You wouldn’t think horror cinema would be the best place to discuss the downfalls of faith, the origins of myth, or the intricacies of religious scripture. However, despite many crude examples and lazy references, some horror films feature the real or imagined power of a being we would call god.
For example, The Exorcist may be one of the most well-known and beloved horror films of all time, and it’s almost violently steeped in religious text. While this film took its cast of demons and priests to the highest echelon in cinematic history, some horror films tackle similar themes without the same level of success or notoriety.
Directed by Gareth Evans of Lowering, this 2018 action-horror thriller is one of the weirdest and most visceral experiences in recent memory. Although the plot is quite simple, each new left turn feels like a level of abstraction away from reality. It’s a cross between a tortured horror movie, a martial arts action movie, and an unexplainable supernatural event.
Dan Stevens stars as Thomas, a man who travels to an idyllic island plagued by a dangerous cult. The charismatic leader of the group speaks of sin and blood sacrifice, and the countless devoted followers slavishly follow his word. Thomas must infiltrate the cult to free his sister, who has been kidnapped and held for ransom. While the cult looks like it preaches fire and brimstone, it has a much more pagan vibe once the truth begins to become clear. Apostle hides countless bizarre and terrifying secrets beyond its simple premise, and it has to be seen to be believed. It is available on Netflix now, try to go with little extra knowledge.
While immensely respected by critics and most viewers, many still haven’t seen Rose Glass’ astonishing and groundbreaking directorial debut. Sainte Maud is a stellar exploration of the psychological underpinnings of religious thought. The story centers on a hospice nurse obsessed with a woman she cares for. She descends into spontaneous madness as she desperately tries to save the soul from its burden, violently opposing all perceived sins and gradually involving herself in her life.
The film was released only a few years ago, and the fact that Glass was able to find new dimensions to the subject beyond aesthetics is staggering and impressive. With vivid confidence, unwavering visuals and stunning presentation, Sainte Maud belongs to a prominent place among a much wider audience.
No, not Nicolas Cage’s Abyssal 2006 remake that gave the world “Not the Bees.” Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror is much brighter than one might think from the premise. Devout Christian policeman Neil Howie is called to a remote Scottish island in pursuit of a missing young girl after receiving an anonymous letter. Once there, he discovers that the island has abandoned the Christian faith in favor of strange pagan rituals. While the inexplicable actions of the occupants of the island do not seem dangerous at first glance, the investigation turns dark and Howie quickly finds himself in a nightmarish situation.
With a brilliant score, solid performances, and a clever take on the evolution of religion, this film received immense praise. Although it received tons of awards in its heyday, modern audiences don’t talk about it very often. Eclipsed by one of the worst remakes of all time, The wicker man deserves a look back.
Voodoo has a long history of being gimmicked by all manner of media, but this underrated 1988 Wes Craven nightmare explores the intricacies of indigenous faith. While unquestionably dated, this bizarre film adapts a non-fiction story about a real-life zombie, created by a mysterious brew.
The story takes place in Haiti, under a tyrannical regime shaken on all sides by violent authorities. Bill Pullman stars as a Harvard anthropologist who is sent to uncover the bizarre phenomenon in the heavily policed area. With social and religious commentary, this film is much smarter than it first appears. Along with its clever writing and directing, the practical special effects are stellar, an often overlooked standout of the era. Craven’s catalog is full of horror hits, but this one has gone unrecognized for far too long.
At least for an American audience, there is a huge gap in religious representation in horror cinema. Catholic apocrypha and pagan myths seem to occupy tons of movies, but many other major religions are not represented in modern cinema. The horror of Under the Shadow is twofold, simultaneously confronting the audience with the nightmare of living in war-torn Tehran and the supernatural fear of local mysticism.
This film is the directorial debut of British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari, and it is a seminal film in the genre. Under the Shadow is a hidden gem and a rare treasure. There just aren’t enough attempts for what this movie achieves, and almost nothing succeeds on that level.
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