The Halfway House

It’s a beautiful day to go jogging, unless (cue sinister music), you happen to be a cute girl passing a halfway house that’s got a monster in the basement.  Then, it’s not so nice, since you’re going to get abducted, stripped to your panties, chained down, and devoured.  Enter Larissa Morgan, a tough chick who’s not going to sit still as the police do nothing about her lost sis.  She goes undercover as a troubled girl.  Well, she shouldn’t have too many problems, only the sadistic nun, the spank-happy priest, the peeping handyman, the vicious lesbian gang, and the adoring lesbian “virgin.”  Oh, yes, let’s not forget the monster, the Necronomicon, and the possible end of the world.

It’s late night in the ’80s again, with this joyful homage to every type of exploitation cinema you can shake a tentacle at.  We’ve got nunspoitation, women in prison, splatter, rubber suit/puppet monsters, soft core (with a hefty dose of lesbian petting), S&M, school girls, and Lovecraftian Horror.  Any fan of non-mainstream film will find something to love.  Any fan of well made movies will find something to tolerate.  Yes, tolerate.

The Halfway House‘s low budget is evident, in the smack you on the head with a brick wrapped in green paper that reads “low budget” kind of evident.  Another $10,000 could have paid for a script doctor to give the first and second acts a once-over (and I’d have done it for less).  A few more dollars might have added another day or two to the shooting schedule, so the setups could have been more professional and the camera movements better planned.  Oh, and while I’m spending, lets pay a second script doctor to work on the first act dialog.  It’s pretty painful early on.  However, the lines improve toward the end when jokes are more prevalent, and poorly conceived mean-cop talk takes a backseat to, “You can’t destroy the world for your own selfish reasons.”  Now that’s horror-comedy dialog!

So, it’s not as good as it could have been, but there’s too much high quality schlock (dwell on that phrase for a while) to worry about what might have been.  One excellent use of the too limited cash was procuring the services of Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000, Eating Raoul).  A funny, sexy, and indescribably quirky cult marvel in the ’70s, she’s changed little with the years.  Woronov is an old hand at psychotically stern characters (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), and Sister Cecelia is one of her best.  Here’s cruelty that will make you smile.

The monster is all plastic and waving rubber on strings, but it has a certain charm to it.  And he’s a critter derived from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which means he’s beyond the understanding of mere mortals, so who am I to say he looks silly?  The whole Lovecraftian plot is tacked on (our heroes accept that there are ancient gods ready to smoosh mankind quicker than the last teen style changed, which would have been fine if the humor had been played up), but who doesn’t love an emerging Old One.  It might be an awkward fit, but it works.

Since there are ancient dread gods running around, the Christian god is absent, which is amusing for a film set in a Catholic halfway house for troubled girls.  Of course there’s no philosophical statement in that.  You just don’t find too many people willing to argue that Great Cthulhu really does wait, dreaming, on the ocean floor.  Too bad.  I’ve had enough debates with Christians.  I’m sure a Cthulhu cultist would bring a new angle to the discussion.  Oh well.

But The Halfway House does take a few potshots at modern religion.  The Church can be let off the hook for Sister Cecelia’s odd behavior (she’s had a … bad time), but not so for Father Fogerty, the priest who keeps a sex doll in his wardrobe and enjoys spanking the young girls on their bare behinds as he cries out “The power of Christ compels you!”  If only that had been the way the line was used in The Exorcist.  He’s foolish and obsessed, and fits beautifully as a representative of Christianity.  He doesn’t care about what is important, doesn’t protect those under his care, doesn’t understand the world around him, and abuses his power.  But that doesn’t make the Church evil so much as stupid; it isn’t to be feared, but laughed at.  When Fogerty finds a topless girl chained on the floor for sacrifice, his first concern is that the girl has been allowed out after bed time.  There are no serious attacks on religion, but plenty of comical ones.

