Led by a continuously frothing Ernest Borgnine, the overly scrupulous spare-no-rod Hittites (who “make the Amish look like swingers”) spends most of the movie trying to drive away the recently widowed Martha and her visiting friends for fear that the women’s Godless 20th century ways have brought the demonic Incubus into their small religious community in the form of a mysterious figure who is killing heathen and non-heathen alike.
The atmosphere is effectively creepy and the early James Horner score is pretty good, but it’s the cast of predominantly second-tier, yet competent actors, who really make this movie. You’ve got Maren Jensen (Athena from the original fun Battlestar Galactica), the ever reliable Michael Berryman, a freaky Lisa Hartman, and an as yet unknown Sharon Stone who gamely allows a real tarantula to drop in her mouth. All in all, it’s a pretty solid thriller, only faltering near the end when the script goes haywire with precognitive teenagers, crazed over-protective mothers, and a love-sick hermaphrodite.
The biggest twist, however, comes in the final few seconds. Raised as a self-described Fundamentalist Baptist, it’s clear that director Wes Craven had some things he wanted to say about the repressive nature of religion (Waaah, why didn’t mommy and daddy let me do whatever I wanted?). But the final scene of the film, tacked on by the studio against the director’s wishes, completely turns the film on its axis and implies the one thing Craven probably didn’t want. That is, the Hittites were right. Their “repressive” customs were necessary to hold back the great evil that’s out there waiting to claim all our souls.
The importance of religious customs can be seen in this week’s first reading from Acts 15 where the very first ever Apostolic Council on record is convened, not to debate some unsettled matter of dogma, but rather to decide whether or not the Church should adopt the Kashrut dietary laws of the Jews. And while that particular custom was eventually rejected, the Church would go on to institute many other traditions from the obligatory (Sunday worship) to the voluntary (saying the rosary). In his book Catholic Customs and Traditions: A Popular Guide, Greg Dues postulates that “Religious traditions are effective for several reasons. They are in tune with people’s religious needs. They are cyclic, repeating on a regular basis and, therefore, serving as a reinforcement mechanism for faith. They take their shape from the real stuff of people’s lives, cultures, and experiences. Finally, they are effective because they are earthy in the sense that they promote a religion of the heart, body, senses, environment, intuition, and imagination.”
So be sure to keep eating Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday and getting your throat blessed by Saint Blaise in February. Those kind of customs alone won’t drive evil away, but they will keep your mind focused on the things that will. Plus, hot buns taste good, so that’s a bonus.