the pain and questioning that stem from his wife’s death, if only because we’ve seen a similar situation in Movie Churches during Science Fiction Month. In Signs, Mel Gibson played an Episcopal priest who left the ministry when his wife died in similar circumstances.

This film, though, takes quite a turn when the brothers take the family to a bar in Mexico where the brothers plan to meet someone offering protection (“If you want sanctuary, you got to pay the price, it’s Scripture. You pay 30%. So let it be written, so let it be done.”) When they walk into the bar, the bouncer threatens to toss them out arguing it’s a biker and trucker bar. Clooney is about to throw a punch when the ex-preacher says, “This bar is for truckers and bikers? See that recreational vehicle in the parking lot? You need a truck driver’s license to drive that. I’m a truck driver and these are my friends.” Jacob succeeds in making peace for the moment.

It’s a short moment, because we soon learn that this is not just a biker/trucker bar. It’s chiefly a vampire bar. The vampires begin to attack, and the two families fight back, escaping to a locked room where they await another attack. During the fight, they discover that crosses are effective weapons against the fiends when Scott takes Kate’s cross necklace and stuffs it in a vampire’s mouth, causing him to explode.

The group assesses their possessions, and Seth recognizes their most valuable resource. “Our best weapon is this man [Jacob], he’s a preacher. As far as God is concerned, we’re all pieces of [excrement] but he’s one of the boys. Only one problem: his faith is not what it was.”

Jacob slugs Seth

But Seth challenges Jacob. “Those are Sons of Hell, so there are Sons of God. Are you a faithless creature, or you a [mean bleeping bleeping] Servant of God?”

Jacob sees truth in Seth’s argument. If there is evil, there is also good, and for the sake of his children, if nothing else, he must represent for the good. “I”m a servant of God,” he says, and prepares for the fight. He agrees to bless their bullets (which they mark with tiny crosses) and bless water, turning it into Holy Water, an effective weapon.

When Jacob is bitten by a vampire, he continues to fight. But he exacts a promise from Seth and his children, “Fight with me to the bitter end. But when I turn, I won’t be Jacob anymore, I’ll be a lap dog of Satan. Swear to God you will kill me.” That time does come, but Scott can’t kill his “father.” Seth does the deed.

As always, we aren’t reviewing films here, but rather churches and clergy in films. Jacob may be former clergy, and he may drink on occasion, and he uses the Lord’s name in vain. But he is also a man of integrity, willing to sacrifice his life for others, which earns him a Three Steeple ranking.

(From Dusk to Dawn warrants its R rating, with profanity, nudity, and much bloody violence.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Vampire Movie Month: Priest

Priest (2011)
“Remember, to go against the Church is to go against God,” is a lesson repeated incessantly by clergy and public address systems in the 2011 film Priest (not to be confused with the 1994’s Priest, which is entirely vampire free).

You can look at this concept from a couple of perspectives. In Scripture, the Church is the Body of Christ, and so that teaching is true -- but we also know that individuals in the Church, even (sometimes especially) clergy in the church, do very unChristlike things. Opposing those actions and those people isn’t just okay; it’s the right thing to do.

Throughout history, clergy have said and done things that were wrong. Misogyny and racism have been preached. Right now people in some churches teach diametrically opposed things about sexuality from people in other churches. Someone must be getting things wrong. In this film, the church hierarchy is teaching false things about vampires.

It says 2010, but it came out 2011
The film (based on a graphic novel) lays out its cosmology in an animated preface, “This is what is known: there has always been man, and there have always been vampires. Since the beginning, they have have always been in conflict. Vampires were quicker and stronger, but man had the sun -- but it was not enough. The two races threatened to destroy not only each other, but the world itself.

Facing extinction, mankind withdrew behind walled cities under the protection of the Church. Then the ultimate weapon was found: the Priests. They alone could turn the tide for man.  Warriors with extraordinary powers trained by the Church in the art of vampire combat.”

The Priest Warriors were drafted from families while young and trained in combat. The Sign of the Cross was tattooed on Priests’ faces, and they took vows -- like other Catholic priests -- of poverty and chastity. (Another distinction separating Catholic seminaries of this world from our own is the recruitment of female priests.)

But when the vampires seem to be under control, these Priest Warriors are driven from ministry into obscurity. The Church hierarchy wants people to remain in the Cities under their control, but when the Priest with No Name (Paul Bettany taking the role because Clint Eastwood inexplicably passed on it) learns there have been vampire attacks in colonies outside the Cities, he urges action.

The Church Hierarchy claims they weren’t really vampire attacks and forbids the Priest from investigating the attacks. When the Priest says that he won’t obey those orders, the Church sends men to restrain him, but they are no match for the combat ability of the Priest. Soon he is out in the Wastelands.