The religious ridicule is just part of the fun, and less important to the film than the graphic and hilarious lesbian lube scene, or the girls’ group shower (watched by the perverted handyman), or the sudden decapitation during sex.  Yup, good old sex and violence take precedence over meaning, though not over comedy.  However, at times, The Halfway House is strangely prudish.  Each girl has her top and skirt removed before being left for the monster.  Why?  Does the monster dislike the taste of cloth?  I can buy that, but then why are their panties left on?  Different flavoring?  The girls should either be left dressed or completely naked.  I kept wondering if someone connected to this film was actually concerned with the rating.  It is simple.  Semi-naked girl left as a sacrifice: exploitive and gratuitous.  Naked girl left as a sacrifice: exploitive but non-gratuitous.  I like my exploitative elements to slide nicely into the narrative.

The Halfway House could have been a classic camp romp with a bit more care and money.  But I guess you take your spankings where you can get them.


V for Vendetta

Great Britain has gone all fascist, again, but don’t worry there is a creepy guy running around in a Guy Fawkes mask lecturing us on the importance of standing up for freedom.  Oh, he also is one heck of a knife fighter and knows how to blow stuff up real good.  Will he and his sidekick, a bald Queen Amidala, be able to defeat the evil Christian fascists or are the conservatives going to get all medieval on their arses?

This is an evil bad film!  Bad, bad, evil, dirty film.  No cookie for this film, no cookie in the least.  Shame, shame!  America and God: rah, rah, hooray!

Um, are the government guys looking anymore?  No?  Good.  Time to get on with the real review then.

So, how do you go about making a film that will tick off the Christian fundies?  If it were Islamic fundies you wanted to tick off, it would be easy: just make a hard-core gay bondage porn flick about the Prophet.  Blamo, you’ve got an instant fatwa on your head.  However, if you do that with Jesus, you get The Passion of the Christ, which apparently the fire and brimstone types love.  Weird.  I guess a different tact is needed.

To tick off the family values crowd, you could start by putting a conservative, openly Christian politician in a black Nazi uniform, replace the swastikas with crosses, and show him speaking to a crowd in a Hitlerian manner.  Then, in defiance of the fact that 1984 was, ostensibly, a warning against socialism and the left wing, make that politician a Big Brother style dictator.  You could make his thugs also be rapists and throw in a bit of priestly pedophilia.  You could sneak in some suggestions that the naked human form is a subject worthy of art and, even better, that homosexuals are people too.  If you can find a way to slip in a lesbian kiss here, you’re golden.  But, just in case that’s not enough, call the Koran “beautiful,” drop some unsubtle hints about how the Bush administration ignored warning signs before 9/11, and—as long as you don’t mind people thinking you’re part of the tinfoil-hat brigade—suggest that maybe the administration had something to do with 9/11.  If your born-again focus group isn’t foaming at the mouth by this point, have the Christian fascists refer repeatedly to the hero as a terrorist.  That should be worth an extra five feet or so of spittle distance.

Of course, were you to do all that and include a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask, you’d get sued by the makers of V for Vendetta for copyright infringement.

While this film gets all kinds of bonus points for engendering arch-con apoplexy, is it a good film? To be sure, it’s as spectacular a nugget of eye candy as you’d expect from producer Joel Silver and writers the Wachowski brothers (who also brought you The Matrix).  There is a good deal of stylish violence and spectacular landmark demolition.  There is a lot of good political and general philosophy here as well—governments derive their power by the consent of the governed, we are all a minority in some way, stare not too long into the abyss, etc.—but the film has an unfortunate tendency to lecture it rather than show it. As entertaining as a lecture by Hugo Weaving is, the man with the most interesting delivery this side of Christopher Walken, and how accurate the lecture is, it’s still going to be eye-roll inducing.

As for the rating, V for Vendetta scores a 4. The importance the film places in individual action, rather than waiting around for a god to do everything for you, is commendable.  The stance the film takes against conservative Christianity is excellent.  So, why not give the film a 5?  Well, for as against conservative Christianity as it is, it doesn’t come flat out and say there is no god.  It doesn’t claim that there is a god either, but it’s much more of an anti-intolerance work than an anti-theist one.  A film needs to be both to get that much coveted 5.


