Thursday, October 28, 2021

Devilish Dames

Jakob’s Wife
Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

Churches that focus on couples and families while excluding single people is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen church signs that advertise themselves as a “family church” -- which is fine if everyone is welcomed as a part of a church family, but often churches mean they focus their ministries on a target group: a father and mother and an average of 2.5 school-aged children. You can look at church programming with marriage seminars and youth summer camps and family fun nights and wonder, “Would a single person (as in, not in a relationship) feel at home here?” (And quickly answer, “NO!”)

From what we see of Pastor Jakob Fedder of the Embrace Eternity Church in the pulpit, he seems to preach almost exclusively about marriage. We first see him preaching from Ephesians 5, the text exhorting husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. This is a very important portion of Scripture and should be preached, but it should be preached carefully to show how the themes of love, mutual submission, and Christ’s love for the Church apply to everyone and not just married people.

That’s not the way Jakob preaches it. With all of his sermons about marriage, he seems to be working out his frustrations, hopes, and dreams about his own marriage. (Yes, personal experience will influence one’s teaching and preaching but it shouldn't be the dominant influence.)

When a young woman named Amelia (Nyisha Bell) tells the pastor after the service, “I wish I had a husband. One who loved me like that,” Jakob assures her she’ll get a husband someday -- rather than encouraging her to find satisfaction apart from a husband, perhaps, say, in her relationship with Jesus. This exclusive interest in married ministry is the kind of thing that would give any Movie Church a low Steeple rating, but it doesn’t really matter so much because Jakob aids and abets murders in the film, which is pretty much an automatic Three Steeple deduction.

I suppose I should note that Jakob’s Wife is a vampire film, part of our Halloween Movie Churches Double Feature. The film came out this year with a brief theatrical release, simultaneously with streaming. I appreciated the film’s focus on the marriage of a pastor and his wife and the special pressures on a couple in ministry. And, well, the special pressures that arise when a member of a ministry couple is attacked by a master vampire and turns into a vampire herself.

I did have a hard time figuring out the ecclesiastic tradition of Pastor Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden). He wears clerical garb of someone in a mainline denomination and yet his teaching on the role of gender roles is of a more fundamentalist mode. He is quite judgmental at times (saying to his brother “How many times do I have to tell you not to use the Lord’s name in vain?”) but he drinks liquor openly like an Episcopalian. Seemed unusual for a pastor in Mississippi.

The central conflict in the film is found in Jakob’s relationship with his wife, Anne (Barbara Crampton.) Anne obviously feels constrained by their relationship and her role as a pastor’s wife. She does seem to have interests outside of the church, chiefly in preventing gentrification as part of their town’s development. (Going by political stereotypes, these do seem like concerns of a mainliner rather than a fundamentalist.)

Of course, the real trouble comes when Anne goes to dinner with an old love interest and considers taking the relationship further. But then they are attacked by a vampire. The man is killed but Anne is turned into a vampire.

When Jakob discovers that Anne is killing and feeding on other people, he must decide whether to protect his wife or those she puts in danger. He chooses his wife. As he continues to make choices for her, a much more powerful Anne resents this. A dangerous confrontation is to come. I won’t tell you how this confrontation is resolved, because the film itself leaves a rather ambiguous resolution.

(Before I go on to the next film, I must note that Larry Fessenden and Barbara Crampton are both very entertaining in their roles, but the person who really knocks it out of the park is the “Travel Consultant,” Diana Prince.)

The second feature for Halloween is 1987’s Prom Night II: Hello, Mary Lou. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen Prom Night with Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, because the title is really the only thing these films have in common. Most importantly for this blog, the sequel has much more clergy and church.

The sequel opens in 1957. Before going to her senior prom, Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage) goes to a Catholic Church for confession. She tells the priest she has used the Lord’s name in vain many times, she has disobeyed her parents, and she has had sex with many different boys. The priest in the booth tells her, “These are great sins.” 

