★ / ★★★★
When a family (Stephen Moyer, Mädchen Amick, Lily Collins) was attacked by hungry, eyeless vampires, Priest (Paul Bettany) disobeyed the church’s orders not to take action. The institution claimed that vampires were contained in the Wasteland and those who terrorized the family were not creatures of the night but simply lawless men. Hence, Priest should not concern himself. However, to Priest, the attack was personal because the girl in the family, Lucy, turned out to be his daughter. Based on the graphic novel by Min-Woo Hyung, “Priest,” written by Cory Goodman and directed by Scott Charles Stewart, was a humorless, uninspired video game. Like most role-playing video games, the main character started off on his own and teamed up with other warriors throughout his journey. One was Hicks (Cam Gigandet), a sheriff with a talent for throwing knives, who loved Lucy. The other was Priestess (Maggie Q), who was assigned to bring our protagonist, dead or alive, back to the church. But unlike an RPG game, the picture paid no focus to each character. We knew nothing about them except for the fact that they wanted to rescue the girl. Good intentions aside, the dialogue became redundant because their specific motivations lacked depth. But one of my main problems with the film was its universe being devoid of complexity. We knew someone was bad because they chopped off chickens’ heads; we knew someone was good if they had the slightest screen presence. The rest, like the buildings and people’s homes, looked grimy and one-dimensional. Humans cowered at the word “vampire.” Meanwhile, the vampires were somewhat interesting because they were portrayed as beasts. Other than Black Hat (Karl Urban), the leader who was half-human and half-vampire, the rest didn’t have the capability to speak. They were hungry and blood was what they were after. The CGI kept my lowest level of interest because of the way the ravenous vampires moved. They were bulky yet they moved quickly, eyeless but always seemed to know exactly where their target was located. But the CGI’s magic was transient. I wanted to know more about the war that was often referred to between the clergy and the vampires prior to the latter’s exile in the dreaded Wasteland. Due to a lack of background information, I didn’t understand why the Priests became rejects of society. After all, weren’t they the ones who protected mankind from becoming dinner? Sure, they were no longer useful after the vampires had been contained but, if you ask me, they should have given at least a glimmer of power and authority after the war. As a film, “Priest” lacked flow. If injected with key transitions and history, it would have been stronger. The action sequences were exciting but if we don’t feel the gravity of what they were fighting for, we just don’t care about the outcome.
Deliver Us from Evil (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Since the mid-1970s (and most likely years prior), Father Oliver O’Grady had been sexually molesting children that ranged from infants to pre-adolescents. The Catholic Church was well-aware of his sickness but instead of kicking him out of priesthood, the Church simply moved him from one area to another, which allowed him to molest other children when it could have been prevented. As the film went on, we had a chance to learn that O’Grady not only took advantage of hundreds of children but he also had sexual relations with some of their parents. I was raised Catholic so I understood the importance of the feelings the parents and the children, now adults, felt when they discovered that a person from the Church, an institution that they are willing to give their lives to for the sake of their god, committed the ultimate betrayal. I don’t consider myself belonging in a specific religious group, but when I saw the families being interviewed about how O’Grady ruined their lives, I could not help but imagine my own family and relatives in their shoes because it could easily have happened to any of us. The film made a smart decision to take the blame and the shame from O’Grady to the higher figures in the Church. It was a maddening experience because there was plenty of evidence regarding the Church’s attempt to protect the priests guilty of pedophilia. According to the statistics, the Church spent a billion dollars (and counting) to cover-up many families’ search for justice. To know that those people who are considered by the Catholic community to be the prime example of purity, to commit such acts is not only criminal but also immoral. If hell did exist, in my opinion, they are certainly deserving to go there. The higher folks in the hierarchy, indirectly involved as they may be, knew of the disease in their community, they had tools to prevent future crimes from happening, yet they chose the path of indifference with impunity. Written and directed by Amy Berg, “Deliver Us from Evil” was not simply about one religion or faith. It’s about human rights. Imagine if you’ve raped by a member of the police force and the government, designed to protect its people, turns a blind eye to the fact. I make the comparison because the film successfully showed that the Catholic Church functions like a government with its bureaucracies and failure to serve its people even in the most fundamental ways. This is a must-see film because popular culture makes a lot of jokes about priests molesting kids. A lot of people laugh off the issue but what about those who have to live with the experience and had not found some sort of closure? Do we dare laugh in their faces?
