Thursday, October 31, 2019

Veterans' Month Week 1: Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump (1994)
The central figure of this 1994 Best Picture Winner, Forrest Gump, is many things. He is a football star, a sloganeer, a table tennis champion, a fisherman, an entrepreneur, a multimillionaire, by most definitions a moron, and most importantly for this month, a veteran. Because we in the United States celebrate Veterans Day this month (on November 11th), all month we at Movie Churches will be looking at films that feature veterans, soldiers, churches, and/or clergy.

Based on the novel of the same name by Winston Groom, Forrest Gump also won Oscars for director Robert Zemeckis, screenwriter Eric Roth, and the film’s star, Tom Hanks. It was a huge box office success and received generally favorable reviews. It's on the American Film Institute’s list of Best American Films. Over the years, it has become a subject of debate, with some disgruntled movie buffs complaining about the film beating Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Still, there has also been a great deal of debate over the politics of the film.

Throughout the film, Forrest the simpleton seems to be at the heart of every tumultuous event that takes place in America in the 1960s and 1970s. He follows his girlfriend Jenny (Robin Wright) to a rally in the National Mall protesting the Vietnam war. The anti-war protest leaders are presented as petty, squabbling, and scheming, and many have taken the film to be a critique of the political left.

Forrest epitomizes many conservative values -- like faith, love of country, and love of family -- that were being questioned in the era depicted in the film. Did the filmmakers intended to spoof those values by embodying the values in a fool, or was the fool used to show up the emptiness of the values of the protest movements of the time?

Fortunately, here at Movie Churches, we don’t need to answer such questions. We just need to look at how churches and clergy are depicted in the film, but it a long, circuitous route that eventually takes Forrest to church.

When Forrest is drafted into the army, he meets another soldier, Bubba, who is, um, slow. Bubba tells Forrest about his dream of owning a shrimping boat. Forrest and Bubba are shipped overseas to serve in Vietnam. During one devastating battle, almost all of the men in Forrest’s unit are killed or injured, and Forrest carries every man, dead or alive, off the field (reminiscent of the real-life WWII exploits of Desmond Doss depicted in the film Hacksaw Ridge.)

Bubba dies in that battle, but Forrest does rescue his commanding officer, Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise). Lieutenant Dan is not happy about being rescued because he lost his legs. “I should have died in the jungle. I was supposed to die in the field with honor, but you cheated me. This was not supposed to happen," he tells Forrest.

While still in the service, Forrest becomes an expert in table tennis, earning fame playing against the Chinese National Team. After he's discharged from the military, an endorsement of ping pong paddles makes him enough money to buy a shrimping boat in Bubba’s honor.

Lieutenant Dan fulfills his promise to Forrest to work on the shrimping boat, but their initial outings are not successful. Dan mocks Forrest for his optimism and says the only hope he has is supernatural, “Maybe you should just pray for shrimp.”

Forrest takes this advice seriously and begins attending an African American congregation, the Foursquare Baptist Church. It has a lively choir singing Pray that I’m Homeward Bound. Forrest narrates, “So I went to church every Sunday. Lt. Dan came sometimes too, though I think he left the praying up to me.” (Dan seems drunk in the back pew of the church.) The sign in front of the church reads, 10:30 AM Sunday School and 12:30 service. (That is one late service.)

In spite of going to church and praying, the fishing doesn’t get better. Dan again mocks Forrest, “Where the hell’s this God of yours?”

Again we hear Forrest’s narration, “It’s funny Lt. Dan said that, because just then, God showed up.” Dan curses God, yelling, “It’s time for a showdown!” God shows up in the form of Hurricane Carmen while Forrest and Dan are at sea. 

But what is a disaster for most, is a blessing for Forrest. His boat, The Jenny, is the only shrimping boat to survive the storm. His business prospers, and he and Dan become very rich men. They are even featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine. Forrest’s choir sums things up with their song, There Will Be a Great Bounty.

Lieutenant Dan becomes a changed man, thanking Forrest for saving his life. Forrest says Dan “never actually said so, but I think he made his peace with God.”

