Friday, October 26, 2018

The Last of the Horror Sequels

The Exorcist III (1990)
Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. (I hesitated about using that word. This is a family site. But if that word is too much, you probably shouldn’t be reading about The Exorcist III.) Anyway, that percentage for horror films would probably be 95% -- and maybe 98% for horror movie sequels. The other horror sequels this month have done nothing to buck this trend. This week’s film does.

The original Exorcist was a box office sensation, a critical favorite, a cultural icon, and widely considered one of the best horror films ever made. The Exorcist II: The Heretic… Was #2 in Michael Medved’s book, The 50 Worst Films of All Time. 1990’s The Exorcist III (written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the novel, The Exorcist) falls somewhere in between. The film is based on another novel of Blatty’s, Legion (a title referring the story of the demon possessed man found in Mark 5).

The film is set in Georgetown, 17 years after the events of the original story (the events of the second film are ignored). Central to the film is the friendship between a cop and a priest. George C. Scott plays Lt. William Kinderman, a homicide detective investigating bizarre serial murders. Ed Flanders plays Father Dyer, a priest who was friends with Father Damien (one of the priests from the original story).

Kinderman and Dyer go to the movies together, to see It’s a Wonderful Life. Dyer admits he’s seen the movie 37 times. When the two talk in a diner later, the policeman admits he doesn’t view life as such a wonderful thing. He is investigating the murder of a twelve year old boy who was decapitated, with his head replaced by a marble head of Jesus stolen from a statue in Dyer’s church. It’s another horrible event of many Kinderman has viewed in his work.

“The whole world is a homicide victim, Father. What kind of God would invent death?” Kinderman says. “In the meantime, we have cancer and mongoloid babies and murders, monsters prowling the planet, even prowling this neighborhood, Father, right now, while our children suffer… and our loved ones die, and your God goes waltzing blithely through the universe like some kind of cosmic Billie Burke.”

Father Dyer responds, “It all works out right.”

“When?” the cop asks.

“At the end of time,” the priest responds.

“That soon?”

“We’re going to be there. We’re going to live forever, Bill.”

“Oh, I’d like to believe that,” the cop tells the priest.

And, through a series of horrible events, the cop does come to believe. In a strange way, seeing great evil leads him to see the reality of God and His goodness, primarily through the self-sacrifice of Father Dyer and other men of God.

Father Dyer is not without his flaws. He smokes and loves his candy (“I spent a year taking children's confessions and I became a lemon drop junkie.”) While in the hospital, he reads trashy gossip magazines (he tries to justify this by telling Kinderman he ran out of newspapers). In fairness, we do see him reading Scripture as well.

And the priest isn’t always careful in his language. One of his superiors reprimands him for his treatment of one of their biggest donors. “What did you say to him?” he asks Dyer.

The priest responds, “Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an a**h***.”

Father Dyer is a kind, funny, warm, compassionate man, who gives hope to the despairing policeman.

Kinderman also sees an example of courage in Father Morning (Nicol Williamson). As demonic killings continue in the film, including the murder of priests, the Father Morning sets out to perform an exorcism in the most dangerous of conditions.

Yes, this is a horror film with many grim and bloody deaths (though perhaps not as salacious and scandalous as the first film), but it is a film that genuinely wrestles with the problem of evil. The priests in this film, who present worthy arguments for theodicy (seeing God’s light in a dark world), earn our highest Movie Church rating of four steeples.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

In Theaters Now! Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

I think technically I have to do that thing above to avoid an internet lawsuit, at least since the death of net neutrality, or something like that. Anyway, you’ve been warned.

I’m sorry to have to give anything about this film away, because I really enjoyed seeing Bad Times at the El Royale, written and directed by Drew Goddard, without knowing what was going to happen in the film. Too often trailers before a film give everything away, and there are no surprises. So if you want to be surprised as I was, quit reading now, go to a theater near you, and get back to this post once you’ve seen the movie.