Mary Lou responds, “One more thing, Father. I loved every minute of it.” She leaves the church laughing.

Prom doesn’t go well for Mary Lou. Her date, Billy Nordham (Steve Atkinson), discovers her making out with another boy, Buddy Cooper (Robert Lewis). Understandably upset, Billy decides to exact revenge. Mary Lou is elected Prom Queen. Billy throws a stink bomb on the stage, but the bomb sets Mary Lou’s dress on fire and she burns to death.

Thirty years later, we return to the same school, Hamilton High. Vicki Carpenter (Wendy Lyons) is a senior looking forward to her senior prom. Vicki’s strict mother won’t let her have a new prom dress, so Vicki goes to a basement in the high school looking for material to make her own dress. Finding an old trunk with some of Mary Lou’s prom queen crown, Vicki releases the spirit of Mary Lou who comes to possess Vicki.

We learn that Billy and Budd are still in town. Bill is now the principal of the high school (played now by Michael Ironside). Budd is now a priest (played by Richard Monette.) And in time, Mary Lou seeks revenge on those who brought about her death.

Father Cooper is the first to realize what is happening, but he proves to be an ineffective exorcist (in spite of being quite confident of his success, “She can’t touch me… I’m a priest.”) Principal Nordham is more effective using violence to battle the spirit of the past, but not effective enough.

Mary Lou, through the body of Vicki, has an opportunity to reenact her confession prank. Father Cooper is there to listen to Vicki's confession. (Vicki’s mother sends Vicki to confession often.) But this time, Mary Lou as Vicki flippantly tries to seduce the priest, using words that Mary Lou and Budd had used when they made out decades before. He refuses her, and she kills him.

When Bill finds the body of the dead priest, he has a crucifix in his mouth. So I’m afraid his utter uselessness brings Father Cooper a low Movie Churches Steeple Rating as well.

The clergy in both of today’s films earn our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Devil Goes to The Church

The Church
The Church (2018)

I’ve been writing this blog about churches in movies for nearly seven years, and part of the process is, of course, finding films to write about. Often, I go to IMDb or Amazon movies and search for “church.” One of the top choices since the beginning has been 1989’s The Church. It’s a horror film from the Italian horror master Dario Argento. (Although, Dario didn’t direct this time; he just has a producer and “Story by” credit.)

The film was an obvious pick for movie churches with that title, so I bought a DVD of the film over a year ago. Then last Father’s Day, one of my daughters bought me a DVD of The Church. I thought I’d need to return one of the films -- until I realized my daughter had found a completely different horror film called The Church which was made in 2018.

And now (finally!) I have a suitable time to take a look at both films with this month's theme of "Devil Churches," and will be able to ignore them in my future Google searches.

The 1989 film The Church, directed by Michele Soavi, opens in medieval Germany. A band of knights led by a monk (I believe, but it could be a priest) finds a couple of women and a child hiding in a cave. The monk questions the women about whether they are witches. A knight kills one of the women, and the priest finds a cross cut into the skin on the sole of her foot, which he claims was a sign that she was a witch in league with Satan.

The monk (or priest or guy in a brown robe with a cross) tells the knights to kill every man, woman, child, and animal in the village. They do, bury the whole lot, and build a cathedral over the bodies. That cathedral is the church of the film’s title.

In modern day, we meet a church librarian, Evan (Thomas Arana) arriving late on his first day of work at the cathedral. He's there to catalog the books and papers, and he meets the cranky old Bishop (Feodor Chaliapin); a kindly young priest, Gus (Hugh Quarshie); and a pretty artist, Lisa (Barbara Cupisti), who is there to refurbish the frescos in the sanctuary.

We do hear the bishop preaching, not surprisingly (considering the genre), on the demon-possessed man that Jesus heals in Luke 8. The bishop likes to talk about demons and Satan a lot. 

As the priests dine together, the bishop tells one of the priests, “I have a quote for your sermon, ‘The world is the devil’s.’” 

