Blast from the Past

Due to the mistaken belief that the Cuban Missile Crisis set off a nuclear war, paranoid inventor Calvin Webber took his family into a bomb shelter for 35 years.  Now, Adam, who has never seen anything but the shelter, goes out into what he assumes is a post apocalyptic world for supplies, and to find a wife.  Of course, things are not as expected, and he meets Eve, a spunky girl who just might be the one he’s looking for.

It is a quirk of how I watch movies that the ones I see the most aren’t my favorites.  They are films I enjoy, but they don’t deserve my complete attention.  I can toss them on when I’m not sure what I want to do, or need to check some email, or respond to a raving Christian who has damned me to hell (again).  Blast from the Past is one of those.

It is less of a standard fish-out-of-water picture then an homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s (of which Bringing Up Baby is probably the best representative).  There’s the non-realistic situation, fast-talking barb-laden dialog, improbable romance of opposites, slapstick, wacky family, good natured odd balls, and mistaken beliefs that could be cleared up if the characters simply bothered to speak about them.  Brendan Fraser, whose early roles consisted of variations on this part, is perfect as an innocent seeing the wonders and horrors of modern society which we never notice.  Alicia Silverstone returns to her Clueless cuteness level (which is pretty damned cute), making me want the romance to work.  The funniest moments are in the fallout shelter with Christopher Walken demonstrating why he is the king of eccentric characters and Sissy Spacek playing the much put-upon ’50s era wife to a tee, taking solace in her son and secret sips of cooking sherry.  Luckily, writer/director/producer Hugh Wilson understood that the underground routine could only work at a high level for a limited amount of time, so switches gears, and tosses Adam into the world to find his Eve.  It drags a bit in the early third act, and Wilson is far too in love with early ’60s social customs, but Blast from the Past is charming enough to bear repeat viewing.  I caught it first on the big screen, but it loses little on home video.

We’ll review any flick for The Film Atheist that takes our fancy, but I prefer my choices to have relevant religious or anti-religious themes.  Blast from the Past has a few obvious Biblical references floating about (Adam & Eve, The Garden of Eden), but those are just window dressing.  What caught my attention, atheist-wise was the running gag of Archbishop Melker.  An ex-soda jerk turned hippy turned bum, Melker sees Calvin rise out of the ground and takes him to be God.  When Adam appears, he’s naturally “The Son,” and soon there is a blossoming religion that accepts the commandment to leave the elevator alone.  Much of the humor comes from the reality of how easily churches can appear based upon simple and not so simple misunderstanding.


In keeping with the tradition of pardoning a condemned man on the holiday, Barabbas, the thief, killer, and all around dull guy, is released instead of Jesus of Nazareth.  Over the next twenty-five years and what feels like five hours, Barabbas struggles with his guilt and his belief, but generally just stands around.  On his journey of semi-discovery, he returns to thieving, works in the mines, and becomes a gladiator, all without his desperately needed morning caffeine.

Following the lead of the quasi-historical, New Testament farces, The Robe (1953), Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and Ben-Hur (1959), Barabbas slowly (so very slowly) takes us back to the Rome that never was, with the breath-expelling tale of a guy who had a peripheral part in the tale of Jesus, but existed stage left because he wasn’t really very interesting.

Pär Lagerkvist, in his s0-fictitious-it-isn’t-even-Bible-based novel, uses Barabbas to explore faith and how it effects people, and Dino De Laurentiis and Richard Fleischer use his novel to state that God is great, but being able to film your crucifixion scene during a real eclipse is even greater.  The movie is essentially two and a half hours of a Christian mother wagging her finger at a rebellious teen.  Barabbas messes up, a Christian comes along and tells him that he’s messing up and that Christ is the guy, and Barabbas nods meekly.  Repeat many many times.

Shot in Italy with the same feel as those Hercules-verses-the-Evil-Monster sword and sandal masterpieces, much of the dialog was added in post-production.  Even when an actor is dubbing himself, it never quite feels right.  The surrealism is increased with the use of muted colors and static long shots, making this about the most detached character study you’re likely to find.