Anyway, to write about the clergy, as we do here at Movie Churches, in Bad Times at the El Royale, I have to give a divulge a key plot point up front by saying that the “priest,” Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), is not really a priest. (You might figure this out by looking at the film’s IMDb page which lists two names for the character.) He’s a crook disguised at a priest. It’s part of his plan to recover stolen loot hidden at withering resort on the California/Nevada border, the El Royale.

We at Movie Churches always ponder whether we should write about phony clergy when they appear in films (though, admittedly, we devoted a month to fraudulent clergy in August of last year). But there are interesting things to observe about how people react to clergy, even if it isn’t real clergy.

The film is set in the 1970s at a seedy hotel, right on the border. Some rooms are in California while others are in Nevada. A vacuum cleaner salesman (or is he really something else?), Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), asks him, “Are you lost, Father?”

Everyone seems concerned about the presence of a priest in such notorious establishment. Especially the bellman, Miles (Lewis Pullman), the only employee on the grounds (he also acts as desk clerk, maintenance, and other, um, more unsavory responsibilities). Miles tells Father Flynn, “Father, you shouldn’t be in a place like this.”

The phony priest has a great response to this, “If this is not a place for a priest, then this is where the Lord wants me to be.” I think that is a great attitude for a real person in the clergy, showing that God’s presence is needed everywhere.

Miles grew up in the Catholic faith, but events in his life have taken him far from his faith. Though he first discourages Flynn from staying around, he also hopes the priest might help him by hearing his confession. This becomes a key theme of the film, the search for redemption in the least likely of locations and circumstances. The film suggests that even a fraudulent representation of God’s Kingdom reminds people of their sin and need for forgiveness.

Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), another guest at the El Royale, begins to suspect the identity of Flynn. She’s a lounge singer, but she had her start singing in church choirs. When the priest doesn’t seem to recognize any of the hymns or spirituals she mentions, she becomes suspicious.
Okay, so Father Flynn isn’t really a Catholic priest, as he eventually comes to admit. But even this fraudulent father, compared to Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), the sadistic cult leader we meet later in the film, seems pretty orthodox. Perhaps it’s this comparison that allows Father Flynn to avoid our lowest Movie Church ranking, giving him Two Steeples.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

I Want to Believe There's A Good Horror Sequel Out There

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
This film was made ten years ago, and it probably wouldn’t be made today, at least not in the same way. The X-Files: I Want to Believe offers a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile Roman Catholic priest; post Spotlight and #MeToo, that just wouldn’t happen.

It’s horror sequels month at Movie Churches, and this 2008 film is not only a sequel to the 1998 film, The X-Files: Fight the Power, but also a sequel to the TV series (The X-Files began its run in 1993, ended in 2002, and was revived again in 2016.) The television show included horror, science fiction, crime drama, fantasy, and even comedy. It followed two F.B.I. agents who investigated “X-files,” cases that had elements of the supernatural or uncanny. The TV series was among the first prime time series to have a “mythology,” an ongoing storyline and theme, but it also had stand-alone episodes. I always preferred the stand-alone episodes and I Want to Believe is more like the stand-alone episodes (it does not, for example, have anything about space aliens).

The central plot is the F.B.I.’s search for an abducted F.B.I. agent. As the film opens, neither Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) or Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Scully is a physician for a Catholic hospital, and Scully is living off the grid -- he’s technically wanted for breaches of security by the F.B.I. (but the agency isn’t really looking for him very hard).

When the F.B.I. receives credible information from a psychic, the leading agent in the case, Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet), decides she needs F.B.I. experts in the paranormal, so she first contacts Scully, and asks Scully to contact Mulder with the offer of having all former charges dropped against him if he helps with the case.

There is a subplot, relevant to Movie Churches, about Scully’s work in a Catholic hospital. We first see her in amiable conversations with priests at the hospital. One of her patients is an adorable young boy with the name, notably, of “Christian” (making John Bunyan proud). The child has a rare, fatal disease. Scully believes a new, experimental treatment might save the child’s life, but liability issues lead the ecclesiastical leadership to recommend that the child be put into hospice. This conflict continues throughout, and even provides the conclusion of the film.

