This Sunday, Kevin Smith’s Red State returns to theaters for a limited engagement. In it, Michael Parks gives a better performance than the film deserves as Abin Cooper, a preacher who leads his congregation to kill sinners because he believes that his flock walks the righteous path. However, Abin Cooper is not God’s only cinematic soldier, and the weekly Listicle acknowledges those who kill for their belief in a deity or deities.
Some people kill to prevent the apocalypse, some people kill to cause it. Sometimes angels head to Earth to assist (or kill or betray) two brothers as the world comes to a close, while otherss visit us to ripoff the opening to The Terminator before heading to a diner in the middle of nowhere.
This concept, of course, expands beyond the major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Is…others) and their fictional (and non-fictional) Crusades. Plenty of cultures have bound and slain innocent victims for a myriad of reasons- to make soap, to create a better harvest, to please Kali Ma, to feed the Kraken, etc. Nevertheless, today we recognize the sacrifices people are more than willing to make in the name of their God(s).
Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton, 2001)
Bill Paxton’s directorial debut produced one of the best thrillers of the 2000s, and one of the few movies where Matthew McConaughey gives a good performance. When the police find the body of a serial killer, his brother, Fenton Meiks (McConaughey), arrives at FBI headquarters to describe to Agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) about their troubled upbringing.
Back in the 1970s, their father (played by Paxton) begins receiving messages from God telling him to smite those who have wronged Him. Although initially conflicted, Dad Meiks is obligated to follow the Word. Paxton, who recently ended his tenure on Big Love, plays a role that is almost the inverse of his Bill Hendrickson from the HBO series. Both men are utterly devout, and they look at every obstacle they encounter as tests put in place by God. While Hendrickson presented the lighter side of this devotion, Dad Meiks shows the alternate path- the darkness that can come with too much faith. He takes his two kids (Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Adam (Jeremy Sumpter)) on this journey and teaches them how to kill and dispose of bodies in their giant rose garden. However, one doubts his father’s visions while the other remains true to his cause.
Paxton shows remarkable skill and admirable restraint in the film, both as an actor and a director, leading to a dark, atmospheric, and chilling work. Relatively bloodless, Frailty serves as a genuinely gritty, low-key horror movie, the likes of which have unfortunately fallen out of favor over the past few years.
The Omen (dir. Richard Donner, 1976)
Sometimes God doesn’t need to tell you to kill, but you know it would behoove you to commit the act for His sake. To throw another wrench into your moral conundrum, your victim might be a kid.
This struggle plagued Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, later Liev Schreiber), an American ambassador to Great Britain whose wife (Lee Remick, later Julia Stiles) recently gave “birth” to Damien, the Antichrist (though, according to some, he was “just a mischievous, rambunctious kid”). With dark, secret forces ensuring that Damien (not the Thorns’ actual offspring) remains safe and with the diplomats, it takes several years, several freak outs in front of churches, and several dead nannies for the Thorns to realize something is not quite right with the boy.
Robert tries to investigate the mystery surrounding his kid, and everyone he brings on his quest dies due to bizarre and gory con incidences that probably inspired the Final Destination series. God never tries to contact him, never tells him how to kill the spawn of Satan, or even whether he should try, but Thorn, upon seeing a 666 on the boy’s scalp, knows the child must die.
The movie presents both angles- killing for Satan and for God. Damien and the people supporting him murder to usher in the end of the world, while Robert attempts to stab his son on behalf of God to save humanity. Satan wins.
Four Lions (dir. Christopher Morris, 2010)
Religious satire is difficult to pull off. After more than 2000 years of fodder, it’s rare for anyone to create something unique, insightful, and different when taking on one of the hottest button issues of all time. While Jesus and Bible thumpers are still popular targets, many seem to prefer to keep their hands off other religions. Obviously one reason might be because more people in the Western world know about the tenets and intricacies of Christianity so the jokes would have more of a mass appeal, while another reason could be … something else.
Christopher Morris’ Four Lions from 2010 is one of the smartest and funniest satires in years. A dark comedy, Four Lions follows Islamic wannabe jihadists/suicide bombers living in Britain as they attempt to make it to heaven by orchestrating an attack on the streets of London. Despite the gang’s claims of doing it for Allah, the Lions don’t seem to know or appreciate the Koran; most of the time, they remind you of vaguely informed people trying to discuss politics. Morris treats their scheme like a bank robbery in a really smart and skillful heist comedy (definitely above Ocean’s Eleven and almost certainly greater than the upcoming Tower Heist). Their training is sloppy, their weapon handling is incompetent, and their understanding of their beliefs is haphazard at best.
