Sunday, November 11, 2007

Horrorfest 2007 Report #11: In Faith We Fear

Faith is the basis of any belief system. Without faith we have nothing. I guess this is why faith is so frequently mined for horror. What if there is nothing else? What if what we believe is wrong? Or worse, what if what we believe is right?

For the faithful belief can often be blind. When you have faith that often means you don’t question the source of your lessons in faith. But what happens when that source is also a source of evil?

Many people have faith in the Catholic Church, although with some of its recent practices in hiding abuses made by the very priests people entrust with their own faith and even their children, the devil is only one side of your fears. “Deliver Us from Evil” is not a horror film. It is a documentary that looks at the horrific practices performed by a California arch deices that hid and protected a known child molester.

Father Oliver O’Grady is an admitted sex offender that the Catholic Church continues to protect to this day. He did serve some time for his crimes here in the United States, but he continues to live off the church dime in Ireland since no one could bring enough evidence against the church proving their knowledge of his actions at the time of his conviction. His story is told here by his victims and O’Grady himself. The church had no comment.

It is hard to tell which is more horrific in this movie, the victims’ reactions to what was done to them, or the cold clear observations Father O’Grady makes upon himself and his admittedly wrong actions. Bob Jyono, the father of one of the victims, lashes out in rage in one scene with viscous words and volume. Frightening coming from a man that is so clearly a laid back, easy going guy.

But the really frightening aspect of this film is how the church and Father O’Grady so unapologetically avoid any sort of blame for his actions and the fact that he was allowed to remain free for so many years without any sort of repercussion or any protection for the children whose care was placed in this monster’s hands. It is enough to make one lose their faith.

A loss of faith is often the case with the hero of a religious based horror flick. In “The Exorcist” Father Karras is going through a crisis of faith when Regan MacNeil’s possession is brought to his attention. In “The Reaping” Hilary Swank’s Prof. Winter was once a missionary but now spends her days debunking religious phenomena with scientific explanation. That is until a backwater Louisiana town begins to experience the Seven Plagues as described in The Bible.

Winter is really a great example of economy of set up. Her skepticism allows the plot to move forward, but her former faith gives her the experience to know what should be going on. Although the twist of the plot can be seen coming, it works wonderfully with the character of Winter in balancing her doubts and beliefs. I won’t reveal the outcome, but it is unique in the way the perceived threat and solution to that threat are related. It is almost backward from what’s more commonly used in films with less faith in the religious material in which it is based.

When it comes down to it, what attracts audiences to religious horror is that we want to believe. Perhaps the evil is easier to believe in than the good, but neither can exist without the other. In “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, a priest is accused of allowing a girl to die while under his care when an exorcism goes wrong. No one believes the girl was possessed except for the priest and the girl’s family. Not even the defense attorney, and certainly not the prosecuting attorney, who is a “man of God”. Well, aren’t we all?

But still we have to be convinced to believe. This makes me think of a movie I discussed in my last report about vampires. There is a scene in “Fright Night” where the vampire hunter, played by Roddy McDowell, tries to fend off a vampire using a crucifix. When it doesn’t work the vampire tells him, “You have to believe for that to work.” Later, when the vampire hunter remembers this, the crucifix miraculously does work. It isn’t quite that easy in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”.

Emily was a devout Christian. The defense attorney, played by the luminous Laura Linney, is at best an agnostic. But when the same occurrences that preceded Emily’s possession begin to happen to her, the priest points out that just because she doesn’t believe, it doesn’t mean that the evil spirit can’t get to her. In the end, although the prosecution is able to shoot countless holes in the defense’s case with “experts” utilizing “scientific logic”, Linney’s character believes Emily’s story. And the audience believes. The best religious films are those that can make you want to believe, no matter what your predilection.

We all want to believe in something. Horror is a quick way to get that need fulfilled when it is done well. Documentaries, on the other hand, seem pretty good at shattering our beliefs. And isn’t that scary?

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