Quinn is adequate, if a bit sleepy, in the title role.  Unfortunately, most of the Italian cast is dreadful (that’s assuming that someone else didn’t replace their dialog), and the rest of the non-Italians aren’t much better. Ernest Borgnin is a standout, proving that he can bring absolutely no personality to a part.  The exception is a young, powerful Jack Palance, who has no idea what movie he’s in.  He plays Torvald, who is some kind of fantasy villain that was accidentally cut from Lord of the Rings.  Yes, he’s too loud and out of character with everyone else, but he’s also fun and energetic.  The movie sings along while he and Quinn are playing gladiator.  But that section of the film is far too short.

Although a few artistic, but cold shots (Jesus bordered by light, the stoning of Rachel, the crucifixion under an eclipsed son, the gladiators in practice, the chariot fight) elevate the picture, it will always be an also-ran in the Christian epic competition, and of only middling interest to non-Christians.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

Zé do Caixão, a unibrowed, cape-wearing, atheist mortician, is the terror of his small town.  Everyone is afraid of him and his anti-Catholic ideas, and he beats the residents for his own enjoyment.  Disappointed that his wife is barren, and obsessed with immortality via a perfect son (hey, what atheist isn’t?), Zé murders her and rapes his best friend’s fiancée (why this guy has a friend is beyond me).  While he carries out his vile deeds, he drops into soliloquy mode again and again and again.  The subject of his never ending speeches: There is no God, no Devil, and man is supreme.  He doesn’t back this up, but he does say it a lot.

Coffin Joe, as the lead character’s name was inaccurately translated into English (though not in the subtitles where he’s always called Zé), is a horror icon in his native Brazil.  This does not say good things about horror in Brazil.  Apparently, Brazilians are frightened of guys who won’t shut up.  Or maybe they are terrified by poor film stock and muffled sound (but the hissing and crackling has a nice, full-bodied tone).  This is amateur filmmaking, but history sometimes promotes the unworthy.

In 1964, Brazil’s national censorship board had only recently been disbanded (leaving it up to local areas to ban films) and homegrown horror movies were unknown.  The Catholic church was extremely powerful with its fingers in everything, a situation that hasn’t changed that much over the years.  Director and accidental star, José Mojica Marins, had already had his work banned for containing hard to see nudity and for only being pro-religion instead of being ecstatically pro-religion.  In this environment, and with no money and not much knowledge of filmmaking, Marins created the first Brazilian horror film.

What so shocked audiences and the priests, besides the not-too-graphic killings, was the blasphemy that Joe spouted.  I doubt that Freddy Krueger eating meat on Friday would count as one of his evil deeds, but it did for Joe.  It is an indication of just how lock-stepped the country was with the church, that having any character, even the villain, being an atheist was unacceptable.  Joe spends most of his screen time, and he’s seldom off screen, railing against superstition, Catholicism, and God.  Since everything is seen from his perspective, he manages to drum up some empathy from most viewers.  And while his philosophical position is defenseless (his attacks on religion amount to nothing more than name calling, and his own belief in the superiority of mankind and immortality through a perfect child is no more reasonable than the ideas he derides), atheism is given some clout through sheer strength.  Faith gives the villagers nothing.  All of the believers are weak nobodies and the Church, often called upon by characters to stop Joe, can do nothing.  By merely challenging their blindly held beliefs, Joe defeats them.

But this is no pro-atheist movie.  Joe is all the things extreme fundamentalists believe of atheists.  He has no morality, no conscious, no ability to love, and his only motivation is his desire to procreate.  In the end, he can’t stand up to either is own inherent doubts or to the power of God (it’s a bit vague).

In 1964 Brazil, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul may have been heretical filmmaking, but it is heresy in support of a mildly different attitude in the worship of the Christian god.

Coffin Joe would return many times in short films, anthologies, and comic books.  His second feature, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, is even more religious.


Stock footage wars with stock footage, while Helen and Bronson, a pair we’re supposed to believe are news anchors, pretend the footage is really connected to the start of a world war in Israel.  Right when the stock footage is escalating to nuclear stock footage (I can’t mention stock footage enough), the rapture occurs, and Jesus takes all the good people to heaven, and spends a great deal of time folding their clothing.  Helen and Bronson are LEFT BEHIND (hey, isn’t that another film?), and must watch Jack Van Impe religious tapes (that would be Hell on Earth).  European Union President Macalusso proclaims himself God, and everyone goes along with it because, hey, that’s likely, and he quickly condemns all Christians to stock riot footage.  If only the poor souls still stuck on Earth could be made into good Christians by the words of Jack Van Impe, then maybe they could save the world and…  Actually, everyone is screwed no matter what.  That’s just the way God likes it.