That priest then asks Father Gus, “Could you suggest a quote for the sermon?” (This is odd because to give a quote for a sermon, it would be helpful to know what the sermon is about. I think Gus should have said, “Did you use the one about the footprints in the sand?”)

Meanwhile, Evan discovers an old parchment that appears to be an architect’s schematics for the building. With the help of Lisa, he finds a reference to a “stone with seven eyes.” Evan finds the stone embedded in a seal on a cross in a hidden crypt. He pries out the stone, which unleashes a blue light and all kinds of supernatural nastiness.

Soon people are trapped in the church, including a group of school children on a tour and a bridal party there for a photo shoot. Everyone begins to have nasty visions, many featuring demons. Evan goes a little nuts (Jack in The Shining style) and begins typing all sixes on a typewriter. One woman sees herself as old in a mirror and begins scratching at her face. Another woman imagines (?) herself being raped by a demon.

Gus goes to see the bishop about the unpleasantness, and the Cardinal seems to have some idea of what is going on. He says what is happening is not the devil’s work, but God’s. He says there is a great evil under the building, and God is keeping that evil from escaping (I would disagree with the bishop on some points here). Then the bishop says, “I am the church!” and dives from a great height in the church to his death.

Gus searches for the architect's records and finds a self-destruct mechanism to destroy the church. Fearing the evil in the church will spread, Gus trips off the mechanism to keep the evil from escaping outside the church. So the evil is ended. Or is it? (As is pondered at the end of most films like this.)

The other film called The Church (2018) has a subtitle: No Refuge for the Wicked. The filmmakers seem to have tried to make a PG-13 horror film, but the acting and production values feel very much like a low-budget Christian film. It's odd.

The film opens with Scripture, I Corinthians 3: 17 “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy…” (I found it quite interesting they left off the rest of that verse, “and you, together, are that temple.”)

The film opens in a bar where some locals are complaining about the local church and its pastor. It seems developers are looking to buy up all the local properties but the plans are at a standstill because the pastor won’t sell.

We then see the offices of the Lawson Corporation where father and son Lawson are discussing Big Business. Father Lawson is worrying about not yet being able to buy the church which is slowing down their Big Business plans. But the son, Ron (Matthew Nadu), promises his dad that he’ll take care of everything.“I’m putting a squeeze on the pastor, I’m doing everything I can short of extortion.”

Meanwhile, Pastor James (Bill Moseley) and his wife, Loretta (Michelle Romano), are discussing selling the building. The wife is all for it, but the pastor says, “It’s not just a church, it’s our family legacy.” (This is a strange thing I've found in films and TV but I haven’t found in life, churches passed down generation to generation. In this movie, the building also seems to be part of the family heritage). Joan complains that people are “migrating from churches like ours to megachurches. All our money is going to repairs.” 

“That’s why we have a building fund,” the Pastor responds.

Maria (Belinda M. Wilson) approaches the couple to say, “Everything is clean and ready for the service. Do we need anything else?” The worship service begins immediately after that (I would be concerned about the way Maria seems to do her janitorial duties at the last possible moment.)

The service is poorly attended, but Ron Lawson is there (though a little late). After the service, he shakes the pastor’s hand and says, “Amazing sermon. I’m Ron Lawson and this is my beautiful assistant.” He then goes into a sales pitch promising to build a new church at a different location with “heating and other amenities” such as megascreens. And Ron gives the pastor the plans for this new church along with envelopes full of cash.

The pastor at first seems concerned about the bribe, but his wife assures him he deserves it for all of his hard work. Then he’s okay with it.

The pastor is not the only one receiving bribe money. Various committee members also receive promises of a cut of the profits. We see one committee enjoying their wads of cash. The name of this committee is one I have never heard before, the Stewardesses. (Maybe it’s a variation of Stewards, but it’s still odd.) The Stewardesses worry “we’ll never get the Deacons, they’re led by a real Old Testament type.”