Back in the main plotline, Scully and Mulder go off to interview Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), the priest who claims to have had visions about the kidnapped F.B.I. agent. Scully wonders whether it will be worth interviewing him, but Mulder says, “He’s a religious man, an educated man.”

Father Joe resides in a dormitory filled with priests, and he says that all the residents despise each other. Father Joe molested 37 altar boys. We see him smoking, we also see him at prayer.

Mulder and Scully interview Father Joe as good cop, bad cop. Not as tactic, but because Mulder is genuinely interested in the priest’s visions, “Can you show us how you do it?”

Scully, on the other hand, is offended by the presence of the molester, “In twenty-four hours we could have a dead agent and find out this priest is a big, fat fraud.”

Scully asks the priest, “What was it you were praying for in there, sir?” 

Father Joe responds, “For the salvation of my immortal soul.”

“And do you think God hears your prayers?”

Joe: “Do you think he hears yours?”

Scully: “I didn’t bugger 37 altar boys. You can ask God for forgiveness, but you can’t have mine.”

The priest has more visions, and not only that, he bleeds from his eyes. A miracle? He leads the agents to the crime scene, but too late. The criminals have left with the hostages. In time, the priest’s visions do lead to the rescue of the agent. Father Joe dies of cancer.

And Scully finds the faith to treat young Christian, though opposed by the administrator/priest of the hospital.

So what steeple rating should we give the church and clergy of this film? The pedophile priest does seem to be used by God in the end. And the Roman Catholic church does provide a hospital for those in need, though they don’t trust the wisdom of Dr. Agent Scully as they should. So they avoid our lowest Movie Church rating, and we give Father Joe and the Catholic hospital a rating of 2 Steeples.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Horror Movie Churches Month: The Sequel (PII)

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
I saw this week’s film when it came out under circumstances I’m not proud of. I was in seminary and, working with a friend, was cleaning out the dorms at the end of the school year. We found a box (in a dumpster, don't ask), a little treasure chest, full of change -- nearly $30.00 worth. We asked around to see if anyone knew where it came from, but we didn’t ask very many people. You’d think, as good students of theology and ethics, we would have gone to great efforts to find the rightful owners of the cash, but no. We only went to moderate effort. We could have used that money for a good cause: foreign missions, projects to feed the hungry, providing fresh water to the thirsty. That money could have gone to a scholarship to send kids to camp.

But no.

We spent the money on pizza and going to a drive-in movie. Weeks later we heard from someone who thought the money was his.

Perhaps divine retribution for our less than righteous behavior is why we chose the drive-in where 1986’s Poltergeist II: The Other Side was playing. It’s a very bad sequel to very entertaining film (Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg). This month I had to watch it again, because I remembered that the film has a strange clergyman and an interesting theological take. I hope, with this viewing, my penance for my unjust action of the past will be paid. (Yes, I do believe in God’s grace covering our sin...But work with the premise here.)

There were some odd circumstances in the making of this sequel. In the original film, Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and Jobeth Williams), have three children. The eldest, Dana (Dominique Dunne), the son, Robbie (Oliver Robins), and the youngest, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke). The script called for Dana to be away in college; she wasn’t intended to be in the film at all.Then, in real life, the actress was murdered. All reference to the character was dropped, so this poorly made film also feels rather morbid. (Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Ann, died at 13 from health issues, leading to stories of the Poltergeist Curse. Oliver Robins, who’s still alive, vehemently denies any such thing.)

The father, Steve, is out of work (“I’m into downward mobility”) and in financial straits after their home’s destruction in the first film. (Since this post is already plagued with tangents, I’ll add another. Steve was played by Craig T. Nelson, who I met at church in Hawaii while Mindy and I were traveling the country in 2016.) The family is living in the home of Diane’s mother, Gramma-Jess (Geraldine Fitzgerald).