Village of the Damned

During a mysterious blackout in the city of Midwich, every woman of socially acceptable film age does the Mary, immaculate conception thing, and nine months later gives birth to a blond(e), bouncing, baby, alien/demon/communist.  Professor Zellaby, whose young hot wife popped out one of the eye-glowing Svengalis, is excited about the prospect of training these superior beings, when any normal man would have forgotten the kids in favor of the thirty-year-younger woman that sleeps next to him.  The government is keen to blow the children out of existence.  I suppose I should mention how somebody is proclaiming a love of Jesus or ranting against the existence of any number of gods, but no one in the village gives a…damn.  Puns.  Gotta love’em.

Village of the Damned never met a metaphor it didn’t like.  The messages: anti-communism, anti-conformity, the sexual revolution is changing society, the unreliability of men and the socio-economic stresses this places on single mothers, the growing rift between the generations, the blindness of science to political problems, the 50s view of the role of government, etc.  If there’s something you want to discuss, Village of the Damned covers it, and does it all with a slick, intimate, creepy, horror story.  Plus, it has George Sanders.  I can never get enough of George Sanders.

But you didn’t come to me to hear about how the children can be taken as representative of the cracks seen in nuclear families after World War II.  So, let’s talk blasphemy.

Village of the Damned is pretty mild stuff on the sacrilegious scale and, if released now, would be unlikely to distract the religious right from their unending struggle to save our children from witchcraft.  But in the late ’50s, U.S. film was in the grasp of God’s censors.  Each movie had to adhere to an idealized image of a Christian world, at least to the degree that the  Catholic Legion of Decently could figure out what the movie was about.  Without their diligence, children might see something other than Jesus, or hear a line that someone, somewhere, might interpret as varying from the Scriptures, and the wee ones’ fragile minds couldn’t take such conflict.

What in Village of the Damned upset the Catholic Legion of Decently and frightened MGM executives enough to have them sit on the script for three years, and then move the production to Britain, where people were slightly (just slightly) less insane?  The immaculate conceptions.  Not only did the film have all the women of “childbearing years” becoming mystically pregnant (not that we ever see them showing; apparently the sight of a pregnant woman was considered too shocking, again, for the children), but one of them was a virgin.  It seems that the only time anyone can mention impregnation without sex is in reference to the Virgin Mary, although I’m betting that anyone that holds this view isn’t having a whole lot of discussions about sex in any form.

Now I haven’t been taking that wild blasphemy very seriously, not when I’ve got School of the Holy Beast around (now there’s blasphemy you can sink your teeth into), but it isn’t entirely to be laughed off.  Consider, if one virgin birth can be given a sinister, and perhaps rational explanation, than maybe so can an earlier one.  That’s the sort of notion the Catholic Legion of Decency wanted to avoid, and I suppose, for people who had never thought about it (or much of anything else), that could be a kind of revelation.

Village of the Damned is a lot of fun, and a pivotal movie in the development of the horror genre, and you should see it for all the qualities I didn’t discuss here.  But isn’t it just a little more fun knowing that once upon a time, it pissed off the Catholic Legion of Decency.  I know it makes me feel warm inside.


The Wicker Man (2006)

Psychologically damaged policeman Edward Malus travels to the mysterious Summersisle in response to a note from his ex-fiancée.  It seems her daughter is missing, and she fears the feminist, pagan cult, to which she belongs, has kidnapped her.  Edward takes the obvious tact of falling through rotting barn floors, locking himself in a submerged crypt, and getting stung by bees in order to solve the crime.  Ah, it might not be clever detecting, but it does allow for something to happen in the otherwise dead second act of the film.  He also takes time out to have irrelevant dreams so that supernatural-looking events could get stuck in the trailer.  And then he beats up Leelee Sobieski, which sounds more interesting than it is.

It would be natural to start this review with some expletive that could express my shock at what a confused, boring, and meaningless disaster Neil LaBute has made of the brilliant 1973 The Wicker Man, but I wasn’t shocked.  I had a few moments of weakness, when I thought it was possible that a new take on the material could result in something interesting.  But who was I, or LaBute, kidding.  This project had Battlefield Earth written all over it.

LaBute, best known for In the Company of Men, removes the religious commentary in favor of his favorite topic: the war between the sexes.  But it goes nowhere.  Yes, the island society is a matriarchy, but we learn little about it, and nothing in the film compares and contrasts the behavior differences of the genders (unless Edward’s wild thrashing about is supposed to be representative of male action, and nasty smirking defines female life, in which case the film should be titled The Straw Man, not The Wicker Man). Outside of knowing glances and comments made in hostile tones, the cult women do nothing, and Sister Summersisles gets little screen time.  Gone are the religious debates between Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and the sanctimonious policeman.  In their place are a few moments of snarking.

Gone as well are the songs and sexuality that marked the original.  It’s just as well that no attempt was made to update the musical numbers (the thought of Leelee Sobieski barking out a hip hop seduction number sends shivers up my spine), but the nudity and free, gleeful attitudes of the pagans are sorely missed.  Besides being exceptionally entertaining, Britt Ekland dancing in the buff made the pagans sympathetic, and thus made for a complicated movie.  No such complications here.  These femi-pagans are unlikable from the start.

OK, so all the original’s themes are gone, as is its artistry.  There’s none of the interesting Christian vs. pagan moments and none of the titillation.  But does this The Wicker Man stand up on its own, as a different type of movie—a pure, mindlessly, popcorn-chomping, horror flick?  Not for a minute.  It doesn’t need a masterpiece for comparison to prove that it sucks.  It proves it all by itself, with every ridiculous scene.  It’s never frightening nor tense, unless you count some gratuitous jump scares: Edward falls through a floor for no reason; Edward is attacked but it turns out to be a dream.  There’s even the doubly annoying ‘fake scare, wake up, second fake scare, really wake up” routine.

Character’s change their behavior arbitrarily.  If you can make sense of either Edward or Sister Honey, you’re a better person than I, or you’re just better at self delusion.  You’d get more consistent personalities with a random dialog generator.  As for the all important twist ending that made the ’73 version so memorable, it is dropped on the table at the midway point.  There’s no surprise, and no shock.

You could make a game out of spotting the many plot threads that are left dangling.  The men on the island are mute and stay there in servitude because…?  There’s a woman with bees on her face because…?  The pilot, who had to be in on the plan or we’ve got yet another plot hole, is murdered because…?  Honey asks to be taken away because…?  Honey attacks Edward because…?  There are twins everywhere because…?  (This is part of the bee hive metaphor that goes nowhere.)  Edward doesn’t ask Willow who it is that is watching her or why because…?  Perhaps the most bothersome unanswered question is: what happened to the mother and daughter hit by the semi?  Was that supposed to be staged?  It isn’t possible with the information we’re given, but then what is the point of it and how is it connected to the pagans?

But there may be a second life to The “New” Wicker Man, as a comedy.  It was impossible to watch this film in a theater without hearing laughter that increased as the film went on.  By the time Cage is doing martial arts wearing bear feet (yes, that’s bear feet, not bare feet), there’s no sign left of anything serious.  This could become a new audience participation flick, where everyone comes in furry slippers and yells, “You bitch,” at the screen every time it’s appropriate, which makes it a few hundred times.

Lacking in plot, dialog, setting, concept, theme, sense, emotional impact, acting, and entertainment, LaBute’s The Wicker Man has nothing but unintentional hilarity.



Fenton Meiks shows up at the FBI office to tell the investigator that he knows that his brother is the God’s Hand Killer.  He then relates the strange events in his childhood which started when his otherwise sane and loving father wakes him and his brother in the middle of the night to tell them that he’s had a holy vision, and that he must now find demons, who look like people, and kill them.  While Fenton’s younger brother bought into their father’s delusions, Fenton knew better.

A horror film without any jump-scares, Frailty offers an unnerving brand of child abuse.    Dad is no mustache-wearing Machiavellian villain.  He’s a regular Joe who loves his kids, and who just happens to have heard the word of God and been given a mission to kill demons.  Naturally, he wants his kids to happily join in, since it is the word of God, and who wouldn’t want to do God’s will?  So, what is a loving parent to do when one of his children isn’t keen on following God’s orders and chopping people up with an axe?