Forrest tells about how he uses his fortune. He says, “Now Mama said there’s only so much fortune a man really needs, and the rest is for showing off. So I gave a whole bunch to the Foursquare Gospel Church.” And a very nice building project is seen in a montage as the choir sings, “I’ve got a new hope.”
The church seems to a good one: it changes the lives of two veterans. I’m giving it our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Shapeshifters Week 4: The VelociPastor

The VelociPastor (2019)
You might have noticed that this month (admittedly with a nod to Halloween) we're featuring shapeshifters. October could have easily been werewolves month instead; we had plenty of werewolf films available and viewed. The double feature at the beginning of the month (The Curse of the Werewolf with Howling VI: The Freaks) could have been split into two posts. Movie Churches could have been All Werewolf/All October, but when I read about The VelociPastor, I knew I had to write about it. So "shapeshifters" instead of just werewolves.

The VelociPastor is in the grand tradition of such films as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Transylvania 6-5000, and Saturday the 14th. Okay, maybe it’s not a “grand” tradition, but certainly a tradition; low budget spoofs of horror with meta perspectives. These films walk a fine line between mocking bad filmmaking and being bad filmmaking. (But let me note here, AotKT is one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences.) This film does have more profane language and gratuitous violence than its predecessors.

Dismiss any thought that this film intends to be a serious exploration of the interplay between a modern man’s psyche with his primordial roots. One of our first clues that the film is going in another direction is the opening title card that reads, “Rated X by an all Christain jury.” A few moments into the film, our hero, Doug the Priest, looks across the street to see his parents die in a fiery explosion. Instead of seeing an actual explosion, we see a title card reading, “VFX: Car on Fire.” (Perhaps the film had some budget issues?)

Before we get onto our evaluation of the clergy and church in the film, a quick plot summary: Rev. Doug Jones (Greg Cohan) is shaken in his faith by the death of his parents. His mentor, Father Stewart (Daniel Steere) advises him to travel to China (I suspect the China scenes might not have been actually filmed in China, but rather in some very American-looking woods), 

While in China, Doug is cut by a mystic totem (it looks like a tooth). He then has what he thinks are dreams, but are actual incidents of transformation into a “dragon warrior” (or a short T-Rex).  Doug returns to the good old U. S. of A. and continues to his transformations. Carol (Alyssa Kempinski), a hooker with a heart of gold, recruits him to fight crime on the streets, but soon he must also fight a Ninja Drug Cabal that has come from China to the United States. (It seems a missed marketing opportunity that this film wasn't titled -- or even subtitled -- The VelociPastor vs. the Ninjas.)

Now that you know the plot, we need to get down to what's most important here at Movie Churches:  the ecclesiology of this Dino Epic.

The film begins with Pastor Doug in the pulpit. We can see him in the pulpit, but we can't see anything of the interior of the church (I assume because there wasn't room in the budget for extras in the pews).  

Doug is concluding his sermon, “This is the greatest lesson we can learn from the Book of Job. Though we all suffer, it is the righteous that will persevere, and to believe in God may be the greatest gift any of us can have.”

Arguably, that is a lesson from the Book of Job, but certainly not the greatest lesson. And if the righteous indeed persevere, Pastor Doug soon proves he's not righteous. When, moments later, he faces suffering, he immediately doubts God.  

I’m sure many viewers would be anxious to get on to the dinosaur and ninjas, but you, as a reader of this blog, would probably prefer we take a moment at this point to discuss the order of service. Doug and Stewart seem to be Roman Catholic priests in what's always referred to as "the Church." I'm guessing they're Catholic because they wear clerical collars and talk about their vows of chastity

However, the service seems to conclude with the end of the sermon. That's a very Protestant thing; Roman Catholic Mass concludes with the Eucharist, optionally followed by a song. It never ends right after the sermon.

Though Doug and Stewart seem to be Catholic, the church they serve doesn’t seem to be. The sign above the building reads “The Tenth Street Church of Christ.” The Church of Christ is a Protestant denomination. (Actually, several denominational factions use the name in one form or another, but none are Roman Catholic, and they all allow their clergy to marry.) Also “Tenth Street” is not the kind of descriptor likely to be found in the name of Catholic Churches which are more likely to mention attributes of God or Saints.