But wouldn’t you know it, just as ghosts besieged the Freeling family in the first film, it’s happening again in this one. In the first film, the problem was building the their home over a Native American burial ground (as we discussed last week, location is so important in real estate.) This film has ghosts that, in life, were followers of a strange 18th century preacher.

While Diane is out shopping with her children, Carol Anne strays away and becomes lost. An old preacher (Julian Beck) approaches the little blonde girl and says, “Are you lost, sweetheart? Are you afraid? You come with me.”

Nope, nothing creepy about that at all.

Carol Anne won’t go with him, so he tells her he’ll sing her a song, which goes, “God is in His holy temple, earthly thoughts be silent now.” Diane finds them both and thanks the preacher for caring for her daughter. After the family leaves, we see someone walk right through the old man.

Then more tragedy strikes the Freeling family. Gramma-Jess dies in her sleep, but Carol Ann gets a post-mortem phone call from her grandmother on her toy telephone. Then a Native American man, Taylor (Will Sampson), comes to the Freeling family and says he is there to protect them. They let him camp out in the backyard.

The old preacher comes to Gramma-Jess’s house. Rain follows him as he walks and sings, “He is with us now, as we call upon his name… guiding us to His every aim.” Diane sees the old man and says, “Can we help you? Haven’t I seen you before?”

“That is possible,” he responds. “I get around.”

The Freeling dog is not fond of the stranger; he seems afraid.

“Let me introduce myself,” the old man says. “Herman Kane.”

“We’ve had enough of door to door salesmen,” Steve says.

The old man tells Steve, “I should have said Reverend Kane, and what I have to sell is free. You have an Indian living with you. I’m with an organization that helps families like yours that deal with fakes and charlatans. Let me into your home. I can see he has a strong hold on this family. They turn to him, they don’t trust you anymore. You feel as if you’re not man enough to hold this family together.”

“How do you know?” Steve asks.

“I’m smart and I’m your friend and I know what you’re thinking. I’m your friend. Let me in! Now! Before it’s too late. You’re going to die in hell! All of you! You’re going to die!”

Steve doesn’t appreciate this outburst and says to the man, “Get the hell out of here!”

The Reverend leaves and the rain stops.

Steve asks Taylor about the man, and Taylor tells him, “He comes in many forms, but that was the Beast.”

They need help, so they call on the psychic from the first film, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein in her Razzie-winning role). She explains the history of the Reverend Kane to the Freeling family, “There was a religious sect that mysteriously disappeared. Their leader was a medium, he led his people in the early 1800’s to start a utopian society. They disappeared and were believed to be massacred by Indians.” Now this sect is trapped in the underworld, but they believe Carol Anne has a link to the beyond, and they want to possess her in order to escape.

The remainder of the film is a battle between the Freeling family and the Beast, Rev. Kane, and the demon ghosts that worship him. The Freeling family trusts in Native American spirituality for their ultimate victory in opposition to Kane who takes the role of a Christian pastor, though he is nothing of the sort. He obviously has nothing to do with Jesus or God’s grace. Because of that, we are giving Kane and his church our lowest Movie Church rating of one steeple.

At Movie Churches, we believe in grace, which is why we tell you, “Skip Poltergeist II: The Other Side,” just as we plan to continue avoiding Poltergeist III. What you do with found money is between you and God.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Attack of the Horror Movie Churches Sequels: The Nun

In this first official post of Horror Sequels month, I need to start with a caveat: The Nun (still in theaters) is actually a prequel, part of “The Conjuring Universe.” The Conjuring was the first film in this series about a husband and wife team of exorcists who help a family dealing with a house possessed. The Nun is the fifth film in this series that has consistently presented a fairly positive view of the Roman Catholic Church. The Nun is actually a spinoff of the second film (The Conjuring II) which briefly featured the frightening title character.

The story of The Nun mostly takes place in Romania,1952, in the Abbey of St. Carta. The film opens with nuns journeying down a long hallway in the abbey, approaching a door with a sign in Latin that reads “God Ends Here.” They have a relic that opens the door, but a mysterious figure attacks them. One nun is killed, the other commits suicide.

