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HORROR TEN SPOT: Religious Horror Films (Part 2)

01.28.2011by: Jake Dee

Sir Anthony Hopkins hits the pulpit to scare the masses today in the awfully portentous looking exorcism yarn THE RITE - the latest from Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom. And with subgenre doing pretty well right now (THE LAST EXORCISM, EXORCISMUS, RED STATE, THE DISCO EXORCIST), we may see more and more films of this ilk attract such venerated acting talent as Mr. Hopkins. At least, we can hope that's the case. So to get us in the mood of all things eerily ecumenical, we thought it be fun to run a recollection of some of the best - that is to say, the most terrifying - religiously themed horror joints. From exorcised demons to subtle satanic ritual, vengeful angels to evil sludge...we're running the Holy f*ckin' gamut! You ready? Let's roll!




Speaking of Daniel Stamm's surprise low-budget hit, it was certainly one of the most polarizing and somewhat controversial films of 2010...the ending evoking a strident love-or-hate-it, make-it-or-break-it opinion from most viewers. I know our very own Arrow hated it, but Ammon and Eric dug it quite a bit. Me, was neither turned off or elated by the films conclusion, but that probably has more to do with me being conscious of how polemic the ending was going in. In other words, I wasn't blindsided. That being said...I do feel like the first half of the film is the more superior portion, the faux-documentary set-up, one we've seen before, is extremely effective here in - much like the characters to the Reverend's ruse - making us buy into what the story's selling. Solid work here from Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, in a suggestive PG-13 bone-chiller, make THE LAST EXORCISM the last (or first) on our list!

#9. STIGMATA (1999) 

Buy STIGMATA on DVD here

I can't say Rupert Wainwright's STIGMATA is a terribly good film, but part of its fun rests in how absolutely absurd it's theological viewpoint is sermonized. Now, I'm no expert on the matter...in fact far from it. But when you can contract a Stigmata from a rosary like it were a goddamn virus...it doesn't take a priest to know something's afoul. Unless of course, you're Gabriel Byrne and Jonathan Price! Y'all know what's up...when Father Kierman (Byrne) is dispatched in Brazil to vet and suss the mysterious Stigmata wounds Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette)...an inexplicable stretch of wildly entertaining phenomena occurs. Stylistically, the film has the subtlety of a jackhammer...at times a frenzied MTV style, the film soaked in cold blues and hot firelight. Maybe it's my love of Patty Arquette or seeing capable actors bob and weave through dubious material, STIGMATA is somewhat of a guilty pleasure.

#8. THE CHURCH (1989)

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Italian director Michael Soavi is most recognized, with good reason, for his superb 1994 zombie joint CEMETERY MAN, but for our purposes here...his 1989 cult-debacle THE CHURCH (aka DEMONS 3) needs to be brought to light. Why? The shite is off-the-wall insanity, that's why! A good film? A bad film? Who the hell knows. Uneven I think describes it best, what else do you expect with 8 writers credited? For those who missed this Argento inspired tale - about a 12th century demonic scourge plaguing people trapped in a Gothic cathedral - it's everything you'd expect from a exorbitant Italian schlock-fest. Zanily energetic, grandly grue-filled, shamelessly unoriginal (biting some films actually higher on this very list)...THE CHURCH is a much welcomed dose of cartoonish levity that parts from (at times debilitating) sincerity most films of this ilk (religious horror). Attend THE CHURCH at least once if you haven't already!



First off, I'm not sure which is more unsettling...Donald Pleasance playing a priest, or the filthy 14th century poet goatee the sucker was rockin' in John Carpenter's oft-overlooked 1987 chiller PRINCE OF DARKNESS. Either way, there's no way in hell (pun?) I'm leaving this bad boy out. Y'all know the skinny - when a mysterious canister is unearthed below an abandoned Los Angeles church, the contents of which (a green ooze) turn out to be the liquid manifestation of Satan. That is to say, anyone who comes into contact with said sludge is immediately morphed into a malefic minion of Lucifer himself. Made at the height of Carpenter's career, the film isn't his best, but with mainstays like Pleasance and Victor Wong doing work, a kickass theme song by Alice Cooper and a thought provoking stance on religion vs. science make PRINCE OF DARKNESS more than a worthy contender!

#6. FRAILTY (2001) 

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Who'd of thought Chet from WEIRD SCIENCE would, some 15 years later, step behind the camera and, in his feature debut, craft one of the most disturbing and bloodcurdling religious thrillers ever assembled? I guess it was all his time spent with Jimmy Cameron! Anyway, I think what makes FRAILTY so affective is how austere the material is played. These are very sincere performances, a risky choice that could have easily pushed the film over the top into laughable histrionics. Instead, everyone in the film seems to so wholeheartedly believe in what they're doing and saying (Paxton in particular) - a nice allegory for faith in general - to the point where we the audience start to believe. It's that powerful. Also, the snap denouement is both fresh and unpredictable...a credit to both Brent Hanley's script, the child actors (Matt O'Leary, Jeremy Sumpter) and support from Powers Boothe and believe it or not, Matthew McConaughey. A great film!