So what kind of clergyman is Pastor Doug? We never see him caring for congregants, though we do, at one point, see him passing a homeless man who's asking for money. In fairness, Doug is overcome with a sudden bout of dinosaur “hunger,” but he passes the man without a word of concern. Carol the prostitute, on the other hand, gives the man money. 

Those who work with the impoverished often recommend against giving away money, but couldn’t Doug at least have stopped to talk and pray with the man? This encounter by itself would really harm his Movie Churches Steeple rating. 

But then there’s the matter of killing people. In the park at night, Carol is assaulted by a mugger. Suddenly a dinosaur appears and eats the robber. Next thing we know, Doug is waking up, naked, in Carol’s bed. He's afraid he slept with Carol and seems relieved to learn that he had only turned into a dinosaur and killed a man. (Later in the film, Carol helps Doug in breaking his vow of chastity.)

Carol is impressed with Doug as a homicidal reptile and urges him to go on killing bad people. She tells him he will be performing a greater service than he ever did in the church. Since we never see Doug ever doing anything in God’s service or helping others, it’s hard to argue against her case. But Doug doesn’t seem to have any thoughts or arguments against vigilante justice, not even Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19 where Scripture declares vengeance is God’s and shouldn’t be taken into our own hands. (Doug’s grasp of the Word is not that great; at one point he refers to a verse from the 32nd chapter of Matthew. Matthew only has 28 chapters.)

In one of the only scenes where we see Father Doug serving a “congregant,” we see Frankie Mermaid (Fernando Pacheco De Castro), a pimp, come to Doug in the confessional. Frankie happily gives a long list of sins, including tossing a baby into a river. When he confesses killing Doug’s parents, Doug goes all T-Rex and slices the pimp’s throat. Call me judgmental if you will, but I don’t think priests should kill people in the confessional booth.

And how does the Church come across in the film? I’m giving a major spoiler here, but…

The Ninja Drug Cabal is run by The Church! (In the film it seems there is only one church, undivided by theological squabbles or struggles for authority. Just one big, kind of Catholic, kind of Protestant, not at all Orthodox entity.) I didn’t ever quite understand their plan, which had something to do with hooking everyone on drugs, and then cutting off the supply so people will turn to God. Drug addicts are quite creative in finding other sources to numb their pain, but that’s what those Church Ninjas seem to be doing.

I’m giving Pastor Doug and this very odd church our lowest church rating of One Steeple.

I’d like to add a note here to the film’s writer and director, Brendan Steere. Since we’ve interacted on Twitter, there is a chance he’ll read this post, which is a new thing for me. When I wrote about The Apostle, I never thought of Robert Duvall reading what I wrote about the film. I had an even greater degree of certainty that Charles Laughton never read what I wrote about The Night of the Hunter. 

If you are reading this, Mr. Steere, I’d just like to note that the low rating is for the church and clergy in the film, not the film itself. The film itself was a kick.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Shape Shifters Week 3: Silver Bullet

Silver Bullet (1985)
The most annoying thing about the 1985 werewolf film Silver Bullet is that it dispenses with the most interesting thing about lycanthropy. It’s as if someone pitched a new version of King Kong with “But this time, he’s the size of an average gorilla.” Or The Mummy with “This time he’s only been dead a week or two, so there’s none of that awful decay.” Or The Phantom of the Opera with “When Christine pulls off the mask, she’ll see a very handsome man.”

The most fascinating thing about werewolves is that they have two natures battling against each other in one body: man vs. beast, good vs. evil. When the villain in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf isn't a werewolf, he’s still a bloodthirsty killer. But he's also (quite fortuitously for this blog) a pastor.

The hero of the film is a young boy, Marty Coslaw (Cory Haim). He's confined to a wheelchair, but his Uncle Red (Gary Busey) sees to it that The Silver Bullet, his motorized wheelchair, is stylish and fast. The film is set in 1976 in the small town of Tarker’s Mill, Maine (of course Maine, because Stephen King.)

The werewolf's first victim is an old drunk by the railroad track. It's mistaken for an accidental death, and small-town life goes on. We see Marty at a town festival at the beginning of summer. Marty’s sister Jane says Tarker’s Mill, is “a town where people cared about each other as much as people cared about themselves.” At the town picnic, the sheriff (Terry O’Quinn) introduces the Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill) who speaks on the importance of community.

But at the next full moon, there's another killing that the town takes seriously. Teenaged Stella has just discovered she's pregnant, and afraid of disgrace, she's considering killing herself. “Suicides go to hell, especially when they’re pregnant, and I don’t even care,” she says. But before she can kill herself, she is killed by the werewolf -- and that death is clearly not an accident. 

The next person killed is Marty’s best friend, Brady.

No one knows if the killings are caused by man or beast, but the town forms a vigilante committee to go into the woods to find whatever the killer may be. The Reverend tries to stop the group, arguing that there is no place for “private justice.” 

The sheriff responds, “Let ‘em go, Reverend, this is that community spirit you’ve been talking about.”

The posse's hunt doesn’t go well at all, and three people are killed by the werewolf.

Reverend Lowe officiates at the memorial service for the three killed. He also seems to have done the services for the other werewolf victims. He appears to be the only pastor in town with the only church in town.

The church's sanctuary looks like a funeral home with red pews and a white piano (Brady's body is in a white casket at his service, and there are candles galore.) "Amazing Grace" is the prelude, played by an organist dressed in pink. Rev. Lowe says he was asked to "say a word of comfort if I could. If there is, it is that the time of the beast always passes." Nothing about hope or Jesus or heaven; those are strange words of comfort. He does refer to Scripture, but he doesn’t say where the verse is located. He says,  "The Bible tells us not to fear the terror that creepeth by night or flieth by noonday, and yet we do. We do. Because there’s so much we don’t know and we feel very small.” He doesn’t go on to give any reasons why we shouldn’t fear, such as we trust in an omniscient, omnipotent God. (By the way, the Scripture he’s referencing is Psalm 91:5.)

The film also takes us into the mind of the Reverend when he performs a funeral which ends in all of the townspeople turning into werewolves. I don’t know whether this was meant to throw us off track about who the werewolf is, but we find out shortly anyway.

Because on the next full moon night, Marty confronts the werewolf. Marty had been launching fireworks (a gift from his uncle) on an old bridge. The pyrotechnics attract the attention of the werewolf. Marty shoots a rocket into one of the werewolf's eyes as it approaches, and Marty is able to escape.

The next day, Marty and his sister go to town to see if they can find anyone who's lost an eye. At the church, Jane is shocked to find the Rev. Lowe sporting an eye patch. Jane is visibly shaken, and the Rev. says, “Jane, you’re trembling, would you like to lie down in the parlor? I could give you a soda or a ride. Give your best to your brother.” She’ll have none of it and rushes home.

Cory is sure that Reverend Lowe is the werewolf. He writes a letter suggesting the reverend should kill himself for the sake of the town. The Reverend is angered by the letter and spies on Marty from his car. When Marty goes out in his chair, the Reverend tries to run the boy off the road with his car.

They come to an old covered bridge, and Marty is trapped. The Reverend goes into a long villain monologue (found most commonly in James Bond films when arch criminals who have trapped 007 in their lairs). “I’m very sorry about this, Marty,” the Reverend begins, “I don’t know if you believe it’s true or not, but I would never willingly hurt a child.”

Marty pleads, “Please, I won’t tell anyone.”

The Reverend goes on, “You should have left me alone, Marty. I can’t kill myself. Our religion teaches us that suicide is the greatest sin a man or woman can commit. Stella was going to commit suicide and if she had done so, she would be burning in hell right now. By killing her, I took her physical life, but I saved her life eternal! You see how all things serve the will and mind of God. You see, you meddling little s**t! You’re going to have a terrible accident, you’re going to fall in the river.”

I don’t know what religion teaches suicide is the greatest sin, but it certainly isn’t Christianity. That can’t be found anywhere in Scripture. The Bible I read teaches that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins. Fortunately, Marty is saved from the Reverend by old man Zimmerman.

Marty tells the sheriff about the Reverend, and the sheriff agrees to check him out. But the werewolf kills the sheriff (and the Reverend claims this isn’t his fault.)

It all comes down to a confrontation between Marty's Uncle Red and the werewolf on Halloween night of 1976 --which happens to be a full moon. (Which is it was not. I looked it up and the moon was at 66% on Halloween of 1976.) They are able to kill the werewolf, which turns back into the Reverend.