First rate acting across the board—particularly from “Game-over man” Paxton as the Father with a problem and child actor Matt O’Leary as a son trying to find a way out—and reasonable production values for a mid-budget flick, support a fascinating script that asks some interesting questions about faith while exploring the darkness that religion can bring.   The atmosphere is here for some good midnight chills, but it is the questions and answers the movie suggests that will stick with you.

For much of the film, we watch the horrors that can be visited on a young boy (as well as on all those people who are getting their heads bashed in) by a father who means well.  Evil is rarely done by someone who thinks he is in the wrong, and watching the good man harm not only strangers, but his children, is a painful look into what’s happening all around us in society, but in less obvious ways.  Everyday, religious parents teach their children lies, tell them to ignore scientific truths and intelligent philosophy in favor of blind obedience to an inconstant God.  Often, the cruelty is restrained to fouling the minds of kids, but not always.  Deanna Laney stoned to death her eight and six-year-old sons and permanently injured her eighteen-month-old baby because she believed God wanted her to.  At least Frailty‘s Dad avoided killing his son.

But there is more on display than the hell-on-earth caused by religion in general and Christianity in particular.  Frailty asks: what if none of this has anything to do with insanity?  What if some kind of god does exist and he commands you to do something that you otherwise would see as wrong?  Of course, the Christian should go ahead and carry out the atrocity since right and wrong are determined by God.  The answer here is otherwise.  If there actually is a God, and he talks to you, run as fast and far as you can.  You may not be able to escape, but there is nothing else to do.  If God is looking down on us, the one thing we should all pray for is that he never does anything, never speaks to us, and that no one ever knows it, because he is one sick son-of-a-bitch.


Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius, a 5th level fighter, is given a wizard’s enchanted cloak, but an evil king wants the cloak for its power to create undead.  When he fails his saving throw, Demetrius is captured and sent to fight in the arena.  Such bloodsports would reduce his karma rating, so he refuses, till his best girl gets broken, then it’s slice and dice time.  His skill and ferocity make him a star, since the people can’t watch NFL football.  Like all pro-athletes, he takes to living the high life, with lots of alcohol and sleazy married woman.  But the wizard’s apprentice wants Demetrius back in their party (possibly to fight off goblins), and he’s got the magic cloak.

A sequel to the not-very-Biblical epic, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators is Christianity as high fantasy.  Of course there is a magic item, this time in bright red Technicolor.  Like all good fantasy heroes, Demetrius spends most of the movie in sword and sandals, killing for the thrill of it (not his thrill, or those in the coliseum, but for yours), and whoring it up.  Think Conan with a cross.  There’s plenty of empty Christian lecturing, but as  “Be good to your neighbor” makes for a boring film, it is dropped for most of the running time in favor of Saturday afternoon action.

While it merely sidesteps The Bible, it directly confronts history, decides it doesn’t like it much, and creates its own.  So, we get to learn exciting new history.  Did you know that Emperor Caligula was killed because he condemned a Christian gladiator?  You didn’t?  Well, no one else did either.  And, how about the historic moment when Claudius  OK’d Christianity in Rome?  Missed that?  So did every history book ever written.  But what is history when you’ve got sweaty men whapping each other?

Victor Mature was the obvious choice for the lead.  With his burly physique, leathery skin, curly black hair, and inability to act, he IS Arnold Schwarzenegger.  No one can make a line sound less real, or a situation less relevant than Mature.  But he does have muscles and knows how to wear armor with no pants.  Susan Hayward is your1950s, family-oriented version of a “loose woman,” that is, she’s wholesome.  Jay Robinson, however does know how to play a crazy man.  He’s deep into farce, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t entertaining.

Actually, much of the film is entertaining in a “wow, this is stupid” kind of way.  It’s bright and cheery with big sets and legions (hey, they were Roman) of extras.  The gladiator fights are exciting and it’s all played out to a dramatic soundtrack by Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman.   Only the preaching drags things down.  Luckily, this is a hypocritical film that wallows in violence, so it’s watchable.