The church committees meet together to vote on whether to sell the church. All the various boards are sent off to vote, and the pastor encourages them to “Follow your conscience and pray before you vote.” Many are obviously following their pocketbooks.

Loretta counts the votes and writes down each committee's tally -- then changes the figures. The major investors from Lawson Corp come for the event, and the vote is very close. The final committee vote is read, and the committees have voted to sell the church by one vote.

Then very strange things take place. The doors close and lock everyone inside. Stained glass shatters. Strange sounds and sights frighten all.

Someone comes across an old newspaper clipping with the headline, “Church Burns Wicked Immigrant Family.” (They don’t write headlines like that anymore. Well, maybe New York Post, but besides that…)

One of the men from Lawson Corp is from Romania, and he says everything going on reminds him of a family legend. He says, “If the leaders of the church are not pure, then the church engulfs their spirits until they become pure.” Pastor James assures everyone that his being the pastor shows he is pure. (As a pastor, I must say I have rarely been in any grouping of a congregation when I was the purest in the room.)

Things go from bad to worse, as the pastor's wife and others are transported to another dimension. Fog and smoke and fire engulf the sanctuary. There was an icon of an unknown saint in the front of the sanctuary. That icon comes to life in the form of a ghostly Clint Howard dressed in ecclesiastic vestments.

But then we find (Spoilers) that it was all a dream (or vision)! Pastor James is again standing before the committees about to announce the vote. But he fudges the count so that the church won’t be sold. God apparently honors the pastor’s dishonesty, since we then see a well attended service and the church appears to be prospering.

But Ron Lawson is off to buy up another church property with unfortunate results anticipated.

One of the first Sunday School lessons I remember from my childhood was “The church isn’t a building, the church is people.” Both of these films seem to teach that the church is the building and a deadly, killer structure at that. That’s why the churches in both films (along with the majority of the clergy) receive our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In Theaters (and Streaming) Now: The Many Saints of Newark


The Many Saints of Newark

In the HBO crime drama, The Sopranos, there was a priest named Father Phil (Paul Schulze) who was an interesting, but not very good, priest. He had an ongoing flirtation with Carmelo Soprano. That’s not a good idea for a priest with anyone in a congregation, but coming on to the wife of a vicious gangster… I can’t believe that would be endorsed in the worst of seminaries.

The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to the TV series, following the formative years of Tony Soprano (with Michael Gandolfini, the son of series star James Gandolfini, as teenage Tony). But the real protagonist of the story is Tony’s uncle, Dick Moltistaniti (Alessandro Nimvola). 

Toward the beginning of the film, Dick’s father, ‘Hollywood Dick’ (Ray Liotta), brings a young, beautiful bride back from Italy, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi). Because our goal here is to look at clergy and churches in films, I’m happy to report we do see a priest in conversation with Hollywood Dick at Janice Soprano's First Communion party. Hollywood Dick's showing the priest a picture of his new bride in a bikini. It embarrasses the priest, just as most of the wise guys’ conversation at the party does. But we hear a couple of men gossip about how the priest was a bully in his school days. 

New bride Giuseppina has some difficulty transitioning to life in America as the bride of an old man. A woman at a beauty shop asks her what she would have done if she stayed in Italy. She says people urged her to be a nun, but she would rather have been a priest because a priest is the capo (boss.)

My favorite spiritual moment in the film doesn’t feature a church or clergy, though. Gangster Dick Jr. is visiting his uncle, Salvatore (also played by Ray Liotta). Dick is visiting his uncle as a good deed, like his coaching a baseball team of blind children, and his care for his nephew Tony. It seems he does good deeds to make up for his, well, murdering people. 

I loved what his uncle said to Dick. “You know that Christmas song, ‘My Favorite Things’? I think the things you do are not God’s favorite things.”