Because the Rev. Lowe was less vile as a wolf than a human -- though perhaps a less efficient killer -- I’m giving him our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Kingsman: The Secret Service

(I'm reposting this Movie Churches review because the scene featured in this post has recently come up in the news as it has been re-edited with President Trump as the shooter. Controversy has ensued.)

For quite a few years now, Hollywood has had a villain shortage. I’m not saying there aren’t bad guys in movies anymore. But the screenwriter's challenge has been to find villainous groups.

Back in the day, Westerns had Indians (no, they were never called Native Americans then) as the bad guys. So there could be action sequences where dozens of Indians were shot off their horses by our heroes, the Cowboys, with reasonable assurance the audiences would cheer their deaths. But now that we think of them as Native Americans (and, you know, people), cheering their deaths just doesn’t seem like the American thing to do.

The Nazis made great villains, from a little before World War II to well beyond. When the Dirty Dozen (made in 1967) attacked a ballroom full of Nazis, no one was too concerned that some of them were pretty women in gowns. As Indiana Jones said, “Nazis, I hate those guys.” But Nazis now are a little pathetic; sure they’re villains in The Blues Brothers, but comic, mockable villains.

Communists provided fine villains throughout the Cold War, but that’s been done for decades now. Terrorists would be the go-to villains, but since the terrorists we’re concerned with are Islamic terrorists, that causes a problem. Hollywood has a concern about not portraying all Muslims as bomb-happy; a reasonable concern.

So what does a screenwriter do when they want to have a set-piece with a lot of human carnage that won’t upset audiences unduly? The makers of the spy film Kingsman: The Secret Service found their solution in the church.


To talk about the movie church in this film, we need to give away major plot points. This shouldn’t greatly disturb some of our readers because Kingsman: The Secret Service is hardly a film that will be used on a church’s family movie night. There is extreme violence and gore in the film, but some of it is animated and stylized to show it’s all in good fun. There is a crude gag used at the end of the film that might lead James Bond himself use the word "misogynist."

But as always, we aren’t here to review the film, but the church and clergy in the film.

As I said, the filmmakers had a problem. The arch-villain in the film, Valentine, has developed technology to make people viciously attack and kill each other. He must find a group of people to test the tech on. Since he sees himself as a sweetheart (played by Sam L. Jackson) he’s not going to test it in a kindergarten class.

So we are introduced to the South Glade Mission Church. This fictional church is obviously based on the sadly real Westboro Baptist Church, which gained fame by protesting at military funerals with the twisted rationale that the government-supported homosexuality.

In the film, South Glade Mission Church is preaching against Jews (the preacher uses this word), workers in the sex industry (he uses a different word), Catholics (he uses this word), gays, and African Americans (alternate words for the latter two). The super spy, Galahad, played by Colin Firth attends this service as part of his investigation.

During the service, Valentine activates his device and everyone in the congregation attacks one another. Apparently, knives and even guns are brought to this church only a little less commonly than Bibles. Bloody chaos ensues, but since Galahad has more experience at hand-to-hand combat than the average usher, he eventually stands alone over a sanctuary full of corpses.

It seems that filmmakers are saying, in this world full of division, isn’t this a group we can all hate together? In the past, there have certainly been individual clerical villains (Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter comes to mind), but now apparently whole congregations can be the bad guys.

If this hateful congregation, far from the teachings of Jesus, is the image anyone has of the church of Christ, then it seems Christians have some P.R. to do.

(Bonus clergy bit in the film. One can see a tabloid with the headline, “Naughty Nun Touched MyBum.” And theological bonus, Valentine argues that he isn’t a villain for wanting to cull the world’s population any more than Noah or God in the story of the Flood.)

When I posted this years ago, I wasn't using the Church Steeple Ratings, but we are certainly talking a One Steeple Church here on our 1 - 4 rating system.     