I may have found it—the worst Christian movie ever made.  It is amazingly, breath-takingly, miraculously bad.  It is bad on an apocalyptic scale.  The bowels of Hell have nothing on this baby.  It is also too easy of a target.  What’s the point of developing sound arguments against the existence of God if this is what the opposition is putting out?  Its weak, mentally stunted proselytizing isn’t going to convert anyone.  Nor entertain anyone.

Funded by the Van Impe ministries, and produced and written by the Lalonde brothers, Apocalypse can hardly be called a movie.  While I have derided the incompetency of the end-of-times thrillers, The Omega Code and Left Behind (which was also made by the Lalondes and is nearly a remake of Apocalypse), those at least qualify as movies.  Bad movies, but still movies.  Apocalypse is stock news footage, segments from the Jack Van Impe’s televangelism show, and home video, stitched together.  The stock military footage is better than anything shot for this production, as professionals were involved when it was filmed, but even it is dragged down by the amateurish voice-over reports of the coming doom.  No one in front of the camera has the slightest idea what to do; it’s no surprise that few have worked on anything else.  Michael Halkusis gives the funniest performance as an Israeli general, being he’s unconvincing as an Israeli, a general, or a living human being.  Sam Bornstein is a hoot as well, standing uneasily and waving.  I expect a bit more from my Antichrists.  But why single anyone out?  They are all horrible.  These are not bad actors.  They aren’t actors, period.

Things are no better behind the camera, assuming the goal was to make a good looking picture.  Perhaps the filmmakers really like shots that cut off sections of actors’ heads.  If so, they were right on track.  The sound is muffled, the sets are primitive, and the music…  Oh, the music is painful.  I hope you like Christian country.

Fundamentalists have latched on to end-of-times stories for years.  They all have essentially the same plot, and are based very loosely on the Book of Revelations, with massive embellishments and additions to fit right-wing political views.  The basics: In the very near future, a world war will break out in Israel.  In the ’50s through ’80s, The Soviet Union was always the major player, but that’s usually downplayed now.  The Earth is on the brink of nuclear annihilation.  Then all of the good Christians—a narrow subset defined as those who strictly believe what the sect of fundies telling the story believes—are taken to heaven, leaving their clothing behind (Woohoo!  Naked orgy in Heaven!).  Back on Earth, a liberal European leader, head of either the U.N. or the European Union, brokers peace, usually based on his ability to supply massive amounts of food.  He’s the Antichrist, the son of Satan, and with the False Prophet by his side, he takes over as global dictator and oppresses Christians.  He rules for seven years before Jesus returns to defeat him.  This background is claimed to be “true” prophecy, and televangelists repeat it over and over.  For the books and movies, the main character is usually an atheistic reporter who spends much of his time observing world events before converting to Christianity.  These stories assume that the world is filled with atheists and that Christians, today, are a persecuted minority.  They also imply that liberal politics, particularly anything that involves helping people, peace, and free action, are the tools of the Devil.  Apocalypse sticks close to the standard tale.  There are no surprises, except how poorly it’s presented.

Now people, that is, Christian people: you’ve got The Bible to work with.  It’s a troubled book, but there’s some quality writing there.  You’ve got the concept of The Rapture and the rise of a cruel leader.  Why can’t you make a decent movie from that?  The drama is inherent in the situation.  All you need is a few interesting characters and it should be a sure thing.  Of course, it would require you to eliminate the constant preaching (it’s a movie, not a sermon).  And it would be nice if paranoia and racism weren’t running rampant in the script.  Oh well, I guess it’s never going to happen.  I’ll have to settle for The Omen; it’s nearly the same story.

Apocalypse should supply plenty of laughs, but it doesn’t.  When a film is this bad, it passes out of the range where even heckling it is a good time.

Agnes of God

Sister Agnes, who suffers from one of those stage-and-screen-only mental illnesses that cause you to speak in meaningless but clever-sounding blurts, is found with a dead newborn and covered in blood.  The government finds the most disturbed psychologist in Canada and sends her to the convent where the murder suspect has been allowed to stay.  Once there, she spends most of her time verbally sparing with cute-and-crotchety Mother Superior until everyone forgets the point and the film just ends.