Rite, The (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), son of a mortician, decided to go to seminary school because his family could not afford a four-year college education. His plan was to send his resignation after four years because he had serious doubts about his faith. When he did, a concerned priest (Toby Jones) sent him to Rome to attend an exorcism class led by Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds). But this only increased Michael’s doubt as he brought up the questionable methods done by the Catholic church in terms of dealing with people who claimed to have been possessed. Avid in psychology, he claimed that demon possession had classic signs of known psychiatric disorders. Since seeing is supposedly believing, Father Xavier sent Michael to Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a practicing exorcist in Rome. Inspired by a true story and based on a book by Matt Baglio, “The Rite” took a more realistic path in tackling the issue of exorcism, a practice undoubtedly still happening today. It was great to watch because it wasn’t afraid to acknowledge how exorcism was portrayed in movies. As Father Lucas puts it, when it came to exorcism, people tend to expect “spinning heads and pea soup,” referencing William Friedkin’s horror classic “The Exorcist,” but that wasn’t reality. The reality was people would come in for multiple sessions and a priest would try to exorcise the demon by attempting to find its name and getting control of it. A certain level of the unexplained was there, such as the supposed possessed person knowing certain things about another, but an uncanny level of insight could potentially be explained via an observation of behavioral responses and first impressions. I liked its approach and I was fascinated. Even though I don’t necessarily believe in the devil, I wish the film had spent more time in the classroom because it elucidated and dispelled common myths about the practice. But the picture also had elements of the supernatural. As Michael got deeper into his experiences with Father Lucas, he began to experience horrifying possible hallucinations like a demon taking on a form of a mule and hearing his dead father’s voice on the phone. He also had dreams about the time he saw his father cleaning up after his mother’s corpse. Was Michael experiencing symptoms of a mental illness? Or were the hallucinations and nightmares triggered by guilt? Guilt of leaving his father, guilt of using the seminary school, and guilt of continuing to deny that what he had seen could be real. Directed by Mikael Håfström, “The Rite” wasn’t a typical film about exorcisms because it was willing to laugh at itself and its characters. Since it was more grounded in reality, when the supernatural was thrown at us, the scares and creepiness were all the more effective.
★★ / ★★★★
“Bakjwi” or “Thirst,” directed by Chan-wook Park, was about a priest (Kang-ho Song) who knowingly participated in a fatal experiment in order to help other people who might be infected with the disease in the future. Surely enough, the experiment killed him but he later returned from the dead as a blood thirsty vampire. I couldn’t quite enjoy this movie as a whole because it was very odd which, frankly, I did not expect. I thought it was going to be a pretty standard horror film about a vampire. Others may like the fact that the movie tried to pull off some comedy here and there but I found it to be very distracting. Maybe the humor was lost in translation because I’m not Korean so I didn’t think it was funny at all. I found the scenes with the family (Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin) to be very dull and redundant. And the whole “romance” between Song and Ok-bin Kim did not persuade me at all that they were “in love.” There were far too many–from what it felt like–obligatory sex scenes that didn’t quite move the story forward. As realistic as they were, they didn’t do anything for me; I was more interested with the scares that it had to offer. I wanted to know more about what it meant for the lead character to be a vampire and the struggles he had to go through since he chose to live by certain codes. One of the most important of those codes included not killing people because God saw it as a mortal sin. Did he, when stripped with religion, inherently thought it was wrong? After all, he was no longer a “normal” human. I didn’t really get my questions answered because the movie insisted on spending time with that annoying family. The priest was a very interesting character because I don’t know a lot of vampire characters who remain loyal to his religion after death. However, I very much enjoyed the last forty minutes because I finally felt that I was watching a film that was edgy, suspenseful and mysterious. I don’t want to spoil anything because I did not see certain things coming but the events that happened in the last third of the movie really fascinated me. I felt like the movie finally came alive especially the beautiful outdoor scenes. It had this mesmerizing glow that glued me to the screen. If only the level of filmmaking was the same as the last third of the picture, I would have given “Thirst” a recommendation. With a running time of about two hours and ten minutes, it certainly felt that long or maybe even longer.