And lo, the angel of the Lord did reveal himself to the Catholic-who-works-in-an-Abortion-Clinic and did charge her with a Holy Crusade.  “Go forth,” he did proclaim, “And stop the Angels Banishéd from achieving the Unmaking of the World.”  O!, her skepticism aboundeth, but she did sally forth upon her Divine Quest anyway.  Oh, and, since this is a Kevin Smith film, Jay and Silent Bob show up.

Before I write a review here at Film Atheist, I try and check out what the theists have to say about the film.  While this is usually tedious and annoying, there is the occasional unintended hilarity that makes it worth while.  Take, for example, the following excerpt from Steven D. Greydanus’s (in Decent Films Guide) look at the theological failings of Dogma, specifically its reference to God being female:

“…there are good theological reasons for using male pronouns and titles for God.  For example, the Bible speaks of the Church as the ‘Bride’ of Christ, and Christ himself is the ‘Bridegroom.’  The reality behind this symbolism is that God enters us and fills us with his life, and we become spiritually fruitful.”

Ummm… so, the Catholic God is male because He inserts His spiritual, and presumably sizable, God-schlong into us and fills us with His Holy Ejaculate?  Wow.  I believe I have just transcended to whole new celestial planes of “Ew!”

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes: Dogma.

Dogma is, first and foremost, a “Kevin Smith film.”  For those not familiar with the works of producer/director/writer/actor Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), a “Kevin Smith film” includes:

  • Funny, expletive heavy dialog
  • The state of New Jersey
  • Many gratuitous references to geek culture
  • Many references to drugs and sex
  • The characters Jay and Silent Bob

Now, I enjoy “Kevin Smith films.”  I am, after all, the target demographic: late 20s-early 30s, male, geek.  That said, I’m not going to claim that they are great cinema. They aren’t.  They are, however, amusing, and often that is enough.

Judging from Dogma, it’s possible that Kevin Smith has some issues with modern Catholicism.  Now, I’m not sure what tipped me off.  It could be that the plot involves a loophole in Catholic dogma that could destroy the world.  Maybe it was the fact that the woman who is going to save the world works at an abortion clinic.  I’m betting, though, it’s the 80 bazillion times one character or another launches into a description of his or her beefs with the Catholic Church.  Yeah, subtly is something that Dogma gave wedgies to in High School, and it’s a better film for it.

But, why does an amusing and blatant critique of modern Catholicism get an Atheist Rating of only 2?  Dogma wasn’t easy to rate.  It says so much that is good, points out so much that is bad, and does it all with an excellent sense of the ridiculous.  In the end, though, Dogma‘s problems with traditional Catholicism aren’t those of an atheist.  They are those of a liberal Christian.  For as much as it encourages people to think and play nicely with one another, it still promotes faith and the belief in a supernatural creator-being.  And so, the Atheism Rating being an Atheism Rating, it gets a 2.


Eye of the Devil

Philippe de Montfaucon returns to his ancestral home because of a failed harvest, telling his wife, Catherine, to stay in the city.  But she follows him because if she didn’t, it would be a very short movie.  Once there, she finds it necessary to have excessively long conversations with people who aren’t listening, until the climax, when she still has the conversations, but now shouts her side.  The community consists of sullen cultists (what good is a cult if it doesn’t make you happy?) that look to Philippe to save them in ways that are obvious to the viewer, but beyond the understanding of Catherine.  Granted, she must be distracted by the bizarre de Caray twins, who look exceptionally good in black and have obviously just returned from a beatnik poetry reading.  They have this tendency of attempting to kill Catherine, which even she blows off after Philippe tells her it’s just one of those local activities.  With her husband becoming progressively weirder, and the locals walking around in robes bought at “Satanists are Us,”  Chatherine sets out to slowly solve the mystery, long after we’ve figured it out and gone to buy popcorn.

Interesting primarily as a precursor to the far superior The Wicker Man, and as one of the few films starring the beautiful Sharon Tate (who was murdered by Charles Manson’s cult in 1969), Eye of the Devil waters-down its message, making it of little value.  It doesn’t have enough story for its short running time, and doesn’t bother to fill out its characters.  But the basic concept is strong, and there are signs of a good movie here, buried deep.