Agnes of God could have been an enlightening look at spirituality, or a psychological character study of three troubled people, or an engaging mystery.  It sets up all three, and then chooses none.  It undercuts any hard statements on religion by focusing on the failings of the individuals.  It says nothing about the minds of the characters except that they are messed up (and even pulls back on that).  And the mystery only has one suspect and it never even bothers to answer all of the who-done-its.

The basics: Sister Agnes, who is a loony of the first order, has a baby without any knowledge of sex nor with access to a man.  That baby ends up dead without there ever being doubt that she killed it.  Mother Miriam’s answer, and the film’s, is clear about ten minutes in: God is the father.  Yes, it’s virgin birth time.  Miracles are still happening, but only to people who’s minds have been purified of thought.  And where does the momentous event of a second son of God and its death lead us?  Strangely, nowhere.  Once Agnes of God has established that miracles happen, it drops all consequences.  If I were writing a script, and I killed off the new Christ as an infant, I’d…oh, I don’t know…maybe have that MEAN SOMETHING.  But not here.

The Catholic Church does get a beating, but only the kind that shows that deep down it’s really swell.  Demonstrating its hip modernism, the film points out failings in the church, such as The Inquisition, and nuns in the past blaming the death of a child on her not saying her prayers.  It then smiles and pats religion on the head, noting that such events were due to a few stupid people, and hey, what’cha going to do about people anyway?  From time to time, atheist Dr. Livingston makes some screeching attack on Christianity, but seldom do her comments have any real bite and are easily ignored because she’s a bitter neurotic.  I’ve seldom seen a movie put more effort in to pointing out that someone is screwed up, down to little things, such as her cigarette addiction being rammed in our faces.  You see, she isn’t an atheist because of well thought out arguments or just never having a reason to join a church.  Oh no.  She (like all atheists as that’s what she represents) has taken her stance purely because she was hurt.  Her mother is an institutionalized bitch who liked her other daughter better and that sister (in both senses) died in a convent.  And yes, our good doctor was envious of that dead nun (but don’t look for any reason as this is all just dumped in the film; I was waiting for someone to walk by and say, “Hey doc, how is your heroine problem?  See you later,” and then exit the picture).  Plus, because we need more, the doc had an abortion when she was younger and God has punished her by making her barren.  So any religious comment she makes is prefixed with: “Because I’m an emotionally stunted Church-hater who has no ability to look at the situation rationally, I will now say…”  It doesn’t make for a meaningful debate.

Not that there should be any discussion of religion between these characters anyway.  I could be wrong, but I bet that most court appointed psychologists do their job.  This one doesn’t.  She plays amateur sleuth and goes after Agnes like she’s looking for some hot, lesbian nun-sex.  When not drooling over the young saint-to-be, she’s bickering with the mother superior instead of tending to minor issues like: Is Agnes crazy?  Maybe the doctor is just tired from all her histrionics.  Yelling and accusation is her normal form for conversation, which has got to be exhausting.  In this she’s joined by Mother Ruth who can’t go more than a minute before making an overly-loud recrimination.  These two need some hefty sedatives.

While everyone’s words are cast into doubt (Livingston is twisted, Ruth is devious, and Agnes is crackers), it is Agnes we’re meant to believe when the credits roll.  She’s a pure mystic who’s mind and body have been touched by God.  When she says her dead and sadistic mother is watching her, don’t try and find a symbolic meaning.  She is the light and the way, and it only required being abused as a child and kept mentally underdeveloped to reach this state.

Which of the confused and always equivocated messages is the most troubling?  That someone only gives up religion because they are angry?  That truth is best found in insanity?  That complete ignorance (the young nuns are both confused and ashamed by menstruation) is a positive life choice?  Or that God can do horrible things, but that’s OK because he’s God so don’t think about it?  For this site, it’s the first, but all should make you shiver.

I may dislike the position of The Passion of the Christ, but I have to respect its lack of ambiguity.  Agnes of God doesn’t have the courage to stick with its convictions.  It proclaims its themes, and then meekly murmurs that it might be wrong.  It allows for, but does not support, a realist answer to what happened to Agnes (without filling in the most important blank).  Anyone who wants to ignore the Christian implications of the film can, but will find in that case, there isn’t much of a story.