#5.THE PROPHECY (1995)


As if Chris Walken isn't frightening enough on his own, when you put him side by side with the always intimidating Elias Koteas, a Bohemian, pedophilic Eric Stoltz and an unheralded Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer - in a story about an unforgiving angel cast down to Earth to retrieve a human soul - frankly, just writing about the shite creeps me the f*ck out! Sure, the original has been somewhat sullied by subsequent, often stultifying sequels (as is the case with a lot of flicks on this list), but Gregory Widen's only directorial feature is a true force to be reckoned with. Why? It's a stripped down, no frills, $8 million dollar pious-punch to the gut...the blistering performance of Walken as an evil angel consigned to inflicting the lord's wrath is nothing short of spellbinding. Props to Virginia Madsen and Amanda Plummer for their excellent supporting work as well.

#4. HELLRAISER (1987)


Okay, so Clive Barker's 1987 S&M spookster HELLRAISER sharply departs from the church-chillers that comprise the better part of our Top Ten, but there's no denying the sinister undertones and overt references to the netherworld. For crying out loud, the word "hell" is in the title! Besides, is there any other flick that relies so heavily on its own mythology, its own course of chaos and disorder? Big ups to Barker and his intricate detail, his elaborate imagination...and his ability to create a hellish world so foreign to our own, yet so rooted in universal themes of good and evil...nobility vs. corruption. The Cenobites - in all their sadomasochistic servitude - bow to the feet of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) as any true minion of Mephistopheles would. Then there's Kristy, an innocent child thrust into a more than horrifying scenario. And of course Julia, torn between human sacrifice for her former lover and her desire to live a normal life. Hell indeed!

#3. THE OMEN (1976) 

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Dick Donner may get the bulk of his recognition for directing such populist fare as SUPERMAN, LETHAL WEAPON, hell...even THE GOONIES...but there's no refuting that his deeply haunting work on the 1976 creeper THE OMEN - about a pristine American couple who discover their son is the literal Anti-Christ - is one of the man's crowning achievements. With two extremely grounded performances by screen vets Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, a deliberate directorial pace...born out of a patient, well plotted script by David Seltzer, and a downright soul-cringing score by Jerry Goldsmith...Donner's film has held up over three decades as one of the (sub)genre's feted untouchables. And let's not forget about the precocious turn by young Harvey Stephens as Damien, who was only 5 years old at the time of filming. Credit again goes to Donner for casting and evoking such a performance.

#2. ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) 


Before Roman Polanski was droppin' ludes and sodomizing 13 year old American girls, the dude was at the height of international filmmaking (and occasionally, still is). And aside from perhaps CHINATOWN, one could argue his finest hour was the 1968 psycho-satanic worship picture ROSEMARY'S BABY. Coincidentally, it was Polanski's first American picture, and first adaptation to boot. Shockingly, the original rights to the Ira Levin novel went to schlock-hound William Castle. Can you imagine a version of ROSEMARY'S BABY directed by that guy, the master of gimmickry? Wow. Thank goodness he didn't, because as it stands, Polanski's rendition is not only one of the most faithful adaptations (as claimed by Levin himself), but it's easily one of the most superior horror efforts ever committed to celluloid. The slow burning tension, the slightly off-kilter tone, the great ensemble work (which earned Ruth Gordon a Supporting Oscar)...all of it converge to become - 4 decades later - probably one of the five or ten best the entire horror genre's ever seen.

#1. THE EXORCIST (1973)


Who the hell didn't see this one coming? Seriously, William Friedkin's 1973 masterwork is not only one of the best horror films ever constructed, it's one of the all time finest pieces of cinema...PERIOD! Crafted during the apogee of the 70s American film movement, Friedkin's undisputed bravura can be attributed to a confluence of well-timed events and key contributions. First off, William Peter Blatty adapted his own source novel into script form, a most important detail. Bill Friedkin was also hot off an Oscar win for THE FRENCH CONNECTION, which no doubt afforded him great talent to work with, not to mention a freedom not only inherent to filmmaking at the time, but to eschew all pressure to perform and make something truly unique. Also, legendary makeup man Dick Smith hired Rick Baker for the first time on this production, the results speak for themselves. And of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't give praise to the great performances elicited from Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller and a young Linda Blair. A true masterpiece!



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