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Devil Takes a New England Holiday

The Witches of Eastwick
The Lords of Salem (2012) 
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

In the Spring of 1692 a group of young women in Salem, Massachusetts claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused others of witchcraft. Mass hysteria seized the town, and over the next few months, 19 people were hanged for the charge of witchcraft while five others died in custody. 

By September of that same year, public opinion turned against the trials, and they ended. The Massachusetts General Court would later annul all the charges of witchcraft. Historians concur with what people of the time came to believe: the charges of witchcraft in Salem were a deadly hoax.

Hollywood does not agree. Oh, sure, occasionally a film has been made from history's point of view, such as The Crucible. Usually in movies, the witches are real -- which is the case for the three films we’ll look at today. Not only do they feature able necromancers, but (fitting with our theme this month) also the devil as well.

The Witches of Eastwick
is based on a novel by John Updike about three women who live satisfying lives in Eastwick, a small village in New England. Alexandra (Cher) is an artist and the single mother of a daughter. Jane (Susan Sarandon) is an infertile, divorced music teacher. Finally, Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a columnist for the local newspaper and the mother of six daughters. The three friends try to support each other, but none of them seem happy.

Then a new man comes to town. Or -- is he a man?

Jack Nicholson plays Daryl Van Horne, a man who disrupts the village with his vulgarity. And seduces the three women, one by one. They establish a strange, polygamous family until the women decide to cast the devil out, leading to a battle between the devil and the women who have discovered their witchy powers.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Movie Churches? Interestingly, director George Miller continually puts the local church in the center of everything. The aerial establishing shot in the credits even has the church in the center of the shot. Many of the exterior shots have the church in the background.

A few scenes actually take place inside the church. We hear the congregation singing a favorite of mine, “Lead on O King Eternal,” but one woman in the church, Felicia Alden (Veronica Cartwright), opposes the three friends and their new lover. 

When she speaks out against them in a church service, she seems to go more than a little mad. She screams “Whores! You know what’s going on in that house? Perversions! Drugs! Incest! Spanish flies!” Her husband has to drag her out of the church. 

Felicia goes to the hospital where the doctor explains, “Some fat got into her brain.”

There is another major scene in the church. As the pastor is preaching on Elijah, a mighty wind blows the door open and Daryl, who has been battling “the witches of Eastwick,” comes through the doors. 

He has been tarred and feathered, and he explains, “Sorry, having a little trouble at home, just female problems.” And then he vomits... a lot. He is then able to talk again. “Let me ask you something. You’re all church-going folks. Do you think God knew what He was doing when He created woman?... I really want to know. Was it another mistake like tidal waves, earthquakes, and floods? You don’t think God makes mistakes? Of course, He makes mistakes. But when we make mistakes they call it evil. When God makes mistakes they call it Nature. So what do you think? Women? A mistake? Can we find a cure, a vaccine?”

The congregation looks at the Devil with puzzlement and concern, but he leaves the sanctuary enraged.

Overall, it seems like a nice little church.

A very different film, a horror film rather than a comedy, is Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. The film opens in 1696 and shows a coven of witches denying Jesus and pledging themselves to Satan.

We then see these same witches burned at the stake for their practices (which history shows is not how “witches” were dealt with in New England.)

We then go to the future where an author, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) is promoting his new book, Satan’s Last Stand: The Truth About the Salem Witch Trials on the radio show of D.J. Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie). Matthias argues that “witchcraft is a psychotic belief brought about by a delusional state of mind.”

As the film goes on, Heidi encounters witches through a band called the Lords of Salem and through women at her apartment complex. It turns out Heidi is a descendant of those who persecuted the witches of Salem, and the witches are taking vengeance on her and other relations of those early witch hunters.

So where does the church show up in this film? In New England, as was true in Europe, civil authorities rather than ecclesiastical authorities prosecuted people for witchcraft. Not in this film.

There is a brief appearance of a contemporary church in the film. One day as Heidi is walking her dog, she stops to go inside a small country church. She sits in a pew. A priest comes in and she says “Hi!” 