The Vatican decides to send Father Burke (Demian Bichir), a specialist in investigating miracles and the supernatural, and a young novice, Sister Irene (Taisse Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga who starred in the first film of the series).

We first see Sister Irene teaching a group of children using a dinosaur toy. She tells the students that the dinos lived millions of years ago. The Mother Superior interrupts the lesson to say that there were no such thing as dinosaurs; God put the bones in the ground of these imaginary creatures to test our faith. The odd thing about this is the Catholic Church has long been supportive of the idea of an old earth, even of evolution of the human race. Even young earth apologists don’t doubt the existence of dinosaurs; they just believe they existed alongside humans and are discussed in the book of Job.

At first it seems puzzling that an experienced Vatican investigator like Father Burke is asked to mentor a young woman like Sister Irene, but we learn that she has a gift of visions -- a special connection to the afterlife.

A young man named Frenchie, the man who found the nun who committed suicide, directs Burke and Irene to the seemingly deserted abbey. When they meet the Abbess, she tells them that the other nuns are honoring a time of prayer and silence through the night, but that they are welcome to spend the night in an attached building. That night, both Frenchie and Burke are attacked by demons. Frenchie makes his way back to the village, but Burke finds himself in the awkward position of being buried alive by demonic forces. He is rescued by Irene and her visions.

We learn that the abbey was built on a hellmouth -- and if we know anything about real estate in horror films, it’s location, location, location. Sister Irene is the only one who can enter the cloistered sanctuary to meet with the nuns who must pray at all times, “24/7” (as they didn’t say back in 1952).

Sadly, the hellmouth has been opened, the grounds of the abbey are no longer consecrated, and the nuns turn into creatures of evil. The only way to close the hellmouth is with a relic (which looks oddly like a glass Christmas ball ornament) that contains the blood of Christ. The Mother Superior proclaims “only a bride of Christ can wield the blood of Christ.”

This is all very strange considering Catholic theology, which teaches that priests daily handle the blood of Christ during the Mass. If they wanted more of the blood of Christ, it seems Frenchie could just go back to the village and bring back some wine to be transformed in the Eucharist.

Sister Irene and Father Burke are willing to fight, even give up their lives, to stop evil that threatens the world, so we’ll give two separate Movie Church ratings. The Abbey of St. Carta gets our lowest rating of 1 Steeple for being the hellish location of suicide and murder, but Father Burke and Sister Irene receive our highest rating of 4 Steeples.
The Abbey
Father Burke and Sister Irene

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Horror Movie Month: the Sequel

As a rule, sequels are terrible. With a few exceptions (The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, and the New Testament come to mind), the sequel rarely lives up to the originality and richness of a beloved film or novel. I’d be content in living in a world without Casablanca II: The Adventures of Rick and Louie or The Princess Bride II: The Challenges of Living Happily Ever After. For some reason, horror films -- many of them not very good to begin with -- have more sequels than any other genre.

For instance, the original 1978 Halloween (a very well made film, albeit without church and clergy) has a sequel debuting this month titled, oh so originally, Halloween. There have already been nine sequels, all pretty bad retellings of the boogeyman Michael Myers. (Well, except Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is about a mad doctor who uses Celtic magic to make deadly Halloween masks. So that was different.)

Fortunately, here at Movie Churches, we don’t care much about the quality of a film, just about whether the film features churches and/or clergy. We’d rather watch good films, but sadly, in preparation for this series, I researched and viewed films that were not only bad, but also didn’t have any interesting content about churches or clergy (looking at you, Damien: Omen II). I’d rather be able to say, “This film has an interesting take on baptism, AND it’s great fun to watch,” but don’t expect much in the way of MUST SEE films this month as we look at Horror Movie Sequels at movie churches. (Okay, one of the films isn’t bad, but most of them...)

Don’t worry, though. They all have interesting perspectives on matters ecclesiastical while they’re trying to scare us.