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Shape Shifters Week 2: Howling VI and Curse of the Werewolf

Howling VI: The Freaks (1991)
Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
As I admitted last week, the werewolf has been my favorite monster since I was a kid. Maybe it's the idea of a “sometimes-monster.” The sometimes good, sometimes bad of the creature is easier to relate to than the always-evil vampire and not-very-bright killer zombies. Sadly, there aren't nearly as many werewolf films as vampire and zombie films, and the percentage of quality horror films is very slight. In other words, there aren’t many good werewolf films.

By an amazing historical fluke, three of the best werewolf films ever made premiered in the same year. The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Wolfen (arguably not a werewolf film, but a film about really smart, dangerous wolves) all premiered in 1981, and all of them are excellent films. But since all three are fairly church- and clergy-free, they do us no good here. 

Unlike vampire films (the critters are stopped by a cross, after all), most werewolf films don’t have an overtly spiritual focus. Last week we had arguably the best werewolf film ever made, and it had a church and a pastor. We have churches in this week’s werewolf double feature but the quality of the films is… not great. Doesn’t matter, not what we’re here for.

Curse of the Werewolf was produced in 1961 by Hammer Studios. Hammer was an English company that made much of its fortune by taking famous Hollywood properties not under copyright, primarily Universal’s monster movies, and remaking them -- adding some things that couldn’t be included in the original productions like color, cleavage, and gore. They reinvented Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and eventually got around to the Werewolf.

Set in 18th Century Spain, Curse of the Werewolf didn’t stick with the Universal mythology of lycanthropy. Instead of becoming a werewolf by being bitten by another werewolf, Leon is a werewolf because he was an illegitimate child born on Christmas Day. (Maybe I should have saved this film for December.) A kind older couple agrees to adopt Leon and take him in to be the local Catholic Church to be baptized. As the couple approaches the baptismal, the sky outside becomes stormy. Lightning flashes and thunder crashes. And then the holy water in the baptismal boils over, and for a fleeting moment, the image of a devil is seen in the water. This is, in the world of horror movies, not a good sign. But the baby is baptized and given the name “Leon.”

We next see Leon as a young man (played by Oliver Reed). There is a hunting incident, and something not quite human makes an appearance. Most werewolf films have a prolonged period when everyone argues whether a killing was the work of a man or an animal, but in this film a priest quickly assesses the situation. He knows there’s a werewolf.

The priest talks with Leon’s adopted father about what he thinks is happening. Just as the origin of the werewolf is unique to this film, the whole werewolf mythos differs. The priest explains a werewolf is caused by a roving spirit that enters the body. It is a form a possession where the spirit of an animal fights within a person against the spirit of a man. He explains that only love can cure (and save) a werewolf. 

As in most werewolf legends, the werewolf turns on the night of the full moon. The bishop comes up with the sensible plan to chain Leon the werewolf in the monastery to keep everyone safe, but instead, Leon is put in the local jail. As a werewolf he is able to escape the jail and run wild through the town. And he is not cured by love, but instead by a silver bullet made from a melted down crucifix.
If only people had listened to the priests in this film.

As I mentioned earlier, The Howling is a great werewolf film (though it certainly earns its R rating). Few first sequels are as good as the original film, and many series have a marked drop by movie number three. So it's not a surprise that when Howling VI: The Freaks is not a good film. But it does have a church.

Ian (Brendan Hughes), comes to a small town as a stranger, and the town sheriff threatens to arrest him for vagrancy. A man named Dewey (Jered Barclay) says Ian can stay with him if he helps repair Dewey's “building.” That building is an old church.

The church is run down. The stained glass doesn’t have very religious imagery (well, there are grapes), but Ian does refurbish and mount a cross. A sign advertises Sunday worship at 11:00 am and Wednesday night prayer meetings. Dewey appreciates Ian’s hard work and tries to figure out what is troubling the young man, but Ian responds, “You’re a nice man, Dewey, but don’t try to play preacher man with me.”

Ian’s trouble is that he is a werewolf. And Dewey isn’t the only person who offers him sanctuary. A man named Harker has come to town with a freak show. He tries to convince Ian to be one of his displays and when Ian refuses, Harker abducts him. Turns out, Harker is a vampire.

Dewey is willing to go to battle to rescue Ian and the other “freaks” imprisoned by the traveling show. He prays for a blessing on silver bullets (“Dear Lord, Who can defeat all evil...”) and is serious about fighting. “There’s no reason to be polite. You see the devil, you shoot him.”