The Seventh Seal

Antonius Block, a disillusioned knight, and Jöns, his squire, return to Sweden from the crusades, to find a land of fear, ignorance, and fanatical religion, as the black death decimates the population.  When Death comes for the knight, he challenges the black robed figure to a game of chess, to delay the inevitable.  During a break in the game, Block meets Jof and Mia, and offers to escort them to his castle.  Their party grows to include a simple blacksmith, his runaway wife, and a seemingly mute girl, with Death always nearby.

Bergman’s masterpiece has withstood its key moments becoming cultural  icons (read: clichés) as well as numerous parodies, remaining one of the most powerful works ever put on film.  Thoughtful, engaging, and emotionally complex, this is what cinema is all about.  An old fashioned allegory, without old fashioned ideas, The Seventh Seal asks: how do we live in a world devoid of God?  And it answers: very well indeed, for a very few.  For the rest, believers and skeptics alike, there is suffering.

After ten years of pointless warfare on behalf of The Church, Block has lost his faith, but not his need for it.  The empty belief of the blind is no longer enough for him.  He’s seen too much, and not enough of the supposed works of God: “Why must he always hide behind unseen miracles, vague promises, and hints about eternity?”  He wants knowledge of God, but he’s been in enough churches, and gone to the Holy Land, and has no place left to look.  He is now just a tired observer of life, anguishing over the idea that it may all be meaningless.

Jöns, on the other hand, revels in the meaninglessness.  He is the intellectual voice of the film; the one who understands the universe.  There is no afterlife, and there is no magical old man in the sky.  There is life, and that should be enough for anyone.  In the end, Block whines and pleads before Death, while Jöns stands boldly.  He jokes and laughs and insults what he sees, but like his master, he’s tired, and seen too much suffering to be happy.

The people they meet tend to be either ignorant and vicious, or ignorant and thoughtless, which makes them act cruelly.  The world of man is not a nice place.  Raval, an ex-man of the cloth who persuaded Block to go on the Crusade, now robs the dead, is capable of murder, and abuses a man in an inn with fire and a knife.  The crowd’s reaction is to laugh at the man’s pain.

The exception is Jof and  Mia, traveling performers who believe in Heaven and Hell, but don’t put much thought into what it all means.  Jof claims to have visions, though except for the figure of Death, they are likely to be nothing more than products of his imagination.  Real or not, it doesn’t matter since they have no influence over the pair, but are just something else pretty to look at.  Visions don’t supply meaning any more than the teachings of the church.  The couple enjoy each other and their young son, and a warm spring day, and in that, Bergman says, is the answer to all life’s questions.  It is no accident that they are named Jof and Mia (Joseph and Mary), but they are not images of Jesus’ parents.  Just the opposite.  They suggest a replacement for religion.  The only peace Block can find is an hour sitting with them, eating wild strawberries and drinking fresh milk.  But it isn’t a peace he can hold onto.  He wants more then everything you could ask for, and of course, he doesn’t find it.

The Church is monumentally unhelpful to Block, or the citizens dying or in fear of death.  flagellants scream and moan and wave their whips, but God doesn’t respond.  Huge crosses with ghastly twisted Christs are carried through the muddy streets, and the plague continues.  The priest yells that all will die, which is the closest thing to truth he ever says.  Block ignores them and Jöns comments on how ridiculous it is for The Church to think that anyone would believe such rubbish in this modern day.  Unfortunately, more believe than don’t.  It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with religion that a poor deranged girl is blamed for bringing death down on the world, and she is tortured as a witch and taken to be burned.  Block, hoping that there is some truth to it, asks the girl where the Devil is, because the Devil would know about God.  Of course, she knows nothing.  There is no God, and there is no Devil.

However, there is Death.  He’s not particularly frightening, nor is he kind.  But then we’ve already seen the world isn’t kind, and disease certainly isn’t, so why should Death be pleasant?  He is approachable, and willing to chat.  He can’t be put off forever, nor can he be fooled (Block thinks he has done a good deed in letting a couple escape while Death was busy with the game, but they avoided death by simply staying out of a plague-filled castle).  Death is the lone supernatural entity of the story.  Block is sure that he must have secrets and know God, but Death makes it clear it’s not the case.  Death has no reason, and no master.  He simply is.

For insight into the working of modern religions, you need go no further than Jöns conversation with a church painter, who is creating images of death and pain at the request of the local priest:

Painter: Why should one always make people happy? It might be a good idea to scare them once in a while.
Jöns: Then they’ll close their eyes and refuse to look.
Painter: They’ll look. A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.
Jöns: If you do scare them…
Painter: Then they think.
Jöns: And then?
Painter: They’ll become more scared.
Jöns: And fall into the arms of the priest.

But a skull isn’t more interesting than a naked woman.  And with that woman (or a naked man), and some strawberries, and green grass on a hillside, you can find something far better than any god.  Bergman’s view on what gives life meaning may be anti-intellectual, but it’s hard to argue with.

School of the Holy Beast

Smart, determined, and sexually liberated Maya Takigawa has one last fling, and then becomes a nun.  At St. Clore abby, she finds repression and punishment, hypocrisy, lesbian trysts, and mysterious that have been hidden for eighteen years.  None of this dissuades Maya, because she didn’t join to serve God, but to find answers about her life, and her mother’s.

One of the most beautiful and most blasphemous films ever made, School of the Holy Beast is a fundamentalist’s nightmare.  Lovingly rendered with great artistry, there is hardly a moment that doesn’t have something to offend devout Christians, and because it is so expertly made, it is difficult to dismiss.

Generally it is lumped into the “Nunsploitation” genre, a grouping of films primarily made in Europe in the 1970s and ’80s that involved sex and violence inside a convent.  They tended to be period pieces and almost always had scenes of lesbian encounters, flagellation, and demon possession.  But shoving School of the Holy Beast into this niche is like saying The African Queen is a “boat movie” and Schindler’s List is a “war picture”; it is accurate, but doesn’t tell the whole story.  Yes, it has some amorous nuns and whipping scenes of various sorts, but the aim is higher than mild eroticism, or even criticism of church power and sexual repression (don’t take that to mean the stimulating moments and the accusations of hypocrisy aren’t relevant and part of the package).  But two larger themes stand out.  First is the non-existence of God.  Underlying every second of the movie is the utter absence of God in the world.  It is spelled out by the priest, who notes that God wasn’t there when the bomb incinerated the people of Nagasaki, nor was He present in Auschwitz.  All of the actions of the church are hollow because no one is listening or watching.  Second, it is human action, decision, and will that count.  It is humanity that fills the perceived void in the universe where some think a god sits.  Maya represents a new order where superstitions are unnecessary.  She never bows to any divinity and gives no respect to its followers.  She is able to take care of herself, is unburdened by religion-induced shame, and willing to act.  She isn’t entirely noble and is filled with hatred, but what do you expect from the human race?  At the end, even her vilest opponent recognizes her as the true “God.”

So, there’s plenty of hefty concepts here, but this is no philosophy lecture.  It is quick moving, entertaining, and shocking.  Even ardent atheists will find things that will induce gasps.  Torture is prevalent, and not meekly presented or off camera.  Bloody beatings are common.  In a scene that won’t be reproduced in any mainstream film, a nun is forced to undergo a test of her love for Jesus that involves salt water and urine.  Plus there are multiple rapes, some presented as positive social acts.

Which points out that this isn’t a Western movie.  It is very Japanese, and so, has very different sensibilities.  It is not sexist, although at least one of the rapes would label it so if it were made in the U.S.  (Maya is a startlingly liberated character, particularly when you consider the dominance of males in Japanese society as well as the  weakness of the average female character in Hollywood films of the early ’70s.)  But this isn’t the U.S., and the attitudes toward sex and punishment are not what the typical person from Peoria has grown up with.  The attitudes toward religion would be even stranger to that Midwesterner.  As Japan has so many religions, no particular one is out of bounds for criticism, and it is acceptable to denigrate the whole concept.  Additionally, like much of Japanese art made by those who were alive in the ’40s, the devastation of the two nuclear bombs is clearly felt both in the story and in the style.  Is it snow that falls on Christmas or ash?  A Japanese citizen watching this in 1974 would have thought of Nagasaki as a Catholic city, as it held the most Christian churches in Japan, and is where the missionaries lived.  The irony that Western forces blew up a Western religion would not have been lost upon the viewer.