The priest responds, “Why are you here?” in a voice that sounds more than a little judgmental.

Heidi: “I don’t know. I was walking by with my dog, I thought I’d come in. Is that okay, are you closed?”

Priest: “No. We’re never closed. God is always there, ready to listen.”

Heidi: “I just needed to sit and think.”

Priest: “It is a nice place to come and sit.”

Heidi: “Yes, nice.”

The priest sits next to Heidi on the pew and says, “You're a very sad girl.” He then grabs her arm and says, “You have to understand there is a war in heaven between Satan and Michael and his angels but you must understand, God does not forgive angels when they sin, He sends them to hell. You are a filthy whore of Satan. Christ can’t save you, only I can save you.” He tries to kiss her. And then Heidi wakes up.

The priest looks down on Heidi, waking up in the pew, and says, “I believe you fell asleep. It’s very peaceful here.”

Heidi finds an old book, the diary of the Rev. John Hawthorne, her ancestor. It tells how he opposed the master witch who made the devil’s music and so he killed that master witch. So the contemporary witches kill Heidi and other descendants of the opponents of witches from back in the day. They do so in a ceremony that mocks the church. They even post a “Jesus Saves” cross.

This time around, the devil wins.

Today’s last film with a real witch in New England is Elvira: Mistress in the Dark. Again, the church isn't seen much in this film, but toward the end of the film, the title character finds herself sentenced to death in the contemporary New England village of Fallwell, Massachusetts.

A priest comes to Elvira’s cell before she is taken to be burned at the stake. She's happy to see him arrive, thinking he's there to save her. He says he is there to save her soul, but then he (like about half of the men in the film) makes a pass at her, grabbing her breasts. This priest really brings down the Movie Churches Steeple rating, bringing these three movies to Two Steeples.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Does the Devil Really Have Just One Thing on his Mind?

The Unholy

First off, I want to make it clear that this film shouldn't be confused with 2021’s The Unholy, though come to think of it, such confusion wouldn’t cause much harm. Still, today's movie is the 1988 film, and it's obvious that the makers of 1988’s The Unholy (screenwriters Philip Yordan and Fernando Fonseca and director Camilo Vila) seem to be under the mistaken impression that only one of the Seven Deadly Sins matters to God, the Church, or the Devil: Lust. 

The film opens with a priest praying in a church. A robed woman approaches the priest, opens her robe, and reveals a transparent negligee and, well, herself. The priest kisses her and she slices his throat. If you read this and think, “This sounds like a film that I never want to see,” I applaud your judgment. I, on the other hand, watched the whole film. Any aspersions cast on my judgment are wholly justified.

The Unholy is a pretty stupid and morally bankrupt film, but I offer our usual disclaimer: we are not here to critique the film but rather the church and the clergy in the film. 

*Spoiler* Neither church nor clergy comes off too well.

After credits, the film goes off to a different location, the ledge of a tall building occupied by a potential jumper. Two police detectives wait in a hotel room by the window. A priest makes his way through a police barricade on the sidewalk below. “Where do you think you’re going?'' an officer asks. 

“I’m a priest,” he responds. 

“Go on through,” the cop says. The police in this film are incredibly cooperative with the church.

Upstairs one of the detectives, Lt. Stern (Ned Beatty), tells his partner, “No one goes out there until the priest gets here.” (Working as a chaplain in the city of Seattle, I must say the police don’t usually treat me with such unquestioning respect. Perhaps they should take notes from this one aspect of The Unholy.) Stern leads the priest, Father Michael (Ben Cross) to the ledge. The priest tries to tempt the jumper with cigarettes, but the jumper grabs the Father and they both fall 17 stories -- the jumper to his death. Father Michael, on the other hand, is supernaturally unscathed; no scratches or bruises, let alone broken bones or internal trauma.

