Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

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The Last Exorcism


The Last Exorcism

This isn't Kansas anymo...oh yeah it just might be.

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones, Tony Bentley, John Wright Jr., Shanna Forrestall, Justin Shafer, Carol Sutton, Victoria Patenaude, John Wilmot, Becky Fly, Denise Lee, Logan Craig Lee. Directed by Daniel Stamm

Belief is a powerful thing. Once we lock something in our mind that we believe is so, we make it so consciously or unconsciously. The mind can make us sick – and be a powerful healer.

Reverend Cotton Marcus (Fabian) has been a Southern hellfire and brimstone preacher since he was a child. Like many preachers, he also performs exorcisms. He doesn’t actually out demons; he uses parlor tricks and special effects to suggest to his “patients” that the demon has left them. Most of the time, they feel much better.

But Cotton’s own son was born with serious medical issues and the death of someone during an exorcism (not one Cotton was involved with) have opened his eyes to the harm he could well be doing. He decides to perform one last exorcism and chooses a subject at random; the Sweetzers.

He enlists a documentary crew to capture his last exorcism on film and show the practitioners to be the charlatans they are. The “victim” is Nell (Bell), a bright and cheerful teen whose father Louis (Herthum) is a fundamentalist who makes Pat Robertson look like Bill Maher. Nell’s brother Caleb (Jones) is suspicious of the whole thing and with good reason.

Nonetheless, Cotton convinces Louis to let them perform the exorcism and with the usual smoke and mirrors, Cotton is successful. He leaves the farm, thinking that he is done with exorcisms and finished with the Sweetzer family. He has no idea how wrong he is.

The conceit of the movie is that you’re seeing the “documentary” footage shot by the crew; as the movie wears on and things get more and more strange, the unexplainable tends to feel more realistic and believable than it might on a Hollywood sound stage. That works to the movie’s favor.

Also to the good is Fabian as Cotton Marcus. Cotton is a bit of a scalawag, a born salesman for God who can earnestly sell his flock on the power of Jesus as easily as he does in the deliciousness of his grandma’s banana bread recipe. He is also suffering a bit of a crisis of faith; he is tired of the games and the tricks and yearns to set things right. His family isn’t so sure about his change of heart but his wife Shanna (Forrestall) supports him.

Of the film crew, we mostly see Iris (Bahr), the producer and sound engineer (hey, it’s a low budget shoot) and she delivers the requisite amount of fear and panic. Herthum is also steadfast as the farmer whose belief and faith never waver, to the point that he’s willing to kill someone to prove it.

Despite its flaws (and indeed, occasionally because of them) this is as effective horror film as I’ve seen recently, a pleasant surprise that came from producer Eli Roth, who helmed such films as Cabin Fever and Hostel. There are some real scares here on a real low budget, mostly revolving around Nell who gets tossed about like a rag doll in some scenes. There is some subtle commentary on faith, religion and the gullibility of man. There are some solid performances. Basically, this is just a well-written movie that has an ending that is unfortunate, but that doesn’t negate the hour plus of film that preceded it. If not for that ending, this would have a perfect rating and that doesn’t happen for horror films often, but this one very nearly deserved it.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the scariest horror movies of the last few years. Really makes good use of the whole found footage genre. Surprisingly well-acted.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was really disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few somewhat disturbing crime scene images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie spent ten years in development following a “60 Minutes” story on the subject which led to a bidding frenzy.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Real Stories of Exorcism featurette looks at actual exorcism and interviews people who have been exorcised. There is also footage of the actor’s auditions on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $67.7M on a $1.8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues!