Saturday, September 22, 2007

DOUBLE FEATURE: EVIL BEHIND YOU & THE BURNING HELL

















EVIL BEHIND YOU

TYPICAL REVIEWS

"Stripped of in-your-face blood and gore, adult language and nudity, Evil Behind You is a supernatural film that refreshingly promotes both the power of prayer and consequences of non-faith, but sadly fails to deliver any of the promised good old-fashioned terror." - Brandi L. James, Reel Reviews

THE PLOT

Lisa and Debra awaken in a sealed windowless room with no idea where they are or how they've gotten there. (The noticeable lack of blood and excrement should at least reassure them that they're not stuck in the latest Saw sequel.) In the center of the room Lisa's boyfriend David and Debra's husband Tony, along with two unconscious strangers, lie strapped to gurneys. It seems the couples have been kidnapped by Islamic terrorists who have injected the men with an experimental formula in hopes that it is the antidote to their latest biological weapon. You see, the diabolical villains plan on inoculating themselves with the antidote before releasing the virus on the Great Satan that is America. (I guess that whole martyr thing is becoming passé.) What nobody realizes, however, is that the serum actually alters the brain in such a way that the victim is able to see into the spiritual dimension. As all of those under the influence of the drug begin to freak out over the demonic figures lurking in the corners of the room, the terrorists rejoice in the belief that they have found exactly what they were looking for. But when the two strangers become possessed, attack the couples, and finally die screaming that they are being drug off to hell, the two Christians in the building start to figure out something real might actually be happening. Thus begins a desperate struggle to halt the experiment, escape the terrorists, and save the souls of those dying from eternal damnation.

THE POINT

Forget blockbusters like The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia. Forget even the success of modest Christian themed movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Following the triumph of the in-your-face evangelistic Facing The Giants (budget $100,000, domestic gross exceeding $10 million,score one for the Georgia Baptists), expectations were running high at the 2007 Biola Media Conference over upcoming Christian movie releases. Christianity Today's coverage of the event, however, sounded a bit skeptical. "While some are excited about the potential of these efforts, some are also frustrated about the "bad art" that has already spun out of these initiatives..." Lisa Swain, Interim Chair of Biola University's Mass Communication Department, talked about her student's films. "We get a lot of prayer scenes, a lot of lingering looks, a lot of swelling music. And it's just superficial. There's no subtext whatsoever... We get so caught up in wanting people to see Christ, we forget that they also have to see us. And by seeing our struggles, then they will see Christ. You don't show Christ by showing them grace first. You have to show them the wound first."

Show them the wound? Well if that doesn't sound like a job for a horror movie, then I don't know what does. And I suppose that's also what the good folks at Given The Boot Ministries were thinking when they produced Evil Behind You, a self-professed "sci-fi thriller with Christian overtones". The recipe for Evil Behind You looks simple enough. Start with the basic premise from one of the most inexplicably popular ongoing film franchises (Saw III: budget $10 million, domestic gross over $80 million, someone explain that to me please), remove anything potentially offensive to the Lifeway Christian Stores crowd (a store which ironically doesn't seem to stock Evil Behind You), add a dash of evangelization, and voilà, instant Christian horror movie. Why not? It's certainly not as bad an idea as those Left Behind video games. (What kind of "Christian" video game gives you the option to play as one of the Anti-Christ's Global Community Peacekeepers? "I know we have to leave for the tent revival, Ma, just let me finish persecuting a few more of the faithful and I'll be ready!")

So how is our overtly Christian sci-fi horror movie? As a Christian myself I'm sorely tempted to go easy on Evil Behind You. After all, it does have its good parts. The actors are unmistakably amateur, yet earnest. The filming is competent, avoiding a lot of the errors so many shot-on-video productions make (poor lighting, dropped sound, etc.). The attempt to make a modern suspense film minus the gore is laudable. (However, if you're going to do this, don't stretch credibility by having a scene in which your lead actress beats a man to death with a metal chair. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure in real life this would leave some kind of stain. It would at least dent the chair.) And, except for maybe the Universalists, the theology presented in the film is generic enough so as not to be offensive to any particular body of Christian worshipers. It's an admirable first effort.

Unfortunately, while the movie's heart is willing, its flesh is weak. The problems with Evil Behind You are just too crippling to let it off easy. The characters are scripted way too broad. The "bad" couple of Debra and Tony are so obnoxiously self-centered and unloving that even an atheist would swear on a stack of Bibles that those two were going to hell long before the demons show up to verify the fact. Lisa, a Christian supposedly undergoing a massive crisis of faith, really ends up being about as far from God as that little kid who gets mad at Mommy and runs away... all the way to the back steps until Mom calls him in for dinner. (Yeah, I did that once, but so did you, so stop snickering.) As for the Christian doctor forced to participate in the experiment, well, he's SO good you may as well start the beatification process now. (And use that fast-track one Mother Teresa is getting, not the slow bureaucratic one everybody else is stuck with.) But nobody in the movie is as broadly scripted as the eeeevil terrorists. Now unlike a lot of other reviewers, I'm not really offended that the terrorists are portrayed as Islamic extremists because, last time I watched the news, there were indeed Islamic extremists running around the world killing people. But I am offended by how unnecessary they are to the story. With any number of creative ways to place a group of people in a Saw-like setting, did we really need to use one-dimensional Muslim caricatures just to get in some theological jabs at Islam? Besides, you would think that in a movie whose underlying theme is ostensibly about personal salvation, at least one terrorist might have repented his murderous ways and avoided eternal damnation. But alas, such is not the case.

There's also just no way to get around mentioning the budget. While Evil Behind You actually had $200,000 to work with, twice the budget of the aforementioned Facing The Giants, the first time filmmakers just didn't seem to have the experience necessary to overcome the budgetary restraints. After a substantial part of the film's running time has passed in which the actors do a credible enough job building up suspense over the unseen forces lurking in the room, we finally get to see the demons themselves. Hmm. Yeah. Looks like someone on the crew learned how to use the free tool set to Neverwinter Nights... Neverwinter Nights 1. The effects are an absolute mood killer. Truthfully, the movie would have been better served never showing the creatures but rather just playing up movement in the shadows. (It can work. Go watch 2006's Salvage, made for only $25,000, and see what they do with stuff like half-glimpsed faces in doorways and such.) And if the climax of your movie is going to involve a huge explosion, at least try to leave enough money to actually blow something up. If you can't do that, at least leave enough for bus fare so you can travel to where somebody else is blowing something up and film that instead. Instead, the destruction of the medical facility in Evil Behind You is indicated by an anemic offscreen "boom" and an orange spotlight which momentarily flashes on the back of the main actresses' head. Breathtaking.

But what's most lacking in this Christian sci-fi horror movie is, well... the horror. Stephen King, who knows a little something about the subject of suspense and terror, wrote in Danse Macabre that a work of horror functions on two levels. "On top is the gross-out level... the gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it's always there. But on another, more potent level, the work of horror is really a dance - a moving, rhythmic search. And what it's looking for is the place where you, the viewer or reader, live at your most primitive level." Since the makers of Evil Behind You purposely avoided the gross-out effects, that leaves them with the task of mining those "primitive levels" in order to be an effective thriller. But despite all the talk about hell (and those eeeevil terrorists, of course), Evil Behind You somehow feels just a little too timid.

Okay, that's a little vague. You know what? Maybe I can explain it better if we take a look at a another no-budget Christian horror film which can be called a lot of things, but never timid.




















THE BURNING HELL

TYPICAL REVIEW

"Although the blood looks as if someone spilled red fingernail polish, and the performances from the parishioners functioning as on-camera talent are unbelievably stilted, the blood-spattered events and unrelievedly grim tone sent impressionable viewers screaming for the altar." - David D. Duncan and Jim Ridley, Psychotronic Video Magazine

THE PLOT

Tim and Ken, two aging hippy-biker types, talk to the Reverend Pirkle about their new church, the one down the street that doesn't bother with that hell stuff because it brings people down. When the two realize that they are talking to a preacher (somehow having previously missed this fact even though they're sitting in his office INSIDE his church) they apologize and leave, but not before Tim has one last laugh at the pastor's antiquated teachings on hell. Tim immediately crashes his motorcycle and has his head ripped off. (Which we get to see!) The grief stricken Ken leaves Tim's headless corpse behind on the road and returns to the church just in time to catch a sermon by Reverend Pirkle detailing stories from the Bible in which various people are cast into the fiery pit of The Burning Hell. (Which we also get to see!) Afterwards the preacher sadly informs Ken that, like all those sinners from the Bible, Tim is also burning in hell this very moment. More depressed than ever, Ken attends another service in which the message is (you guessed it) all about hell. Throughtout the sermon Ken is stared down and poked by a number of people who feel he needs to respond to the altar call. As the 20th verse of Just As I Am is sung, Ken is torn between his doubts and his desire to save his soul from eternal damnation.

THE POINT

Readers of this blog might remember the name of Ron Ormond. He was the auteur responsible for the legendary Mesa Of Lost Women as well as other freaky B-movie offerings such as 1963's Please Don't Touch Me and 1968's The Monster and the Stripper. (On my honor, those are 100% real titles.) But in 1970, Mr. Ormond had not one, but two forced landings in an airplane which caused him to reconsider the path he had chosen in life. Embracing his newfound Christian faith, Ormond decided he would no longer make bad low budget exploitation films. Instead he would make bad low budget CHRISTIAN exploitation films. Teaming up with Southern Baptist evangelist Estus W. Pirkle (On my honor, that's 100% his real name.), Ormond made three pictures using money the preacher raised from collections. As Psychotronic Video Magazine notes, "Each of them was a "soul winner," a term for movies that were shown in rural churches across the South and immediately followed by an altar call. The number of converted sinners replaced grosses as the measure of success."

And in terms of "soul winning", the most successful of these collaborations would have to be 1974's The Burning Hell, a film to which Ormond brought all of his low budget tricks into play to create a truly disorienting, yet oddly compelling, viewing experience. It starts with the very structure of the movie itself. In order to take advantage of the verbal arsenal that was the Reverend Pirkle's sermons, Ormond eschewed straight narrative, and instead filmed The Burning Hell in the psuedo-documentary style which was in vogue with all those cryptozoology films (The Mysterious Monsters, The Legend of Bigfoot, etc.) popular during the mid-70s. In those movies a narrator would lead the audience from skepticism (Is Sasquatch real or just a hoax?) to possible acceptance (Haven't we convinced you this is a real possibility?) using vignettes and reenactments to hammer home the films "evidence". It's the same thing here, except instead of the Loch Ness Monster, our narrator Pirkle want us to accept the existence of hell.

But not just any hell, my friends, he wants us to accept... THE BURNING HELL! Pirkle, being the good Southern Baptist boy he is, wants us to accept as literal truth the Biblical imagery of hell as a place of fire and brimstone. Oh, and don't forget the worms, the tormenting worms! (Out of all the graphic imagery this movie throws at us, Pirkle seems really, really concerned with the worms, mentioning them several times over the course of the film and even discussing the word's translation from the Greek.) Now, of course, Catholics have no trouble with the idea of hell. The Catechism teaches that "to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice." and that "this state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." But the Catechism is rather non-committal as to what hell actually is other than a state of being in which there is "eternal separation from God." Maybe it really is a literal pit of fire or maybe that's just the best image we have to describe something our human minds aren't capable of comprehending yet; we just don't know. (This is probably a good time to point out again that if you want a very good overview of all the differences between Catholic teaching and Pirkle's take on things, you owe it to yourself to check out D. G. D. Davidson's excellent review of The Burning Hell over at the Sci-Fi Catholic.) Acknowledging these theological differences, however, I'm forced to grudgingly admit that Pirkle and Ormond accomplished what they set out to do.

Which is hard to imagine given what's on screen, because by most standards this movie is utterly ridiculous. The closest thing this film has to an actor is director Ron Ormond himself who plays Tim the biker. And he kills himself off in the very first reel. Every other character is played by the finest pew sitters a pot luck dinner and chance to be in a movie can buy. (You've never seen King Herod until you've seen him portrayed by a guy with a thick Mississippi drawl who pronounces every word phonetically. Bet you didn't know the high priest of the Sanhedrin was named Kay-eye-foos.) And what about that dialog? I'll be quoting this movie for months to come. "The chances are he's burning in the flames of Hell right now, but I'm worried about you." "They relished his gluttonous intestines, what a nauseating stench." and my favorite "If you were in hell right now, in all probability, you would change your mind!" To top it all off, we get to meet Satan himself, complete with cape, horns, and clown-like stained glass face paint, bwah-hah-hahing maniacally as the damned claw at the worms, the tormenting worms, glued to their faces. Watching this movie today in gape-mouthed wonder, it's nearly impossible to believe anyone could ever have been affected by this stuff.

And yet I know from personal experience that this movie worked. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I was not raised in a Christian household. But one fine Summer during my elementary school days I found myself spending Sunday mornings with a school friend at his small Southern Baptist church. And on one such glorious morning the preacher skipped his sermon, lowered the lights, and started a projector. By the end of The Burning Hell grown men were sobbing at the altar and I was scared ****less. As soon as I got home I rushed to my mother and asked if I could be baptized the following week. (Not only did she say no, but I was never allowed to step foot in that church again. This was the moment I discovered my family was supposedly Catholic, which was news to me but also kind of neat, because in the movies those were the guys who kept gallons of holy water around in case the vampires attacked.) Sound crazy? Oh sure. Decades later, after scores of slasher movies, the advent of Industrial Lights & Magic, and now CGI, everything about this movie now seems quaint and camp. But in its day, this movie kicked people's spiritual butts.

But why? Why was this over the top cheese fest so frightening to people? I think if we go back to Stephen King's two criteria for a work of horror, we might be able to figure it out. On his first point, the gross-out, The Burning Hell is an obvious no-brainer. In this movie we get beheadings, slit throats, burning flesh, wailing & gnashing of teeth, and spears in the gut. Oh, and the worms, the tormenting worms! And while you can argue over the "degree of artistic finesse" in the movie's violent imagery, there's no denying that it effectively portrays the Dante-esque Hell it wants you to accept as real. But even Stephen King admits the gross-out only gets you so far. It can evoke a visceral reaction, provide a momentary shock to the senses, but it rarely leaves a deep or meaningful lasting impression.

I think where The Burning Hell ultimately succeeded (again, in its day) and where Evil Behind You fails is in their application of King's second criteria, in finding a place where the viewers live at their most primitive level. For the most part people have a basic desire to live, and if possible, they want to live happily. And if they're religious, they want to live happily ever after. Hell, whatever it may turn out to be, is the opposite of that. In both of our movies tonight, eternity in hell is the ultimate threat. Yet in Evil Behind You, they spend almost no time exploring what exactly that might mean for the characters. (Oh sure, it's apparently full of bad CGI demons, but so is the Sci-Fi channel.) The hell of Evil Behind You is too vague to invoke true horror. That's not a problem with The Burning Hell. They make sure you know what the stakes are and then some. Hell is not a plot point in Pirkle's movie, it's a matter of life or death, even after the credits roll. He and Ormond want to burn that fact into the viewers conscious and (again, for its moment in time) they pull it off.

All of this raises an interesting question for today's Christian, especially for those who don't accept the idea of a literal Burning Hell. The Catechism plainly states that "the affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion." So it seems we are still expected to consider the reality of hell with the same intensity as Pirkle and Ormond regardless of whether it's burning or not. But how are we supposed to convey the urgency of the subject to others? Let's face it, on the surface "eternal separation from God" just doesn't sound as frightening as neverending hellfire, brutal torture, or even the worms, the tormenting worms! If we're going to avoid the gross-out, how do we portray a "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God" for the horror it truly is?

Look for the places where we live at our most primitive levels, of course. There actually is a movie which does this beautifully. In the final scene of 1991's The Rapture, the character played by Mimi Rogers stands on the bank of a small stream in the middle of a dark, barren landscape. On the opposite side stands her recently deceased daughter begging her to ask for God's forgiveness and accept his love before the world ends and she no longer has a chance to join her family in Heaven. Tragically, the mother is unwilling to "forgive God" for events which have occurred over the course of the movie and she chooses hell rather than release the anger in her heart. As her saddened daughter fades from sight and the world begins to darken, the camera (and therefore we viewers as well) slowly pulls away from the woman, leaving her isolated and completely alone for all of time with nothing but her pain and bitterness for company. It's a chilling and powerful image of eternal separation from God and everyone else we've ever loved. And there's not one single scene of burning flesh, or skewering, or even the w... well, you know.