Archbishop Mosely (Hal Holbrook) hears of this miraculous event and wonders to his minions whether Father Michael might be “the one.” Mosely has been pondering battles with dark forces and so he sends Father Mosely to pastor the same church in New Orleans where the priest (prior to the opening credits) was tempted and killed and where, we learn, another priest died in the same fashion.

When told that there might be spiritual forces at work, Father Michael poo-poos the notion. He says that if there is a real devil, “Let’s just say he doesn’t live in New Orleans.” (Excuse me, Father, I have been to New Orleans, and I think it certainly is a place Beelzebub would hang, and the makers of Angel Heart agree with me.)

After arriving at the church in New Orleans, Father Michael investigates the deaths of his predecessors. Clues lead him to visit a club where probably pretend human sacrifices are made.

A woman who works at the club, Millie (Jill Carroll), seems to have been involved in some way with both of the previous priests before their deaths. She comes to warn Father Michael of sinister forces at work. Her boss from the club, Luke (William Russ), interrupts their conversation at the church and warns them to stay away from each other. Luke kills the church dog and warns the priest, “If you keep messing with Millie’s head, the same thing will happen to you as happened to that dog!” The priest offers Millie protection, even to stay at the church. (Not exactly a shrewd thinker when it comes to appearances, that priest. Is there no one in the congregation who could care for the woman? Maybe he could ask his housekeeper, who's been part of the community for years?)

Anyway, Father Michael and Millie figure out the Devil’s nefarious plan. Satan wants to take the most innocent of people (which they believe to be priests), seduce them, and then kill them in a carnal act and therefore send them to hell. Millie tells the priest that she is a virgin, and she believes the devil wants to catch her in a carnal act, but they could outwit the devil if they have sex together. Then the devil wouldn’t catch them in their “first time” and murder them in the act.

There are so many ways this is logically and theologically stupid, it’s hard to count. First of all, it’s hard to believe that Millie is a virgin, considering where she works and her intimations that her father sexually abused her. Even if she is, wouldn’t it be much worse for her if the devil killed her having sex with a priest she tempted rather than some random guy she met in a bar?

Also, where does the idea come from that priests are the purest and most undefiled of people? Many priests did many things before they took vows. And there have been plenty of news revelations over the past few decades revealing that some priests have done much worse than a random sexual fling with a consenting adult. (While we’re at it, why does Satan in this film always tempt the priests with a demon disguised as a woman? I’m sure there are other approaches that would have been more effective with other priests.)

But the stupidest thing of all is to think that Satan would want to corrupt a priest and then kill him immediately. Wouldn’t it be much more effective to corrupt a priest and have him serve in the church for decades, corrupting other priests and parishioners with not just sexual sin, but sins of pride and abuse and idolatry and more?

Eventually, the same demon-disguised-as-a-woman that tempted and killed the priest at the beginning of the film comes to tempt Father Michael. He resists the temptation, just as he resisted Millie, so the demon returns to its true hideous form and Michael battles the powers of darkness in a psychedelic skirmish that rather resembles an LSD trip in a Roger Corman film from the 1960s.

But God does win this battle, I guess, so the film retains a couple of Steeples in our Movie Churches rating for that, but the priest’s failure to rally people to the love and grace of Jesus -- Who can and does overcome evil -- keeps it from earning more than that.

The focus of this film on sexual sin as the worst and most heinous of sins reminded me of something from the writings of C. S. Lewis. This is the final paragraph from the chapter on Chastity in Lewis’ classic work, Mere Christianity:
Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Working for the Devil

The Devil's Advocate
Angel Heart (1987)
Many of us have had employers who we doubted were wholly on the up and up. I worked at a movie theater where there were rumors the manager shaved off profits from the box office receipts (I know for a fact he sold expired hot dogs), but what if your employer wasn't just shady but was downright evil?