While School of the Holy Beast isn’t for everyone, no one will find anything to complain about with regard to the cinematography.  The rich colors are dazzling.  The high contrast shading gives the picture an unreal feeling, which become more pronounced as the film progresses.  In the most famous scene, Maya is bound topless with rose vines and beaten in slow motion with bouquets of the flowers, the thorns ripping into her flesh.  The camera focuses on each pedal that flies off and follows a drop of blood as it flows across a vine.   If torture can be art, this is it.  Legendary cult director Norifumi Suzuki creates almost as impressive a moment when the nuns, now revealed to be carrying out empty rituals, walk to Christmas mass, the unreal snow and other-world lighting placing them in a snow dome.  Although those are the images that stick with you, Suzuki’s greatest talent may be his ability to show off the astonishing beauty of his young star, Yumi Takigawa.  He captures the intensity in her expressions while basking in the gentleness of her eyes.

School of the Holy Beast is an experience.  Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.  Unless you speak Japanese (and if so, please drop me a line if you’ve seen the film as I’d love to hear your take on the translations), you will have to deal with subtitles.  There are at least two versions.  I can’t say which is more accurate, but they are different in more than the choice of a phrase, although no plot points or themes are changed.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Unpleasant, fundamentalist Christian Sergeant Howie arrives on Summerisle to investigate a report of a missing girl.  He bullies, threatens, and mocks the locals like…well…like a fundamentalist Christian.  As the residents turn out to be pagans, Howie insults their religion (to the extent of violating their graves), and assumes they are all lying—hiding the truth about the girl he thinks died in some “heathen” ritual.  He gets little help from the Lord of the island, who assures him that no one would kill a girl as they are all religious people.  He turns aside the amoral advances of the tavern wench, committing himself to finding the girl, and making Christians safe from ever meeting anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

There’s no question that The Wicker Man is making a strong statement, but it isn’t clear to many viewers what that statement is.  Is it an attack against Christianity?  Against all religion?  Or against fanaticism?  It’s no surprise that there is such disagreement over a film that some, particularly its distributors, hold to be horror, while other think it’s a mod thriller, a gothic mystery, or a pagan musical.

Much of the confusion comes from the ending.  How you interpret the picture depends on if you think what happens is bad or good (at least symbolically).  If bad, then The Wicker Man might just barely fall into the horror category.  But that outlook brings up all kinds of problems, with major portions of the film playing emotional havoc with the viewer.  It requires Howie to be a hero (even though he’s drawn as a narrow minded idiot who would harm everything he touched if he had the power), while turning Lord Summerisle (the kindly, though scheming puppet master) along with the beautiful Willow and thoughtful Miss Ross, into villains.  It just won’t work.  Howie is the villain, and if Lord Summerisle isn’t your typical hero, well, who said every flick had to have a hero?  Those who find this to be horror are blinded by convention.  Normally, in paint-by-numbers Hollywood, the events in this picture would only be found in something that was clearly horror.  But this isn’t a standard film (which is why the distributors had so much trouble figuring what to do with it, eventually sticking it on the sad end of a horror double feature and tossing it out to drive-ins).  I’m not even sure it’s a drama.  I could make a reasonable argument for calling it a philosophical dark comedy (with an emphasis on “dark”).  A majority of Summerisle’s lines are closer to Wilde than to king:

Howie: Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests… and children dancing naked!
Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Howie: But they are… are naked!
Summerisle: Well, naturally. It’s much too dangerous to jump through fire with their clothes on.

You can’t argue with that.  Much of the film is built around Howie’s fish-out-of-holy-water reactions, many of which are good for a laugh.

As for the philosophical part, there are many comparisons between Christianity and paganism, with Christianity looking like a rebranding of older beliefs.  As for how they cause their believers to act, paganism comes out ahead.  The pagans are happy, loving, and sensual, with little concern with what others think.  Christianity, via Howie (and I’ve known so many Howie’s), is nasty, brutish, and deeply involved with forcing others to behave the way it dictates.  If you’ve got to choose one, than go pagan.  Lord Summerisle makes it clear when asked about Jesus, “the one true god”:

He’s dead. Can’t complain; had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.