Perhaps the problem was in its difficult production.  Most of the film was completed with Kim Novak as Catherine, before an injury caused her to pull out.  All of her scenes had to be re-shot with Deborah Kerr.  It also went through numerous script changes while filming (with a complete change of writing staff), as well as four directors.  I certainly believe that a movie is a collaborative effort, but this is a little extreme.  At the last moment, the title was changed from the appropriate 13 to the one it currently bears.  The switch would have been reasonable if the film had anything to do with the Devil, or his eye, or anything metaphorically connected to either.  But it doesn’t.

Kerr is reasonably believable in the lead, but not compelling.  I never care that she is in danger or that spooky things are happening around her.  Since all the other characters were willing to let things play out, and aren’t acting as people anyway, but as broad, stage-type “creepy villains,” it is impossible to be invested in the story.  With the mystery obvious to anyone brighter than our current president, it becomes harder to put up with the pointless chatter which fills the picture.  Even the cinematography is sub par (although it varies greatly, probably due to the revolving directors), and is annoying when Catherine is locked in her room: as she attempts to break out, the frame rocks back and forth, as if the camera is mounted on a teeter-totter.

When all else fails in a movie, there’s still the theme.  Certainly, there was the opportunity to say something satisfying.  The “horrific” events in the pictures are a result of the beliefs of a group of Christians who see metaphoric truth in the twelve apostles standing by as Jesus died for our sins.  It would have been easy to point out the folly of faith, but the filmmakers try to escape criticism from Christians by implying that there is nothing wrong with standard religions—problems only come from weird pagan cults, no matter how much they turn out to be just another Christian sect.  Since I’m not aware of anyone advocating cults (even though the difference between a “cult” and standard churches is nothing more than numbers), it’s not much of a message.


Fire Serpent

Alien fire serpents, thrown off from the Sun, have been coming to Earth for thousands of years, inspiring Biblical tales of devils and angels.  The most recent one was captured by the U.S. government to use as a weapon, but since this is a really cheap movie, only three people and one stunt man were watching it, so it got away.  Now it’s killing people here and there, because that’s what alien fire serpents do.  Fireman Jake (who I’ll just call Zander) and ex-government scientist Dutch Fallon know the truth, but police chick Chris doesn’t believe them, because it’s a really stupid thing to believe.  Of course it isn’t that simple.  Nope.  You see Agent Cooke and his government assassins are hushing up everything.  Worse, Cooke has become a religious fanatic, and has is own plans.  He thinks the fire serpent is an angel, sent by God to cleanse the world with fire, and he’s going to help it do that.

More than proof of the existence, or lack there of, of God, Fire Serpent is proof that for some, there is no life after cult TV.  Nicholas Brendon helped fight the forces of evil on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for seven years.  Robert Beltran explored the Alpha Quadrant for an equal length of time on Star Trek: Voyager.  Now they’re stuck in low, low, low (did I say “low” enough?  Probably not) budget genre film land.  Still, what do they have to complain about?  I’m sure they’re getting paid more than me.

Fire Serpent is an inoffensive, mildly enjoyable (as in, you won’t mind having seen it if your other option was rearranging your sock drawer) sci-fi monster movie.  If you’re a pyromaniac, it will be your favorite movie since Backdraft.  I guess setting people on fire has become substantially less expensive in recent years.  It doesn’t enter new territory, but I did perk up when Agent Cooke began blurting out Biblical prophecies and calling on the angels to renew the planet with flame.  I’ve heard that kind of gibberish so often from evangelicals and it is always frightening.  Cooke is a pretty typical fanatic who just happens to have access to some nasty toys.

It’s got to make you think: Is it really safe for a fundamentalist Christian to have access to a nuclear weapon?  I don’t just mean the president, but the officers and everyone in-between.  Figure: we’re talking about people who are longing for the end of the world so they can join their beloved Jesus, and think that sinners (i.e. everyone who doesn’t join in on the chanting) deserves to be fried.  Plus, they don’t have to feel guilt or hesitation over their actions because it’s God’s will.  And doesn’t God seem to always need people to carry out his will?  I tend to think we’re safe from a fundie getting control of a flaming extraterrestrial, but there are a lot worse things already on Earth.