Angels & Demons (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I enjoyed “Angels & Demons” more than “The Da Vinci Code” for several reasons. First is Ron Howard’s direction: In its prequel (even though, chronologically, “Angels & Demons” happened before “The Da Vinci Code” so it depends on how one looks at it), I felt that Howard was all over the place and missed some crucial information from Dan Brown’s novel. That is why the ending was not as powerful as it should have been. To me, the facinating locales were at the foreground instead of the story. It was so concerned with being so fast-paced that it almost sacrificed its emotions and the details that made the book such a page-turner. In here, the director has more focus and confidence when it comes to tackling certain scenes and some of them are downright impressive (whether it’s about thrills or visual effects). I also liked Tom Hanks a lot more here than I did in “The Da Vinci Code.” Aside from the absence of his ridiculous hair that distracted millions of audiences from the first film, I felt like Hanks is more comfortable as Robert Langdon–he has that certain intellectual swagger but he doesn’t take it too seriously. I have to admit that there were times when I forgot about Hanks playing a role; I was so interested in what was happening, trying to recall if the events that transpired in the novel were being accurately portrayed in the picture. I also liked the lack of chemistry between Hanks and Ayelet Zurer. As strange as that may sound, films have the tendency to attach a romantic angle to “spice things up” when they really do not need to. In fact, most of the time such romatic interests weigh the picture down so I was glad there was none of that nonsense in “Angels & Demons.” It’s really focused in Langdon’s quest to solve the mysteries that were unfolding in the Vatican. Lastly, I have to mention Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna. I’m not religious in any sense but the way he delivered some of his speeches were so powerful, I couldn’t help but have my eyes (as well as my ears) glued to the screen. He has a certain subtlety that is both charming and dangerous. Overall, “Angels & Demons” is a pretty entertaining summer blockbuster flick that really shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. It’s interesting to me how religious groups respond to these type of films. If they are so secure about their faith, films like this should not matter in any way. Its goal is to simply entertain and I think it achieved just that.
Exorcist, The (1973)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When I was younger, whenever I’d pretend to be an archeologist in the backyard, my mom would warn me about potentially digging up evil spirits. Knowing that dead people are buried in the Earth, of course I’d get scared and immediately stop digging holes in the ground and watch television or read a book instead. It recently occured to me that she referenced this film to invoke that fear of “evil spirits” (most Filipinos are superstitious). In any case, even though I don’t believe in God or the Devil (though I don’t reject the possibility of their existence; if I were to believe in a sort of “God” it wouldn’t be Jesus/Christ, it’ll be a general “higher power” in the universe), this film really got to me because it is so well-told and it is difficult for me to dispel the horrific images from my head after watching it. I’ve seen this movie about four times and it never fails to give me the creeps. I always find something new in it: whether it’s a demonic face popping up during the most intense scenes when a character would enter a dark room or something in the script that would hint that what we are watching is not a supernatural story but a hyperbole of a psychological disorder told through a medium who believes in demonic possessions.