The vampires are supposed to stay on Reservations, and the Priest goes to one of those, only to find that the vampires have overcome their guards and are on the loose. The danger to the humankind, and the Cities is real. Nonetheless, the bishops send out a team of four priests to capture the Priest. There is even a priestess in the priest posse (played by Maggie Q). Three of the male priests are killed by vampires. Not surprisingly, the Priestess teams up with the Priest.

One of the things I really liked about the Priests in the film is that before any of them go into battle, they quote from the Psalms (usually Psalm 23, a favorite in films). The Priests are obviously going out trusting the power of God.

But the Priest must eventually face the Big Bad, a fallen priest, Blackhat (Karl Urban), a former comrade of the Priest’s who was turned into a vampire. When Blackhat plans an attack on the Cities, the Church hierarchy must admit they were wrong and support the Priest in his return to battle (in a sequel that was not to be).

So, is it right to oppose the Church when it is wrong? Of course, because one of the ways we support the Church is to help it do the right thing. If you’re a Christian, you aren’t just in the Church, you are the Church -- so we should never “go against the Church.” We should always, however, strive to make the Church act as the Body of Christ. And fight vampires.

The Good Fight of Priests and the Head in the Sand Attitude of the Bishops averages the Church rating in Priest to 3 Steeples.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Guest Post! A TV Church for Vampire Month

(People have asked if we’ll ever review TV churches at this blog. This is the first. Our son, Bret, offered to review the churches in the Netflix series, Castlevania. As we always do here, he didn’t review the series, but the church and clergy in the series.)

Castlevania (Netflix original series)
Typically, there are three times you can expect a crowded parking lot at a local church: Christmas, Easter, and when Dracula releases a plague of the undead on the world. Whatever its faults, most people find their local house of God a more than reasonable alternative to bloodsucking enemies of all that is good.

Unfortunately, there’s an exception to almost every rule, and Netflix’s Castlevania shows that, sometimes, going to the local church is not ideal in the event of an invasion from Hell.

The clergy puts up an exceptionally poor showing for most of the four episode miniseries. Not content with being merely incompetent or morally bankrupt, they enthusiastically manage both. We first see a bishop burning a saintly doctor as a witch while she pleads that her persecutors be spared, for they know not what they are doing.

It turns out that burning her was even more of a mistake than you’d expect: she was pleading to her husband, Dracula, who immediately declares war on humanity… after they’ve had a year to clean up and get their affairs in order.

The Bishop
The local archbishop (who, following the well known principle of Peter, has risen to the highest level of incompetence) spends the year doing nothing useful, talking about how Dracula is incapable of threatening the children of God -- he even holds a ceremony mocking Dracula’s late wife on the day Dracula had promised to begin slaughtering all and sundry. Needless to say, it does not go well for the archbishop.

Before the show is over, we’ve seen the corrupt bishop who killed the doctor excommunicate a vampire hunter, plot the murder of an order of charity-minded knowledge seekers, and drive a whole town into a reign of terror even beyond the expected background horror of having demons regularly eat their babies. It is not, needless to say, the Church’s finest hour, or particularly good fodder for any later literary historian to make theories that the writer was secretly a Catholic.

All that said, what’s most interesting in the show’s depiction isn’t what it says, but what it doesn’t say. It’s not unknown for horror films to show priests as deeply corrupt, or the Church as more of a hinderance than a help. However, most films in that vein go further, showing that the God they worship is non-existent, or is another monster as horrible as the supposed enemy.

Not true here. It’s made very clear that the villains have fallen away from their faith. The archbishop indulges in the pleasures of the flesh; the bishop wants to remain on Earth, clinging to power rather than move on to the presence of God; and in a rather memorable scene late in the series, a demon declares that the church the bishop hides in is no defense, an empty box, because the man has rejected God in his heart. His monstrous actions stink to heaven, leaving the God of love with nothing but disgust for the man who claims to speak for him. (The demon, on the other hand, claims to love the bishop. The demon loves him enough to give him a kiss/bite his head off.)

In the end, a priest who hadn’t been a participant in any of the most questionable actions was even able to prepare holy water against the demons, aiding hero Trevor Belmont in his attempts to save the city. In the end, God is good. It’s just his people who are awful.

I wouldn’t say that Castlevania is anywhere close to a theologically guidepost (honestly, I’d say the church portion of the plot is the least interesting part of the show, with the villains being much less interesting characters than Dracula OR any of the heroes), but it is a decent reminder of Matthew 7:21. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

It’s vital that those who claim to follow Christ live up to it -- even when there aren’t any signs of Draculas. The church in Castlevania earns our lowest rating of One Steeple.