In John Grisham’s The Firm, a lawyer discovered his firm was a front for the mafia. The two films featured today have even more diabolic bosses (the mafia might work for these fellows). We'll first look at a film which, as in The Firm, features an attorney hired by a law firm that is much more than it seems. The very premise leads one to think of the many jokes about diabolic lawyers. 

In fact, a 19th-century evangelist, Lorenzo Dow, told a story of being on a preaching tour and coming to a the general store in a small town one cold winter night. The town's lawyers were gathered around the pot-bellied stove and listened while Dow told about a recent vision in which he had been given a tour of hell, much like the traveler in Dante's Inferno. One of the lawyers asked what he had seen. "Very much what I see here," Dow said. "All of the lawyers gathered in the hottest place."

1997’s The Devil’s Advocate (directed by Taylor Hackford), stars Keanu Reeves as Kevin Lomax, a small-town lawyer recruited by a high-powered law firm to practice criminal defense law in the Big Apple. The head of the firm goes by the name of John Milton (Al Pacino). No one in the film ever says, “Isn’t John Milton the name of that British poet who wrote Paradise Lost in which Satan plays a prominent role?” trusting the audience to note that obvious allusion.

As the film goes on, the firm asks Lomax to make increasingly questionable moral choices, and the identity of Milton as the devil becomes increasingly obvious. Lomax faces increasing moral and physical peril. 

If only he had listened to his mother. 

Judith Ivey plays Kevin’s mother, Alice, who senses moral peril when her son plans to move to the big city. Alice is active in her local (and well-attended) fundamentalist church where we hear the congregation singing a lively Gospel song (based on Romans 16:19.)

But Lomax is not a part of that church, as we learn when Milton questions Kevin about his mother and her church.

Lomax: My mother raised us, just the two of us. She wasn’t married. She’s a preacher’s kid, she’s pretty tough. She has a church she likes, she spends a lot of time there. When she goes out, it’s to do volunteer work.

Milton: Didn’t rub off the Book? The Church?

Lomax: I’m on parole.

Turns out he might have been much better off sticking to that church of his mother’s.

There is another church featured prominently in the film, used for the funeral of Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones), another member of Milton's law firm and a very bad man. The minister at the service eulogizes Barzoon as a wonderfully moral man, a pillar of the community. This is a church where Milton seems very much at home (though his presence does make the Holy Water boil). That fact alone adversely affects the church’s Steeple Rating negatively, though the church is the place Lomax’s wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) seeks comfort after Lomax's boss rapes her,

(Several very beautiful Manhattan churches were used for the production, including the Church of the Heavenly Rest, Central Presbyterian Church, and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer.)

In 1987’s Angel Heart, private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), is working for a different sinister boss (or client) who goes by the name of Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro). Really, I can't understand why the devil in these films can’t be a little more subtle in naming himself. (Lou-Cipher… Get it?) Cyphre hires Angel to track down a man by the name of Johnny Favor.

Angel, like Lomax in our other film, is led down a dark path leading to more and more evil and debauchery. But fortunately for this blog, he encounters a variety of churches along the way, including a church led by a mercenary preacher who tells his congregation, “If you want to show your love for God...Open up your purses, open up your wallets. Some of you are saying, ‘You should end up in a Cadillac’ but if you love me, I should end up in a Rolls Royce.”

At one point, Angel passes a river baptism conducted by a fundamentalist congregation. Cyphre arranges to meet Angel in the pews of what seems to be a very formal church. Angel isn’t pleased at all with this meeting place and lets his client know, swearing up a storm. Cyphre instructs Angel to watch his language, but Angel replies, “I don’t give a F*%$ if this is a church. Churches give me the creeps.”

These two films have churches that seem like relatively healthy congregations and some that give me the creeps. Still, I’m going to give the various churches in these two films a Movie Churches average of Two Steeples.

I don’t usually note this, but readers should be aware that both of these films have scenes with strong language, violence, and sexual content. The Devil’s Advocate received an R rating and Angel Heart received a rare X rating. Just so you know.