THE STINGER

The truth is Christianity is no stranger to horrific imagery. If you actually pick up a Bible and flip through it, you find that Holy Scripture is full of gruesome stories that never make it into the kid-friendly readings at mass. (You might want to stop eating for a minute.) For example, Samson has his eyes gouged out by the Philistines, Jezebel is eaten alive by dogs, The Baptist gets his head served up on a platter, a Levite priest saws his murdered concubine into twelve pieces and has them delivered to the 12 tribes of Israel as a sign of coming retribution, the harlot Jael nails the sleeping Sisera's head to the ground with a tent peg through the ear, and (have you stopped eating yet?) after King Saul demands a dowry of 100 Philistine foreskins in exchange for the hand of his daughter in marriage... David personally brings them to him in a sack. Aieee, aieee, aieeeeee!

"The term "flesh" refers to man in his state of weakness and mortality." says the Catechism. Besides the fact that these are the terrible things people do to one another, graphic stories like these remind us that we are creatures of spirit AND flesh. This is important in Christian theology because "The "resurrection of the flesh" (the literal formulation of the Apostles' Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our "mortal body" will come to life again." It's just another way in which Christian teaching stresses that the unique individual lives on rather than just becoming part of some universal consciousness or just disappearing into plain old nothingness.

6 comments:

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Brilliant! Well worth the wait! And thanks again for the link.

A theology student informs me that the Church Fathers generally teach a Hell with two forms of punishment. The first is negative, consisting of loss of the beatific vision (aka separation from God) and a positive punishment for sins committed, consisting of an actual fiery Hell with actual fire, though it's a special fire without any of the benefits fire can provide, so it gives no light. Milton uses this effectively with his burning black lake.

I tend toward a literal Burning Hell myself, but mainly because I write and read fantasy and a Hell based on Milton/Dante is awesomer than a Hell based on we're-too-wimpy-today-to-think-it's-really-burning.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

No really, I see how Evil Behind You could be an effective evangelism tool. After the movie came out, I bet Given The Boot Ministries got lots of calls from young men like this:

"Um, hi, I saw your movie, and I'd like to be a Christian and join your ministry. And...um...Hilary Kennedy, is she seeing anyone?"

EegahInc said...

I don't remember if I've mentioned it before on this blog, but I facilitate a discussion/debate group at my parish comprised mainly of high school juniors and seniors. Whether due to bad catechesis or a culture which promotes lack of personal responsibilty, one of the main problems I'm running into (from my point of view, not theirs) is a definite universalist attitude among the kids and adults alike. I would go out on a limb and say the majority has bought into the idea of a "loving" God who would never allow anyone to suffer forever under any circumstances. That empty-hell theory is sweet, but I think it stretches Church teaching mighty thin. I guess the main thrust of review here is that a frightening, tortuous hell is not only more in tune with traditional Church teaching, but more honest and effective as well.

As for your second point, I suppose they could start up a subsidiary group called Giv'em The Belly Shirt Ministries. I'll freely admit a young lady is what lured me out of the Catholic Church and into the Church of The Nazarene for awhile.

Wm. said...

Forgive my syntax, it's late.

As far as imagery of Hell or Satan go, I really liked the Devil in Constantine: a white suit and tar. It might not be original (did they steal it? After having to read The Faerie Queen [in it's original old english; half a page of poem and half a page of footnotes explaining it] and The Cantebury Tales in college I avoided other seminal works of the period. Matter of fact, it kind of turned me off to reading for a long time. Sorry Dante.) but I really liked it.

Once again your reviews are a pleasure to read. They cover the subject sufficiently that I don't think I'll be watching the actual subjects. Thank you for your service to the world. I thank you and my Netflix queue thanks you.

EegahInc said...

Once again proving the point that sometimes it's more fun to talk about a movie than it is to watch it. If you have any doubts, all I can say is... A Man Called Sarge. (Oh yes, the pain still lingers.)

I do watch good stuff. I've been on a kick the last week of catching up on early 70s Walter Matthau movies.

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