How would a fundamentalist react to an actual alien?  As there are tons of books written by fundies that explain how the pyramids were build under the influence of demons, and that UFO sightings can be explained as either the appearance of angels or of devils, I’ve got to bet that they would classify it as a member of the heavenly host or of the hordes of hell, depending on the appearance of the creature.  It is such a simple view of the Universe.

Fire Serpent isn’t particularly deep.  Nor interesting.  But it has a pretty accurate account of why fundies are scary people


The Da Vinci Code

A scholar in desperate need of a new shampoo, and a girl whose identity is obvious from the beginning, become prime suspects in a poorly executed murder, and due to the silliest clues imaginable, find themselves dealing with a religious mystery that could “shake the foundations…”  No.  That could “disrupt the basic…”  Nope, that’s not it either.  OK, how’s this: A mystery that could very mildly effect a few people.

That’s it?!  That’s what Christians around the world were protesting?  That sparked hunger strikes and death threats?  Of course none of those people bothered to see it before going insane.  The Da Vinci Code is an innocuous little thriller that’s just not all that thrilling.  It’s slow, it’s long.  And there’s very little to offend anyone who isn’t a mumbling zealot.

And that’s where it goes wrong.  The movie takes its time, pulls back on action, excitement, and emotional highs and lows, because it is counting on the shock value of the basic premise to carry the show.  And it would, if it was all that shocking.  If the film really bashed the viewers with something wild (think Texas Chain Saw Massacre), then it would be smart to keep everything else tame.  But don’t expect anything to blow your socks off.  Even Catholics who haven’t missed a mass in fifty years aren’t going to be traumatized.  For atheists, there’s nothing here.

For the six or seven of you out there who don’t know what the great religious secret is, well, I’m not going to tell you.  The movie would be minutely better if you went in without knowing.  But besides not being an overwhelming idea, The Da Vinci Code doesn’t even say that this twist is true.  It gives an out for every religious indictment.  Yes, it suggests something that goes against most Christian doctrine, but then it turns out to just be one group’s view and could be wrong.  There are some nasty folks within the Catholic hierarchy, but they are acting alone and are not backed by the Pope or Church teachings.  So, the story is just about two secret organizations that have been at odds for years over a minor difference in dogma.  Gosh, isn’t that original?

Which leaves us with the mystery procedural aspect.  Unfortunately, the film stumbles there as well.  Our heroes discover very little.  Most of the clues are fed to them (worse, as they are being told everything, Langdon, the symbol scholar, is agreeing or arguing, so he evidently knew it all before).  All that’s left is a prosaic treasure hunt.

“Luck” is the word of the day.  Or call it deus ex machina.  This is a film where people just happen to go to the one person in the world that will help the plot along, and where violent death is averted by the perfectly timed rustling of some pigeons; apparently some gunman are easily distracted.

It isn’t a complete mess.  It has a heavy-weight cast, and if few do their best work, these are still some pretty entertaining actors.  You may find pleasure in watching the unraveling of some of the puzzles.  The movie’s best moments belong to Paul Bettany as Silas, the albino assassin of the secretive Opus Dei order.  He’s one weird bastard, and should go on anyone’s list of someone you don’t want to be chased by in a major museum.

With such poor pacing and long length, attractive cinematography would have helped, but The Da Vinci Code is an ugly movie.  Many of the scenes look like they were shot with natural light.  The frame is often too dark, but occasionally it’s washed out.  It’s always grainy.  And we spend the entire film invading Hanks and Tautou’s personal space.  Hey, guys, pull the camera back!

The Da Vinci Code isn’t offensive to Christians.  Nor is it problematic for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Satanists, or atheists.  It isn’t much of anything.  If you are making a religious-themed film, you really ought to tick someone off (that is, with the actual content, not just with what fanatics are assuming the flick is like).