Fright Club: Zealots

Horror films have long told the story of religious zealots, usually of the Black Mass variety – The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Sheitan (2006), Starry Eyes (2014), Rosemary’s Baby (1968). We decided not to look to the cloaked, horned Satanists and instead, examine religious zealots of a different flavor. Here are our favorites.

5. Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith’s first foray into horror is perhaps his very strongest and least seen film. Red State is an underrated gem. Deceptively straightforward, Smith’s tale of a small, violently devout cult taken to using the internet to trap “homos and fornicators” for ritualistic murder cuts deeper than you might expect. Not simply satisfied with liberal finger wagging, Smith’s film leaves no character burdened by innocence.

The usually stellar Melissa Leo chews more scenery than need be as a devoted apostle, but pastor Abin Cooper spellbinds as delivered to us by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks. Never a false note, never a clichéd moment, Parks’s performance fuels the entire picture.

There’s enough creepiness involved to call this a horror film, but truth be told, by about the midway point it turns to corrupt government action flick, with slightly lesser results. Still, the dialogue is surprisingly smart, and the cast brims with rock solid character actors, including John Goodman, Stephen Root, and Kevin Pollak.

Smith said at the time: “I think we have something. It’s creepy and very finger-on-the-pulse and very much about America.”

We agree.

4. The Wicker Man (1973)

In the early Seventies, Robin Hardy created a film that fed on the period’s hippie versus straight hysteria.

Uptight Brit constable Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the private island Summerisle investigating charges of a missing child. His sleuthing leads him into a pagan world incompatible with his sternly Christian point of view.

The deftly crafted moral ambiguity of the picture keeps the audience off kilter. Surely we aren’t to root for these heathens, with their nudey business right out in the open? But how can we side with the self-righteous prig Howie?

Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the ever glorious Christopher Lee. Oh, that saucy baritone!

The film is hardly a horror movie at all – more of a subversive comedy of sorts – until the final reel or so. Starting with the creepy animal masks (that would become pretty popular in the genre a few decades later), then the parade, and then the finale, things take quite a creepy turn leading to what is still a very powerful climax.

3. Kill List (2011)

Never has the line “thank you” had a weirder effect than in the genre bending adventure Kill List.

Hitman Jay (a volcanic Neil Maskell) is wary to take another job after the botched Kiev assignment, but his bank account is empty and his wife Shel (an also eruptive MyAnna Buring) has become vocally impatient about carrying the financial load. But this new gig proves to be seriously weird.

Without ever losing that gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities. (The often impenetrable accents don’t exactly help with this sleuthing). The “What the hell is happening?” response to a film is rarely this satisfying.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

2. Martyrs (2008)

This import plays like three separate films: orphanage ghost story, suburban revenge fantasy, and medical experimentation horror flick. The whole is a brutal tale that is hard to watch, hard to turn away from, and worth the effort.

Mining the heartbreaking loneliness of abandoned, damaged children, the film follows the profound relationship between torture survivor Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and the only friend she will ever have, an undeterrably loving Anna (Morjana Alaoui).

Constantly subverting expectations, including those immediately felt for Anna’s love, writer/director Pascal Laugier makes a series of sharp turns, but he throws unforgettable images at you periodically, and your affection for the leads keeps you breathlessly engaged.

The proceedings are tough to stomach, but well-conceived and skillfully executed. It holds some gruesome imagery, and though the climax may not be pleasing, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

1. Frailty (2001)

Director Bill Paxton stars as a widowed, country dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.

Flash forward and we’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.

Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity of whether this man is insane, and his therefore good hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys, or is he really chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God? The film upends everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if it’s challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.

Paxton crafts a morbidly compelling tale free from irony, sarcasm, or judgment and full of darkly sympathetic characters. It’s a surprisingly strong feature directorial debut from a guy who once played a giant talking turd.

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

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