Nevertheless, you believe in the jihadists as characters, and that is one of Morris’ greatest accomplishments with this film. While taking on a particularly dangerous topic, he turns the terrorists into humans, and funny ones at that. Yes, most of them are idiots, but they’re not Jar Jar Binks-level bunglers, nor are they annoying gag-sters. Even the ones most devoted to the cause still seem at least particularly conflicted about knowing what the “right” thing actually is. They’re scared, they’re insecure, and they argue about plans and the future of their organization like actual friends, who happen to want to blow up infidels.
Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
Sometimes a man can install himself as a God. (So can a computer, like in half the episodes of the original Star Trek. A nuclear bomb can also serve a deity, as in Beneath the Planet of the Apes.) In the Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now, former Green Beret Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) does just that. After realizing the truth about the brutality of man, Kurtz establishes a camp hidden in the jungles of Cambodia where he lords over a gang of painted savages as a poet-warrior God. His followers worship him, and, when Willard (Martin Sheen)’s boat approaches the camp, they launch arrows to destroy those seeking to intrude upon their heaven. Later, they decapitate one of Willard’s fellow soldiers.
Like every God, Kurtz wants people to join him, to listen to him, to accept his wisdom as the Truth. He sends out radio recordings espousing his philosophy, and a photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) becomes his disciple. And, although Kurtz dies, it is only because he allows Willard to kill him, leaving the errand boy sent by grocery clerks to choose between the dark side and the better angels of our nature.
Traitor (dir. Jeffrey Nachmanoff, 2008)
Traitor, which for me was a rainy day matinee back in 2008, turned out not the kind of movie you’d expect it to be, and that’s not a bad thing. When dealing with a modern perspective on terrorism, it may seem that the only option is to come down mercilessly either against the East or against the West. By sensationalizing either the big bad American war machine or wild-eyed ranks of fanatical Muslims, you get a high-speed Hollywood thriller made in rather poor taste.
Traitor, however, walked a seemingly impossible tightrope by not giving vent to any particular political stance. It is about living by faith, and the difficulty of choosing one’s own path when factions on both sides grab at you constantly. Don Cheadle plays Samir, an enigmatic fellow of Sudanese descent who finds his talents very much in demand. Muslim extremist groups want to use his expertise in armaments to aid a campaign of anti-Western terrorism. The US government wants him to infiltrate these same groups for just the opposite reason. Surely he can only be working for one in real life… but which?
As the story unravels, we learn that Samir spent time in the American Special Forces, despite the fact that we first saw him negotiating illegal arms deals in the Middle East. The movie plays its cards very slowly and deliberately, until we are just not sure of anything. His deep intelligence contact (Jeff Daniels) thinks he is an invaluable asset. The FBI (Guy Pearce) thinks he is a terrorist. In other words, Samir has to live on the run, and with a major attack on America in the offing, the clock is ticking, whatever side may truly claim him.
Samir makes it clear throughout that he lives his life by his own beliefs. Exactly what those beliefs entail is the real mystery. We know he is a devout Muslim, but does that mean he holds with the radicals in whose society he moves? Is he a man of peace, despite the fact that nearly everyone who crosses his path finds him useful as an instrument of war? In the end, he must be a traitor to something he claims to represent, but be assured that he never betrays his own heart.
The House Of The Devil (dir. Ti West, 2009)
From the horrifying conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby on through the 1980s, a persistent fear of Satanic ritual cults reared its head, and horror movies were there to cash in. Movies like Race With The Devil and Hammer’s Satanic Rites Of Dracula abounded, featuring hip young people running for their lives to keep their blood from being offered up to the forces of hell.
Then, in 2009, upstart horror director Ti West decided to host a little revival. The House Of The Devil is a shadowy, brooding exercise in dread that delivers everything its title promises. There may not be a thousand corpses in this house, but we certainly know there are a few. The scary part is that West’s story never fully explains itself. He shows us just enough to know what is going on, but leaves its full implications to our rattled imaginations. And rattled shall ye be, all who behold.
** Plot details follow, but not all of them. Jocelin Donahue plays Sam, a flat-broke college student who just needs a quick stack of cash to move into her dream house. The promise of an easy babysitting gig is too much to resist, even when her employers turn out to be a strange, abnormally tall couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) who immediately tell her that they were less than frank about the services required. Everything (including her best friend) screams at Sam to back out, but she finds that the couple’s desperation for a night out – gazing at the lunar eclipse, no less – allows her to drive the price up to a tidy profit indeed. Oh, kids…
The title of the movie gives away a great deal, but the fun is in watching Sam uncover the house’s dark secrets for herself. Until the final minutes of the film, the mayhem keeps to a minimum. However, it is not long before we discover (well before Sam does), that people will die for the sake of this unholy night. What if you should discover that, not only do your employers have ulterior motives for inviting you in, but that they’ve done something hideous with the real inhabitants of the house? While not nearly as on-the-nose about murder and sacrifice as its ancestor films of thirty years ago, The House Of The Devil makes its point loud and clear. Enter if you dare.
Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones (dir. William A. Graham, 1980)
As historical documentaries go, Guyana Tragedy is not one of the greatest. Nonetheless, Powers Boothe earned his Emmy well for portraying Jim Jones, charismatic religious maniac who coaxed his Peoples Temple sect into mass suicide. The supporting cast also features performances by such notable players as Ned Beatty and Brad Dourif. Mainly, it seemed appropriate to give the Jonestown massacre and this miniseries a mention in an article dealing with Red State and the Westboro Baptists.
As in most stories about dangerous demagogues, we begin by seeing Jones working on what appears to be the side of right. However, from a progressive agenda of racial integration, he soon rises to militant megalomania. Taking unfortunate refuge under a religious veneer, he styles himself as a prophet of doom and holds his followers in thrall. At a certain point it was no trouble at all to talk them into uprooting their lives for him, eventually ending up in the Jonestown commune, Guyana. After all, he had their money. What choice did they seem to have, but to give him their loyalty.
Once Jones found his corruption catching up with him, the only way to destroy the evidence was to coerce his entire congregation into dying for him, under the misapprehension that they were also dying for God. The climactic scene of the series is terribly upsetting, but Boothe plays his role expertly. His eerie charm worms its way into the minds of his followers, and it becomes heartbreakingly clear how over time, presumably rational people have been conditioned and convinced to accept his orders without question. When his horrifying final solution plays out, the calm and orderly course of the mass suicide is the more shocking than the act itself.
That is the most terrible aspect of hate and murder as acts of worship. It may take only one truly evil person, who happens to have the gifts of charm and charisma, to poison the hearts of a whole community. Persuasion and manipulation are powerful weapons for those who know how to wield them well. All in all it is an important cautionary tale, like so many others, about staking your future on a philosophy which does not allow its followers to question it.
The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
Even in an era when studios like Hammer were popularizing the groovy side of horror, The Wicker Man is a surprisingly tripped-out film. The soundtrack mixes Scottish folk tunes with screaming psychedelic riffs, and the copious naked cavorting casts an eerie light on the principle of free love, especially from the point of view of the movie’s puritanical hero. Edward Woodward, who would later achieve renown as the smirking martyr Breaker Morant, stars as Sergeant Howie, a straight-laced Scots policeman who finds himself trapped in a web of mystery in a remote island village.
Summoned by an anonymous tip, Howie is searching for a young girl named Rowan Morrison. Though someone in the community clearly believes she is missing, the townsfolk weave quite another set of stories about the girl’s fate. They begin by denying her existence outright, but when pressed they modify this claim by explaining that according to local religion, those who have died and passed on to new life are henceforth regarded as nonexistent. Howie smells a fat pagan rat, and continues the investigation, only to confirm his suspicion that human sacrifice is a very real idea on Summerisle.
These folks, you see, have abandoned the modern church for a very ancient strain of pagan observance. Their chief concern is with the harmony of all nature, with extra reverence paid to the concept of fertility. Under the auspices of their jaunty feudal lord (Christopher Lee, in a rare fangless role) they joyfully worship the bounty of mother earth and her wondrous cycle of reincarnation. Trouble is, this may include sacrificing the young and virginal for the sake of Summerisle’s beloved apple crop.
Christopher Lee is as charming as ever in the role of Lord Summerisle. Far from the raving radical one might expect in such a movie, he is as placid and complacent a spiritual leader as can be. He parries Howie with glee at every turn, running the indignant lawman in circles and fueling his obsession with the mystery of Rowan’s disappearance. Though the townsfolk seem united in benign indifference to Sergeant Howie, it becomes apparent that the charismatic Lord Summerisle has coached them in methods of keeping the outsider blind to the deeper truth of the matter.
Driven as much by duty to his faith as by service to the law, Sergeant Howie systematically pokes into every corner of the little pagan society, consistently horrified at what he finds. At first the joke seems to be on his rigid sense of spiritual orthodoxy, but ultimately we find that the people of Summerisle are not merely a harmless, persecuted sect. Howie uncovers the harrowing extent of the Summerisle fertility rituals, though not its full significance to himself. At least until the very end of the story. To give him credit, he is steadfast to the very last, though ultimately it comes down to a question of whose prayers are to be answered. The final sequence juxtaposes jubilation and horror in a most peculiar way.