This film has stood the test of time because science and faith (generally two opposing ideas) are fused so well, that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference because we’re so invested in the characters and our own questions of what’s really going on or what’s going to happen next. Ellen Burstyn is heartbreaking as the mother/actress who really loves her daughter (Linda Blair) but doesn’t know what to do when her daughter starts behaving strangely. One minute she’s strong and the next she’s vulnerable; some of her best scenes are her interactions with the priest/psychiatrist (Jason Miller) because she’s able to express what she’s really thinking and feeling. Linda Blair did a tremendous job as the possessed daughter. I still don’t know how she found it in herself to act like a demon. Most people say that the make-up did most of the work but if one were to look closely, it has nothing to do with the make-up. If one were to compare her early scenes where she was sweet and friendly to her later scenes where she was cussing and grimacing at other people’s misery, one should be able to conclude that she’s bringing something from within.
William Friedkin, the director, neatly (and organically) converged three stories: Burstyn’s plight to find a cure for her daughter’s illness, Miller’s relationship with his terminally ill mother, and Max von Sydow who is both a priest and an archeologist (who happens to dig up an ancient relic with the help of some locals in the first scene). The director is smart enough to highlight the duality of these characters: mother/actress, priest/psychiatrist, priest/archeologist, daughter/demon. And not just the duality in the characters but also the duality of “the” explanation: science/religion. Moreover, I have to say that this picture has the best use of lighting and use of color in any horror movie I have ever seen. I noticed that in the first third of the film, warm colors are often used like red, orange, and yellow. As the film’s subject matter got darker and more manacing (granted, the movie started off pretty dark), we get to see colder colors more often like blue and purple. As for the lighting, I love the scenes in the house when a character would be in self-denial (or lying to someone else) and how their faces, or parts of their faces, would be covered in darkness. Also, in the most intense scenes, it feels like something is always looming in the corner because of the way a certain object would project its shadows on the wall. Small things like that makes this film so special, worth discussing, and rewatching.
When people put “The Exorcist” at the top of their scariest horror films list, for me, it’s not a case of jumping on the bandwagon. It really is that scary due to its subject matter and its craft. There are a plethora of memorable scenes such as the spider walk sequence down the stairs, when the demon/Captain Howdy would try to find and take advantage of the priests’ weaknesses, Blair’s 360-degree head turns, Burstyn’s intense experiences when she enters dark rooms–all of it are effective because of both its shock value and (arguably) sense of realism. Despite one’s theology (or lack thereof), it’s difficult to dismiss this film because faith is not the only factor that drives it forward. If people are to stand back and look at the overall product, it’s really about our fears of the unknown–things of which that both religion and science combined are not enough to answer.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is no doubt in my mind that this film contained some of the best performances of the year. If Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep do not get nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, respectively, an injustice would’ve been done. I love how this film’s thesis was established during the first scene: how doubt can be as powerful as certainty. I have three stand-out scenes that I thought were exemplary: the feathers and their symbolism, Streep’s heartbreaking talk with Viola Davis, and Streep’s final confrontation with Hoffman. Out of those three scenes, I’d say the one with Davis is the most powerful because of all the implications. Issues such as the home, color of one’s skin, and one’s “nature”/embracing God’s gift are all mixed to justify a mother’s decision for her son’s safety as the son is put between a rock and a hard place. Even though Davis was only on screen for about fifteen minutes, she gave this film a certain force that is impossible to ignore. I will be immensely happy if she gets an Oscar nomination as well. As for the always great Amy Adams, she’s able to go toe-to-toe between Hoffman and Streep without sacrificing her charm. I think that takes a lot of effort and subtlety, especially when the other two are constantly on the verge of breakdown. One of the reasons why I admire this picture is its ability to conceal the truth. Most of the time, we do not know whether the priest molested an altar boy. By the end, most people have an idea (including the friend I saw it with), but I was still very doubtful. After all, Hoffman is up against a character who will do absolutely anything–even as far as to embrace a total lie (which is something that is totally against her faith)–just to prove that she is right. Sometimes, it’s wiser to turn the other way than to spend more time in the battlefield and experience more destruction. And let’s not forget a character’s shocking reaction right by the film’s ending (which most likely means more than one thing). The title of this film is “Doubt” and not “Certainty” which, in my opinion, ties in with the movie’s central thesis. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (including the play), this film is resonant because it has many implications and can generate strong discussions.