But The Wicker Man is more complex than that, and isn’t suggesting a choice.  Sure, Christianity is a mess, but paganism, which is really so similar, is also troubled.  Its presentation here echoes Marx: it is the opiate of the masses.  It encourages the islanders to work, but there is no indication that it is true.  Summerisle, the only unequivocally clever person in the film, is most likely an atheist, using the religion to control his people.  Like it has many times in history, it works.  Religion is quite effective if its focus is small.  But, it’s never free.  When you create a lie, and use it to emotionally manipulate others to behave as desired, somewhere there’s going to be problems.  The problems with Christianity pop up over and over in our politics, in our society, and even in our education.  The problems with this brand of paganism appear pretty blatantly in the later part of the film.  But there’s more than that.  Without good luck, the generally pleasant pagan religion could turn permanently vicious.  Howie suggests that this will happen soon, but he is biased.  However, it seems inevitable somewhere down the line.  Even with the advantages of a happy, vibrant, free society, the cost of any religion is too high.

When not looking at the folly of religion, The Wicker Man entertains with bawdy jokes, nude dances, and a lot of music (some of which, like the bar song, are wonderful, while others, like the ’70s-based folk tune “Corn Rigs,” are badly dated).  Edward Woodward is superb as Howie, making him someone you can hate almost as soon as you meet him.  Christopher Lee also shines in a role that deviates from his Hammer Horror monsters .  For a change, he gets to smile and display his charm.  Lee has called this is best film, and I wouldn’t disagree.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a film that’s been treated well.  It was harshly cut before it was released, and all of the original negatives were then destroyed.  It was subsequently chopped again for American distribution, and for a time, this shortened version was the only one that could be seen.  A print of the longer cut was discovered, so now there are three versions (the third mostly matches the longer cut, but is missing some scenes at the beginning).  Luckily, in any version, this is a powerful film that should have atheists cheering.

War of the Worlds (1953)

Aliens, who may or may not be from Mars, but certainly haven’t accepted Jesus as their personal savior, invade Earth.  Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist, and therefore of no real use, escapes death by heat beam along with Sylvia Van Buren, a women—ergo her only ability is screaming.  With the destruction of the Earth at hand, our heroes join the righteous in church, and God saves the day.

Thank God for…well, God.  Only God can save us from things that he created and allowed to…  Wait.  Forget that last part.  After seeing War of the Worlds, I really don’t want to piss him off.

So where was I?  Oh yes, praising God.  And the best way to do that is to leave everything to him.  In times of greatest peril, don’t do anything.  Don’t take action and certainly don’t think.  Just go to church.  God will save you.  OK, so he doesn’t save most people, lets the world get overrun, civilization torn down, and people killed by the millions.  But eventually, after his coffee break, God saves the day.  I’m sure he had his reasons for waiting.

George Pal, the Michael Bay of his day, put the “pretty” in science fiction.  If he could blow something up, it was blown.  And in his film, based on the title of H.G. Wells’s classic novel, Pal made a bright, shiny, sci-fi spectacular long before George Lucas.  That man could make a cool alien ship.  With their graceful swan necks—complete with sputtering heat ray—and gently curved wings, no film vehicle has ever looked as good.  And the sound effects for the weapons are pure genius (and have been “borrowed” recently for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).  For a Saturday afternoon popcorn movie, it doesn’t get much better than this.  Plus, watching it should count as your weekly trip to church.

As for the story and theme, I’d say Pal ripped the heart out of Wells’s book, but that implies he had ever come near it.  The film’s plot has little connection to the one found in the book, and all of the social criticism is missing.  Did he even read War of the Worlds?  It’s more like someone gave him a three minute synopsis on a plane between mouthfuls of peanuts.  Unfortunately, in that synopsis was the quote:

And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

Pal, a literal-minded kind of guy, apparently missed that Wells, an avowed atheist, was not praising the Lord for saving the day, but was making an ironic statement about the toppling of the mighty by the weak.  But hey, watch Pal’s films and it is clear that irony is above him.  I wonder if he had instead heard the line “But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power” what kind of movie he might have made.

Now I’ve always wondered why, if God was so wise, he didn’t come up with a way to beat the Martians that didn’t allow a good portion of the world to be destroyed.  Planting something nasty on our planet that has caused so much pain, just so that it could stop an invasion many millions of years later (oops, sorry, make that four thousand years) is both unnecessarily cruel and complex.

But it sure does look cool.