Of course, if we were rating the quality of these films with a traditional “star” system, we would be looking at a very dark night. But here at Movie Churches, we rate the churches and clergy in films. If werewolves were real, I’d be happy to have clergy from either of these films on my side. So the churches and clergy of Curse of the Werewolf and Howling VI: The Freaks earn our coveted 4 Steeple Movie Church Rating.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Shapeshifters Movie Churches (1) The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941)
Growing up, I very much loved the Universal Monster Movies. Still do. For a time I could only admire my brother’s Aurora models of Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and company and look at the pictures in his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. When the films played on Creature Features (Saturdays at 9:00 pm), it was after my bedtime. I could watch the monsters featured in Abbott & Costello movies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Meet the Invisible Man) because they ran on early on Sunday mornings. Finally, I was allowed to stay up to watch Creature Features themselves, and The Wolf Man soon became my favorite.

When I decided this October at Movie Churches should be Shift Shaper Month (primarily werewolves), I knew I’d have to watch the 1941 version of The Wolf Man because it's the classic telling of the story. I hadn’t remembered it featured a church and clergy, let alone enough to write about, but here we are.

The Wolf Man (1941) tells the story of Lawrence “Larry” Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who returns from a stay in America to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) at their country estate in Wales. One evening, after visiting a fortune teller in a traveling gypsy camp, Larry is attacked by a creature he assumes is a wolf, but it is, of course, something worse: a werewolf. In human form, it's aa gypsy named Bela (Bela Lugosi). Larry kills the creature but is bitten. The bite turns Larry into a werewolf as well.

One of the things I love about the werewolf legend as presented in this film is that it captures truths about human nature. There is a bit of folk wisdom, a poem, that is repeated by almost every important character in the film. Sir John; Larry’s love interest, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), and the old gypsy woman, Maria (Maria Ouspenskaya). The poem even appears on a title card at the beginning of the film: “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

The werewolf seems to represent the dark impulses in even the best of men. Larry and his father have a conversation about the psychological and spiritual divisions in the mind and soul. The father doesn’t believe in literal werewolves, but believes they are a metaphor of a human truth. (Their conversation reminded me of the internal debate of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”)

As Larry and Sir John talk about such things, they hear church bells ring. Sir John says, “Time for church. You know, Larry, belief in the hereafter is a very healthy counterbalance to all the doubts man is plagued with these days. Come on.” 

This all takes place after there have been mysterious deaths in town and there have been suspicions cast Larry’s way.

When Larry arrives at church, people outside the building are gossiping about the latest death. It seems to be a very large church in a very small town. Larry enters to see the pews filled, and almost everyone turns to stare -- to glare -- at him. Larry doesn’t stay, but leaves his father and hurriedly exits through the back door.

It is an interesting question: should everyone be welcomed into a church? I remember a conversation with a student in a Sunday School class who insisted that everyone should be welcome in church. I asked if that included drug dealers and sexual predators in the congregation with children. 

“Everyone should be made welcome,” she insisted. 

I think a little more nuance than that should be involved in a decision-making process, but certainly, the people of the congregation shouldn’t have been gossiping about the outsider -- Larry Talbot -- and should have made him welcome. (Although with an evening service on the night of a full moon, maybe not.)

There is also a clergyman in the film. A minister (probably Anglican) goes to comfort the old gypsy woman, Maria, in the loss of her son, Bela. The minister wants to hold a formal service saying, “My dear Maleva, we can’t bury this man without prayer.”

She answers, “There is nothing to pray for, sir. Bela has entered a much better world than this. At least that’s what you ministers always say.”

He answers, “And so it is. But that’s no reason to hold a pagan celebration. I hear your people are coming to town dancing and singing and making merry.”

She says, “For a thousand years, we Gypsies have buried our dead like that. I couldn’t break the custom even if I wanted to…”

The minister sighs and says, “Fighting superstition is as hard as fighting against Satan himself.”

Of course, the minister would probably consider werewolves a supers0tition. Gypsies know better in the world of the film.

But still, the minister seems to be a man of compassion. And Sir John seems to have found comfort in his local congregation. So we are going to give both a rather generous Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples.