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Xmas Bash! Update: Art and Music!

November 20th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in xmas bash - (3 Comments)

The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is just over two weeks away! Don’t believe me?! Here’s proof:

The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!

Dec. 8, 2017
5 pm Mountain / 7 pm Eastern

That’s just over two weeks away!

Just visit this very site at the appointed time, and join in the fun! If you like, you can register on Facebook and it will handle the time zone calculations and send you a reminder. So you don’t forget. And it’s important that you don’t forget, because it’s going to be great!

I promised updates in the runup to the event, and updates are here!

– Firstly, check out the promotional art! This year it was drawn by friends of the website Adam Lore, Casey Roberson, and Mike Emeritz. Thanks guys! It’s incredible! And I hate the way Willie’s looking at me!

– Secondly, speaking of Adam Lore…the renaissance man will be debuting a brand new song, “The Interplanetary Christmas Tree,” featuring Dr. Airlines. (Yet another friend of the website!) This will be Adam’s fourth year providing an original Christmas song for the stream, and it’s a great one. I’m so excited to share it with you.

– Thirdly, speaking of returning faces…Mistress of Ceremonies Amanda will be back! She’s recording her parts as we speak, and I’m glad, because that will give you a welcome break from my ugly mug.

– Fourthly, speaking of returning faces…Illusionist Wes Iseli will be back! This is also Wes’ fourth year with the Bash!, and he’s excited, as always, to use his talents to help us raise some money for a great cause.

– Fifthly, speaking of new songs, which is something I mentioned a few bullets ago, I wrote a new song! You’ll have to suffer through that, too! I hate you!

– Sixthly, speaking of six, this year’s Xmas Bash! may run a little longer than usual. I’m putting it together bit by bit, and, frankly, I think we might hit six hours this year. Which means it will be the biggest and longest Xmas Bash! ever. And, y’know, for the fifth one…I think that’s fitting. We’ll see how it turns out in the edit!

Finally, seventhly, speaking of seven, you get the picture, there will be seven Christmas specials, as always. It’s just one of many traditions. But which specials? You’ll have to tune in to find out! Here are some hints, though…

Four of them are family shows.
Three of them are sitcoms.
Two of them are not live action.
One of them features talking animals.
Zero of them are Rich Little’s Christmas Carol.

Damn. Too many hints. NOW YOU GUESSED THEM ALL.

Remember. December 8. Tune in.

It’s a good one. Thanks for being a part of this, as always. It’s the single best night of the year, five years running.

I’ll open with the mandatory reminder to clear your calendars. Ahem:

The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!

Dec. 8, 2017
5 pm Mountain / 7 pm Eastern

Yes, the 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is coming soon. I’ve recorded my host segments, and the image above serves as a little teaser. What manner of shenanigans am I getting up to this year?!

I’ve also coordinated with a few other contributors, and will spend the next few weeks getting everything squared away for the December 8 event. I’m trying to host it a little earlier this year than usual, which may hopefully make it easier for folks who work retail or travel around the holiday to attend.

It’s going to be a great one, that I can promise you. I’ve unearthed some truly incredible Christmas music videos this time around, and I’ll be introducing you to seven more forgotten Christmas specials you’ll wish you never knew existed. It will be great!

One significant change this time around, though, is the charitable aspect.

In previous years, we’ve solicited donations for The Trevor Project. And, well, I certainly still encourage you to donate to that incredibly good cause. (Click here to do just that!) This time, though…we’re doing something a little different.

This year, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This came after extended periods of expensive testing, consultation, and unnecessary runaround. The diagnosis certainly helps doctors address the root of her problem, so that’s good news. But, as you can imagine, tumors don’t come cheap.

As a result, she’s in a real pinch financially. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve decided that I’d like to try to help her defray the cost of her treatment as much as possible. I’m not trying to take attention away from The Trevor Project…but I am trying to help somebody who truly deserves it.

That friend is Emily Suess. Longtime readers may know her, as she’s been a hugely supportive reader and fan from the very beginning of this site. She’s been to every Xmas Bash! so far, and she and her husband actually kicked off many of the running jokes that have become part of the tradition. (It was their suggestion that I died in the first stream…which led to me dying in every stream.)

What’s more, she’s the reason the Xmas Bash! ever had a charitable component to begin with. She’s the one who inspired me to solicit donations for The Trevor Project. She’s the one who helped me to turn it into something bigger (and more important) than a night of mocking bad television. And, frankly, had she not done that, I probably would have lost interest years ago.

It’s not a stretch to say that she’s the reason the Xmas Bash! exists as we know it today. And I would think it very fitting if the event could benefit her in her time of need.

Emily has a YouCaring page, through which she accepts donations directly. As ever, no money comes through me; everything collected through the page goes directly to her.

Please consider donating. I’ll be sharing that link throughout the night on December 8, but you’re welcome (and encouraged) to give early. Which means you won’t have to turn your attention away from “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (Gummibär Megamix)” during the stream.

Emily is a great human being. She’s been through so much, and now she’s suffering through so much more. She’s been a consistent source of light and support as long as I’ve known her, and I really hope we can help her stay afloat through this.

More (and happier) announcements to come as the Xmas Bash! approaches. Thanks for reading, thanks for your consideration, and, seriously, set aside December 8. It’s going to be the funniest night of the year.

It’s almost time!

The Xmas Bash! is coming!

The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!

Dec. 8, 2017
5 pm Mountain / 7 pm Eastern

What is the Xmas Bash!? Well, it’s a live stream curated by yours truly, featuring seven rightly forgotten Christmas specials of yesteryear, along with some Christmas music you’ll wish you never heard, vintage commercials, skits, special appearances, and other surprises. It’s a fantastic night, and the hardest you will laugh all year…owing mainly to the incredible group of folks in the chat room.

You can read all about the genesis and evolution of the Xmas Bash! right here, and you can listen to some of our musical interludes from the past to get a sense of what to expect.

In short, if you like trash TV, terrible movies, and half-naked gummy bears, this is the event for you. Don’t miss it!

I have lots more to announce in the coming weeks, but for now: mark your calendars. Or express your interest on Facebook! It will handle the time zone calculations and reminders for you.

We’ve been doing this incredible event for five solid years, and I can promise it’s the best Xmas party you could possibly attend. (Or, at least, that you’ll be invited to.)

Here are the specials we’ve festively suffered through already. What yuletide offal will I forcefeed you this year? Come back to this very site on Dec. 8 at 5 pm Mountain / 7 pm Eastern and find out.

The 1st Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! (2013):

  • ALF – “Oh, Tannerbaum”
  • Lassie – “The Christmas Story”
  • Sabrina, the Teenage Witch – “Sabrina Claus”
  • Major Dad – “The Gift of the Major”
  • Charles in Charge – “Home for the Holidays”
  • Lost in Space – “Return From Outer Space”
  • Family Ties – “A Keaton Christmas Carol”

The 2nd Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash (2014):

  • ALF – “ALF’s Special Christmas”
  • The Fat Albert Christmas Special
  • Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers – “Alpha’s Magical Christmas”
  • Christmas Comes to Pac-Land
  • The Partridge Family – “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa”
  • Santa’s Magic Toy Bag
  • Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

The 3rd Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash (2015):

  • ALF: The Animated Series – “A Mid-Goomer Night’s Dream”
  • The Bill Cosby Show – “A Christmas Ballad”
  • Full House – “Our Very First Christmas Show”
  • We Wish You a Turtle Christmas
  • Mr. Ed – “Ed’s Christmas Story”
  • Perfect Strangers – “A Christmas Story”
  • Walker: Texas Ranger – “A Ranger’s Christmas”

The 4th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash (2016):

  • Family Matters – “Christmas is Where the Heart Is”
  • The Flying Nun – “Wailing in a Winter Wonderland”
  • The Monkees – “The Monkees’ Christmas Show”
  • Amos & Andy – “The Christmas Story”
  • Welcome Back, Kotter – “Hark, the Sweatkings”
  • The Super Mario Bros. Super Show – “Koopa Klaus”
  • Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa

More to come!

I’m not entirely sure what I hoped to see when I dug into Christian horror films, but holy Hell did Remake deliver on all of it and so much more.

Following the bland idiocy of The Lock In and the problematic competence of The Familiar, Remake‘s over-the-top gore, gloriously terrible acting, and consistently muddled moralizing is absolutely perfect. It immediately launched itself onto my list of favorite bad movies, and I don’t see anything knocking it off soon. In fact, at some point, I’ll likely do a trilogy of the bad movies I love most.

This year, though, I thought doing a trio of didactic films would provide a lot of opportunity to speak about religion in general, Christianity in general, spirituality in general, and even basic human decency in general. In short, I thought it would be a great way to open the floor to discussions that wouldn’t normally happen here.

But I was hoping, deep at heart, that I’d get at least one film that wasn’t just disappointing or bad…but was memorably, infectiously, beautifully terrible. And I’ve gotten that with Remake.

In a very welcome bit of happenstance, I ended up with three films this year that represent different kinds of horror. The Lock In was found footage, The Familiar was demon possession, and Remake is a slasher film. What’s more, the sequence in which I watched them formed a kind of natural progression. We started with sinning children, moved up to sinning adults, and now follow parents, whose child is damned by sins those parents committed in the past.

Remake is about the abduction of Megan Slayton, a teenager of the spry age of thirty-six. She gets nabbed by notorious snuff pornographer Twitch, and it’s up to her parents to get her back.

This year we find an unexpected theme running through all three movies: the evils of pornography. In fact, if you showed these movies to somebody who had never heard of Christianity and asked him to guess the central tenets of the religion, I don’t think he’d mention God. I don’t think he’d mention Jesus. I definitely don’t think he’d mention performing good deeds and caring for his fellow man. He may or may not mention the Bible. He certainly wouldn’t mention reading it, aside from consulting it briefly for relevant plot points.

He’d mention monsters and pornography. “Don’t summon demons” and “don’t jerk off” would be the Two Commandments. Not necessarily in that order.

Megan is kidnapped because Twitch worked with her step-mother Rita on a snuff film called Ladyfinger in the past, and he intends to remake it properly this time. (Y’know. Because Rita didn’t die.) He kidnaps Megan as leverage; either Rita comes back to star in the fatal remake, or he’ll kill her daughter on camera instead. Don’t ask why he didn’t just kidnap Rita directly. In fact, don’t ask anything.

Rita has no choice but to come clean to her husband of 15 years, Pastor Carl. She’s been living under a false identity as a way of escaping her past. In addition to saving Megan’s life, therefore, both she and Pastor Carl have to come to terms with Rita’s history, and learn to accept it.

Typing it out like that, it’s…really not a bad setup. It could do with some tweaking, and it’s not the sort of thing I’d write of my own accord, but for a scary movie, it’s solid enough. A killer doesn’t finish the job with one victim, so he tracks her down many years later and threatens to kill that victim’s daughter unless she gives herself up.

That can end a few different ways, and it can play out in thousands. There’s a wealth of storytelling opportunity there, and I’ll give Remake credit for going places I absolutely did not expect it to go. Of course, that’s born of ineptitude rather than creativity, but I’ll take what I can get.

Twitch is introduced to us as a mysterious figure. He wears a mask over another mask, for crying out loud.

He’s most certainly a bad guy. There’s no way to read him otherwise, which becomes surprisingly problematic by the end of the film, and shines light on one major way in which viewing horror through a spiritual lens makes complex that which should be simple. But…we’ll get to that.

As the film progresses we learn more about what Twitch is doing and why. He is contracted by wealthy clients to produce custom snuff videos. Not all of them feature pornographic content, but when we’re dealing with murdered women, that’s a relatively small potato.

A client requests a woman of a certain description. Twitch hunts down a match, kidnaps her, and keeps her chained up in a basement. He then films himself killing her, and dumps the body somewhere, selling the video back to the client.

What a good Christian film!

I know, I know, I criticized both previous films this month to varying extents for taking place in hyper-Christian, unrecognizable versions of the world. You know, ones in which brushing up against some pornography unleashes actual demons, kids who talk like Ned Flanders are irredeemable sinners, and a cute girl who doesn’t like guns is a living portal to Hell.

So kudos to Remake for being…you know. Actually horrific. I had difficulty relating to the kind of revulsion I was meant to feel toward certain characters in the other films, but Twitch is truly a despicable human being — and therefore a more effective villain — than anything we’ve seen yet.

It’s just…jarring, I guess, to see a vocally Christian film chock full of half naked woman writhing around, bleeding, screaming, crying, being carved apart by a deranged pornographer. I think I would have been surprised if the film even suggested those things, so the fact that nearly all of it happens on camera — and happens so frequently — was legitimately shocking.

Of course, it wasn’t actually that bothersome to watch, because it was so clearly fake.

The blood is as thin as tap water. You can see the joins where the fake wounds are affixed to the actors’ flesh. The murders themselves are almost uniformly nonsensical, as three(!) of them hinge upon a small knife suspended from the ceiling by a string. Twitch cuts the string and the knife falls down, striking the victim and instantly killing her. This is impossible, and doesn’t even work by the film’s internal logic.

Twitch hacks away (and removes body parts from!) various women who lie there crying for help, dying slowly and painfully. But when a single, unimpressive blade — think the knife you always deliberately overlook when you need to cut a bagel — falls a few inches, with no force stronger than gravity behind it, and lands nowhere near a major or vital organ, the victim immediately dies.

I kept expecting Remake to explain that that particular blade had been poisoned or something. I even would have settled for it being cursed.

But, no, we learn nothing, and I shouldn’t have expected to from a movie that shows us Twitch disposing of his first victim like this:

Yep, they’ll never find her!

Weirdly, though, it works. It would be one thing if stranding this corpse on a riverbank is what leads to his capture, but it doesn’t. In fact, the police just wander around scratching their heads, wondering how they’ll ever catch a criminal who’s so damned smart.

Remake, as you can probably tell, is dopey enough that it gets away with itself. A smarter film would have to account for far more of this inconsistency. By being dumb, though, Remake earns a pass, and I’m glad it does, because it’s genuinely fun. It’s the kind of film that does something inconceivably stupid and has you howling with laughter…then, as soon as you get a hold of yourself, it does something even stupider.

It’s absolutely perfect, even (especially) at its most misguided. It’s the Christian horror trainwreck I was praying for.

Twitch’s identity is concealed for reasons I can’t fathom. Sure, I know he’d want to wear a mask (or two…) while murdering innocent people on camera, but why keep his identity a secret from viewers? For a while I assumed it was because we’d find out he was one of the characters we’d already met…but, ultimately, no. It’s just some guy who looks like Bill Ponderosa from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

To be fair, we had met him before, but only briefly, at the very start of the film. He was sitting around with his family, and then he left the room. That was it. We didn’t have a sense of who he was, so learning that he’s Twitch doesn’t cause us to re-evaluate our earlier assumptions. Remake treats the reveal as though this is The Usual Suspects or Heavy Rain, not realizing that learning the identity of the killer won’t retroactively inform the way we view everything else. It’s really strange.

In fact, the whole movie is really strange. It’s bizarrely edited, with the soundtrack regularly coming to a hard stop rather than fading out, and quick cuts to irrelevant background imagery — such as this liquor holder — to incompetently mask transitions between takes.

It’s also bizarrely written, with tonally incompatible moments of high drama paired with what seem to be comic interludes, such as when good Pastor Carl insults his wife’s appearance while they’re waiting for instructions on how to get their daughter back. Or a long, meaningless exchange between Pastor Carl and a hooker in which she pridefully explains how she gets easy money from a “retard.”

And a major plot point hinges on the fact that Twitch bugged the Slaytons’ land line, preventing them from calling the cops…but they also have cellphones, so why don’t they just call the cops on those? Why not set the film twenty years in the past if you want the land line to matter?

But, most of all, it’s bizarrely acted. This is both the film’s biggest liability, and the main reason to keep watching it.

The characters speak in a thick, inappropriately comical Midwestern drawl, pudgy action zero Pastor Carl the drawliest among them. It lends the entire film an amateurish air that makes it feel like a production of the Lower Milwaukee Afternoon Players.

There’s also a profound, unnerving detachment between the emotion certain scenes demand and the total lack of it in the actors. I’d blame the director for this, but Pastor Carl is played by the director — Doug Phillips — so we can direct the blame wherever we like.

In total fairness, Kelly Barry-Miller often does good work as Rita. She’s convincingly busted up by Megan’s kidnapping, and if she feels out of place (which she most certainly does) it’s because nothing else in the film rises to meet her. She’s investing effort in the role, which is admirable even if it’s not always successful. I think it’s safe to say that she comes out of Remake with the smallest amount of blame.

The most blame unquestionably goes to Phillips, who is uniformly awful. I genuinely think he could benefit from taking acting lessons from Tommy Wiseau. At least Wiseau knew that he should emote, while Phillips treats scenes in which he’s brewing coffee with the same emotional gravity of scenes in which he’s fretting over the safety of his daughter: none.

The lack of emotional response from Pastor Carl is genuinely strange. Megan is his daughter, after all; she’s only Rita’s step-daughter.

And yet I believe Rita is truly worried about her, and how this will all pan out. Pastor Carl, in contrast, seems to have read the script and knows that his severed head will end up wrapped in a towel on the coffee table, and so resigns himself well in advance of doing anything at all to save her.

It’s really strange. Very early in the film, Twitch delivers a package to the Slaytons. Pastor Carl — who has to be oddly prompted by his wife before he thinks to open it — finds a few things inside, most notably Megan’s severed finger.

Rita howls believably. What a horrific thing to see! How barbaric! What a frightening indication of how much very real danger their daughter is in!

…but Pastor Carl doesn’t react at all. He just slowly unwraps his own daughter’s finger from a mound of bloody gauze with no more emotional response than he’d have shelling a peanut. He even goes over to the sink to rinse it off.

Think about that!

Think about opening a package to find your wife’s, husband’s, child’s, or friend’s severed finger. You’d drop it. You’d weep. You’d doubt your eyes. You’d call the police. You’d vomit. You’d react.

Pastor Carl does none of that. Indeed, he does nothing at all except confirm that it’s hers. (He recognizes the ring…after rinsing it.) His reaction is so strange that I expected him to reveal that it was a fake finger, meant to freak them out. After all, Rita is across the table, so maybe it looked more realistic to her from a distance. Since Pastor Carl was holding it, he must have been able to see “Archie McPhee” stamped on the side of it.

But no. It’s real. It’s Megan’s. His daughter has been confirmed mangled. And, of course, if this is what Twitch does to her first, as a warning shot, whatever happens next is bound to be far worse.

Oh well. Guess I’ll just sit dog-faced in the kitchen some more.

It’s inhuman. It’s strange. And the fact that he’s the writer and the director makes it even stranger. It’s his movie! Doesn’t he realize how this should be impacting his character? What is the disconnect here?

The disconnect, I guess, is between Remake and everything we know about human behavior.

Bolting a troubled marriage plot onto a child rescue plot isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Those are compatible topics, and once we introduce one kind of family tragedy it’s fair that it would expose another. And that’s exactly what happens here; Megan being kidnapped is one thing, but it forces Rita to explain a decade and a half of dishonesty that threatens her relationship with Pastor Carl.

Good. Both of those things should be explored. But Pastor Carl is one of the major links between the two stories, and he’s just a fucking boob.

He starts out well enough. He’s a believable — if in no way charismatic — preacher. The film opens with his long sermon about forgiveness…about how forgiveness is meaningless if you don’t believe you’re forgiven. And that’s fine.

It’s far longer than it needs to be, though, and we keep cutting to weird static shots of just about every person in the parish, though we’ll never see most of them again. I wonder if Phillips had to promise everyone in this real-world church a closeup in his movie in exchange for them letting him film there.

Almost immediately after that, though, he gets weird. First there’s the fact that he’s at least 75 years older than his wife. Then later in the bedroom he gets upset that Rita won’t let him touch a nasty scar on her stomach. She says it’s because it’s the result of a traumatic attack at the hands of a junkie.

Fair enough, I’d think, but he gets pissy about it and chews her out for living in the past. He leaps almost immediately to, “I might as well just sleep on the couch, then!” Which is certainly a respectful way to respond to the woman you love when she politely asks you not to jam your thumb around inside a wound that hurts both physically and emotionally.

He’s actually pretty awful to Rita overall. Once Megan is kidnapped it would be fair to assume that the stress of having a missing daughter is getting to him. But we see from the start that he’s a dick well before that, and I suspect that’s because Phillips at no point considers modulating his performance. Pastor Carl is always a snarky, venomous asshole, which might be why he has nowhere to move when it’s time for him to show a more extreme (or even different) emotion.

Megan’s kidnapper sends one of those bulky radiophones so her parents can communicate with him. He offers to exchange Megan for Rita, and this is where Rita has to come clean about her past.

She confesses to her husband that she used to star in pornographic films. And was hooked on drugs. And was also a prostitute. And starred in a fake snuff movie. And lied about her parents being dead. And is currently living a fake identity to get away from her past. And follows pornography newsgroups on the internet, which allows her to keep abreast of the ins and outs of hardcore porn production, presumably because that’s a hobby of hers in the same way that memorizing baseball scores might be to someone else.

Pastor Carl is understandably shocked.

He’s less understandably a fucking asshole to her. She’s opening up to him. She’s clearly fragile. She needs her husband right now. And all he can do is carp at her and judge her for her past.

I’m not saying this is good writing. In fact, I assure you it’s not. I offer as evidence the following, which is an excerpt from Rita’s explanation of her past / some stuff Phillips pasted into the script from Wikipedia:

RITA: Softcore is where you’re naked, but the sex is fake. Usually fake. Lots of legit films have a scene or two. That’s how men get addicted. And some women, too.

PASTOR CARL: Women getting addicted? But women aren’t visually stimulated.

RITA: That’s not quite true! Women are stimulated emotionally. So if a scene is between the stars and the guy has been nice to the girl all through the film, if the scene looks tender, like they really care about each other, then yeah. Women can get hooked on that. It’s like a red-cover romance novel, but done visually. Once people get used to getting off, they start watching late-night cable flicks that are mostly softcore scenes with a paper-thin story line.

PASTOR CARL: Why do directors stick that crap into legitimate films in the first place?

RITA: It’s banked. With some genres, you can’t get distribution in certain countries unless you have a sex scene or a nude shot.

So, to Pastor Carl’s credit, there’s nothing natural, realistic, or believable about that exchange, and there certainly isn’t anything insightful. So maybe his constant sniping at her, cutting her off, and making jokes and jabs at her expense is just slightly less monstrous than I initially thought. The conversation isn’t one that actual humans would have, so why should he respond with any humanity?

Regardless, he comes off as rude, condescending, and in no way supportive. Which, to some extent, is fine. He has every right to hear about his wife’s past — one which she deliberately lied about and hid from him — and decide that this isn’t what he signed up for.

But, frankly, there’s a much more pressing issue than arguing with your wife and repeating back and forth the Webster definition of bukake: your daughter has been kidnapped. Her finger is sitting, I guess, in the soap dish. She’s already been disfigured, and every minute that passes brings her closer to further violation and death.

Pastor Carl thinks the most important thing at this point is to be a fuckwit to his wife. His wife who is actually crying. His wife who is actually terrified. His wife who is actually grieving over what’s happening to Megan.

And it’s not her real daughter. Why on Earth isn’t Pastor Carl distraught on the floor? Why is he more intent on playing Who’s on My Wife First?

Pastor Carl is just a grumpy lump of crap who shoots down his wife’s ideas — and feelings, and needs — one after the other without providing any of his own. When Rita brings up the sermon he gave on forgiveness, he says it applies to her as well, though he wishes it didn’t.

He’s a loathsome, insufferable jerk. Remake does see him as flawed, but not to the degree he actually is. And when he’s eventually redeemed, he doesn’t seem like any less of a dickweed. The only admirable thing about him is that, at some point, he finally decides to get off the couch and do something.

Yes, our favorite complaining, geriatric dumbass eventually does take action. I guess he had no real reason to be motivated; Twitch said on the radiophone — again, this is a world with cellphones — that they could have some time to decide whether or not Rita would take Megan’s place in the snuff film, but he wouldn’t give them too much time to decide…

Then he sets a deadline a week out.

A week is a really long time in a case like this, Twitch. You may have bugged their phone, but that doesn’t stop them from waltzing into the police station and telling the cops everything they know. That’s plenty of time for professionals to track you down. And the Slaytons could easily record your voice…they’d have all the evidence they need to get law enforcement mobilized immediately.

And yet the police never caught this guy, because he’s way too smart.

Action Grandpa figures, hey, what the hell, it’s been a few days, let’s try to get my kid back. He sets out without telling Rita, and for an even more glorious stretch, Remake becomes sort of like a version of Taken starring the guy you most recently sat near at a KFC.

Pastor Carl’s equivalent of Liam Neeson’s particular set of skills is an overwhelming tendency toward bitchiness. He couldn’t possibly seem more put out. He’s like an old man at a deli who keeps getting angrier because each time he asks for potato salad he gets macaroni salad. It’s hilarious.

His ultimate goal is to track down Twitch, but he can’t do that because a) he doesn’t know how to do that, and b) he wasted all of the time Twitch gave them not even attempting to do that.

He works his way through a variety of characters as he follows the trail. First he talks to a taxi driver because, in his words, “I figured a hackie hears everything.” Our 108-year-old hero, ladies and gentlemen.

The hackie tells him to talk to a prostitute he knows, because she has some kind of sophisticated number-blocking feature on her phone, which is totally not just some standard function all cellphone users have access to and holy crap this movie really should be set twenty years in the past.

The prostitute sends him to the woman who taught her how to use her iPhone, I guess, and that woman installs a compass on the radiophone, so he can track down Twitch.

An actual, physical compass.

How in God’s name does a compass lead Pastor Carl to the bad guy? Yes, the film tosses out some “signal tracking” palaver, but a compass is magnetic; a phone couldn’t control where it points unless it were physically moving a magnet around inside, and that’s if you could even get the phone to relay the information it receives about the signal to a fucking compass in the first place.

And, again, this is a world with cellphones. Use the GPS, fuckers! Yes, I know that’s now how GPS works, but that’s ALSO NOT HOW A PHYSICAL COMPASS GLUED TO A RADIOPHONE WORKS.

The entire time Pastor Carl spends tracking his daughter down, he grumbles, gripes, complains about how people are dressed, gets huffy with them for having sex lives, and expends more energy making helpful strangers feel bad about themselves than he does pursuing Megan.

At one point a woman gets blown up by some lens flare. As always, don’t ask.

Finally, Pastor Carl makes it to Twitch. He has a shotgun and he’s not afraid to use it, except, I guess, that he is, because he doesn’t use it. Twitch — instead of outright murdering Pastor Carl, Megan, or both — challenges him to a fight with bladed weapons only. Pastor Carl refuses to drop his shotgun, offering to use that as a fighting stick instead.

He’s sure taking his time to hash out rules about this duel rather than shoot the head off the guy who kidnapped his little girl. You should be overcome with rage, here, Pastor Carl!

Twitch, idiotically, allows this. He doesn’t even tell Pastor Carl to take the ammunition out. He essentially just says, “Okay, but you promise not to shoot me, right?” Pastor Carl promises, clearly not telling the truth, except, I guess, that he is, because he doesn’t shoot the guy who kidnapped Megan.

Remake seems intent on establishing a polar opposite of Chekhov’s famous dramatic principle: “Pastor Carl’s Gun” states that a gun introduced in the first act must be held harmlessly during a slapfight in the third.

The confrontation between Twitch and Pastor Carl is less a clash of the titans than a clash of the tits. They are literally fighting over Megan’s future; the winner will decide what she does next, and what is done with her. This is life or death. This is her fate. And we get the least dynamic, most underwhelming fight scene in horror movie history.

These two just smack weapons together for a while, slowly, getting easily winded and trying hard not to hurt each other, because this movie can’t afford insurance. The most action we see is the jiggling of their beer bellies. An axe-wielding pornographer brawling with a shotgun-toting preacher has absolutely no right to be anywhere near this dull.

Anyway, Pastor Carl loses and we at least get the biggest laugh in the movie out of it: Twitch wraps his severed head in a towel and mails it to Rita.

At this point in the film it may seem that Pastor Carl accomplished nothing and died in vain, but that wouldn’t be fair to say. What he actually achieved in death was the scarring of his daughter forever with visions of his Earthly form being hacked to pieces by a serial rapist.

There are two things that happen before Pastor Carl goes idiotic into that good night, one of which is great, and the other of which is extremely misjudged.

The movie deftly established sexual troubles between Pastor Carl and Rita by showing us that she didn’t like him plunging parts of himself into a nasty scar. Since then, we see the two of them bicker and fail to achieve intimacy. They both pray, which is a fair thing to do when their daughter is kidnapped. Pastor Carl realizes while praying that he’s not being supportive of his wife, and can’t really ask for God’s help while he’s making other things on Earth worse for himself and others.

This is a good thing.

“I’ve thought it over,” he says, “and here’s the scoop. I’m still not going to forgive you, because there’s nothing to forgive. If I heard how you got out of porn and turned your life around, and it was anybody else, I’d say they were brave and resourceful. Why should it be different because it’s you?”

Pastor Carl was holding her to a different standard than he’d hold anyone else, and I think that’s actually a pretty insightful moment. We’ve all done that.

When a friend or family member or significant other hurts us, it stings far worse than if a distant acquaintance hurt us in the exact same way. When we care about people, we tend to be harsher on them, or at the very least expect more from them. Which can lead to us being unfair and inconsistent in our dealings. We can confuse people with our seemingly outsized reactions to things they didn’t think were a big deal. Pastor Carl recognizing this, and apologizing for it, is a big step. Okay, he doesn’t actually apologize for it, but he’s not calling his wife fat, ugly, or slutty, so for him that qualifies.

That’s the good thing that happens. It requires us to ignore the fact that he’s also treating everyone who’s not his wife like scum, but, still. Good thing.

The misjudged thing that happens follows immediately on from this moment: Pastor Carl and Rita both get horny and have hot sex all night.

You think I’m fucking with you?

I am not fucking with you.

Once again: their daughter has been kidnapped. Days have gone by without any word from her. She may already be dead. At the very least they know she’s chained up in some basement somewhere, and they have no assurance that she’s even being fed or clothed. She is likely sitting in her own filth, being tormented and humiliated by a man Rita knows is making a snuff film. She has already had her finger cut off for fuck’s sake. She’s definitely disfigured, likely raped, possibly dead. And this is the time her parents rediscover their sexuality?

I…

I really can’t even fathom it.

Throughout most of the film I was just surprised they were able to sleep. When I have a big meeting the next day I have trouble getting shuteye. If my daughter were abducted by the villain in a slasher movie I would be up all night, worrying myself to death. Rita and Pastor Chris, on the other hand, evidently see these as perfect conditions to get sexy.

I am completely and utterly gobsmacked. It may be the single most misguided creative choice I’ve ever seen in a film, and I say that with the full knowledge that Remake also features a sequence in which Twitch films a snuff-film homage to Al-Qaeda beheading videos.

You think I’m fucking with you?

I am not fucking with you.

This is also the only one of Twitch’s videos we see for any real length, so I guess it’s the one Phillips was most proud of coming up with.

Anyway, once Rita receives Pastor Carl’s severed head in the mail, she decides she might not be able to rely on him to sort this out. So she calls Twitch on the radiophone and says she’ll do it…she’ll trade her own captivity for her daughter’s freedom. Of course, at this point a week has gone by since he secretly killed Megan, so Twitch scrambles to find a lookalike.

No, for some reason, she’s still alive. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think if I had a plan that involved kidnapping, extortion, and murder, I’d want to move that shit along as quickly as possible.

Rita has a trick up her sleeve, though: Megan’s boyfriend Tony.

Oh, right. I didn’t mention Tony. He calls the Slaytons all throughout the course of the film, worried because he hasn’t heard from Megan. He uses a cellphone, because he remembers what year it is. They keep giving him cagey answers, but I guess at some point, off camera, Rita tells him the truth. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see that scene, because how in the Hell do you explain to your daughter’s boyfriend that she’s been held in captivity by a notorious murderer for a full week and nobody’s even told the cops?

Speaking of which, why does Rita get Tony and not the cops?

Anyway, Rita is forced by Twitch to cut her own finger off before entering the building. Don’t ask why; Rita doesn’t either. She must know the film is wrapping up, because she has a serious disinterest in motive at this point. Want me to cut my finger off? Here ya go; let’s keep this moving, chop chop.

Twitch indeed lets Megan go when Rita shows up, but Megan — being human — attacks him as soon as she’s set free so that both she and her mother can escape.

She’s proud for a moment, but it really is only a moment, because I guess she forgot that he’s a guy who kills people with knives and he kills her with a knife.

Well, she doesn’t die. She just bleeds for a while and Tony rushes in to save the day!

Actually, my mistake. Tony dies.

Alas, poor Tony! You were…kind of in the movie, briefly.

Twitch spends enough time murdering Tony that Rita understands she picked the right guy to use as a meat shield. Then Twitch falls over, or something, and that stupid knife that hangs from a string falls down and stabs him.

The movie’s essentially over, so of course it does anything but end. Twitch gets a dying monologue with more words than most people speak in their entire lives.

It goes on for several minutes. The guy’s ostensibly bleeding out, but he just keeps rattling off instructions to Rita. For long stretches the actor forgets he’s meant to be dying, and fails to convey any degree of pain whatsoever through his voice.

TWITCH: You are a worthy opponent. You beat me fair and square. Now I want to help you. You’re not out of the woods yet. The Ladyfinger producers will kill you if we don’t cover this up. Destroy the evidence. We must make it look like a random abduction, that I was after you and not your daughter, for some reason. In the other room is my computer with all of my files, with no password for the operating system. Bring up the command line. Unmake.exe. Run it. It will erase my files so that not even the cops could recover them. In the cabinet next to my computer is my copy of Ladyfinger. Destroy it. Run with the story, and you will be free.

Fun fact: in the entire history of mankind, nobody’s dying words will ever contain the phrase “no password for the operating system.”

Again, this is an excerpt. It really does feel sometimes as though Phillips is trying to write the least naturalistic, tone-deaf dialogue imaginable. If so, I’d like to congratulate him on a job well done.

But that isn’t nearly the strangest thing about the ending.

No…the strangest thing actually ties into the theme of the film, which is forgiveness.

And forgiveness is great! It’s both a spiritual and secular value. Preach forgiveness, and we can all benefit from the sermon. Fine.

But Remake illustrates it in a really strange way: the film ends with Rita sitting with a dying Twitch…and forgiving him.

For stabbing her and leaving physical and emotional scars she never got over, she forgives him.

For stalking her and tracking her down in her new life, she forgives him.

For forcing his way into her home and kidnapping her step-daughter, she forgives him.

For cutting off Megan’s finger, she forgives him.

For planning to murder Megan unless she sacrificed her own life, she forgives him.

For cutting off her husband’s head and sending it to her in the mail, she forgives him.

For forcing her to cut off her own finger, she forgives him.

For nearly killing Megan, she forgives him.

For actually killing Megan’s boyfriend, she forgives him.

For all of the abductions, rapes, and murders he’s committed, she forgives him.

I was all set to deride this. To mock it. To call it inconceivable and idiotic.

But the more I think about it…the more I admire it.

Forgiveness is an important Christian virtue. Jesus made this clear when he was asked how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us. Seven times? Seventy times? Jesus replies, “Seventy times seven.” Which isn’t a math problem; it’s an assurance that if you’re looking for a specific number…if you’re seeking a boundary beyond which we can finally stop forgiving someone…you’re asking the wrong question.

Forgive. That’s the answer. Stop counting. Stop measuring. Forgive. You’re all humans. Forgive, dammit.

And yet, that’s the (literal) Christian answer. We worldly dopes do set boundaries beyond which we don’t forgive. Steal my wallet, and maybe I’ll forgive you. Steal my car, and I probably won’t. Hurt me, and maybe I’ll forgive you. Hurt somebody important to me, and I probably won’t.

Jesus’s answer, though, makes it clear that we shouldn’t do that.

A secular film can feature a hero who forgives one set of characters while refusing to forgive another. Any action film fits the bill here, and a lot of horror as well. Characters are flawed, but we (and the hero) still want some to live and others to die. There’s a boundary beyond which we don’t offer and don’t wish to see forgiveness.

A Christian film can’t rightfully behave that way. If we’re going to raise the issue of forgiveness, everyone must be forgiven.

Including the snuff pornographer.

And…I see that as a bit much. It’s a difficult pill to swallow. At the very least, Remake has me wondering about that.

Would I forgive the man who kidnapped my daughter and killed my spouse? No. Fuck no. Clearly no.

And yet…should I?

I still want to say no, but there’s a lot of wisdom in that “seventy times seven.” Forgive. Be a man. Move on with your life. Let go of grudges. Granted, a grudge against a snuff pornographer is bound to be a larger one than most…but does a larger grudge make it more worth clinging to?

It’s a valid question, in theory, but in practice…in illustration…it’s really hard for me to agree with Rita’s forgiveness of him here.

Remake already has ways to illustrate forgiveness. Natural ways that we wouldn’t question. Pastor Carl can forgive his wife for misleading him about who she was, and Rita can forgive her husband for being a griping, complaining dicksack. That would fulfill the theme of the film, and if the movie ended with Rita beating Twitch to a bloody pulp I never would have seen an inconsistency. He’s the slasher in a slasher film! Get him.

And I’m tempted to say that this would have made the movie better.

Maybe, though, what I mean is that this would have made the movie less challenging.

Remake isn’t smart. And yet, it may have accidentally done something intelligent. Jesus commands us to forgive. Easy. Whether we live by that commandment or not, we at least understand it. Forgive. Got it. That’s clear.

By pushing this commandment to the genuine extreme — it’s hard to imagine Twitch doing anything worse to Rita and her family than what we already see here — and reinforcing our obligation to forgive him for what he’s done, Remake challenges us.

Could you have found Megan? Maybe. Could you have defeated Twitch? Maybe.

Could you have forgiven him?

Now we’re struggling.

All three of those things, you need to do. I need to do. We need to do. At least, if we want to be the good guy.

Remake is the only film in this year’s trilogy that is brave enough to end without a restoration of the status quo. The events of The Lock In turned out to be a masturbation nightmare or something. (I’ll have to ask the church elders about their findings.) The Familiar ends with Laura saved, Sam redeemed, and Rallo exorcised.

But Remake has consequences. The film ends with Rita meeting with the police.

For her own safety, she needs yet another identity. She needs to be shipped off somewhere, again, to start all over. The life she built for 15 years is gone now, and she needs to start building another one from scratch. Megan is being uprooted, too. Her boyfriend and father are dead, and she’ll be haunted forever with visions of them being murdered by the psychopath who kidnapped her.

Again, Remake isn’t smart. I don’t think any of this is deliberate. But the events of the film, I think, raise the question for the audience anyway. Rita did the good Christian thing by forgiving him.

But should she have?

Her past, present, and future have all been dashed by his hand.

Does that deserve forgiveness? Can we possibly forgive it? And if we can…are we foolish to do so?

Was Remake made not to reinforce what Christians already believe — as the other two films were — but to get them to challenge it and come out stronger for having arrived at the answers themselves?

The best films make us think, but not exclusively so. Sometimes you can find valid questions — and intriguingly withheld answers — in the least likely of places.

Christian horror, which I didn’t even know existed a few months ago, was certainly the least likely place I expected to find anything. And yet here I am, weeks later, still mulling a question I never thought was complicated to begin with.

That’s a pretty neat trick. And one hell of a welcome treat.

Happy Halloween, friends.

I’ll be honest, after watching The Lock In, I started to reconsider a few of my life choices. No, I didn’t stop masturbating. If anything, I’ve been masturbating far more frequently, just to spite it.

Specifically, I wondered if I made the right decision when I chose Christian horror as this year’s theme. Not that I was skeptical that I’d have anything to say — last week’s review made it quite clear that I would — but because…fuck. The Lock In was awful. Could I really make it through another two movies like that?

The answer, obviously, is no. No human being could. Which is why I’m glad to report that this week’s film, The Familiar, is far superior in every conceivable way. It’s still not a good movie, but it’s competent. Interesting. Periodically even intelligent. It does things I like. It features actors I like. It’s actually given me things to think about for weeks after watching it. I can’t say I recommend it, but I can say that I don’t feel like my time was wasted.

It was pretty okay!

I sat down to watch The Familiar with the expectation that I’d get through about 10 minutes, then get up and do something more fun, like eat a sack of broken glass. I’d return later for another dose and give up again. That’s how I had to watch The Lock In. (Here. I dare you to outlast me.)

It took me many sessions to make it through that hunk of crap, but The Familiar proved admirably watchable. Even through its worst moments, I never wanted to turn it off. I still could have been doing better things with my time, but I never felt that way, which is a genuine achievement.

I might not have liked the movie, but I liked watching it.

The Familiar actually does a decent job of preaching Christian value through popular media. What I mainly mean when I say this is that the film isn’t compromised by godliness. It has a strong spiritual bent and a number of clear spiritual messages, but the spirituality doesn’t get in the way of the film presenting realistically flawed characters.

The Lock In presented us with a group of kids (three…then four…then nevermind let’s just do the three) that we’re told deserve to be tormented by demons for some indeterminate amount of time. Yet none of their transgressions register to a secular audience. They don’t fight. They don’t steal. They don’t use profanity. They aren’t violent, rude, dishonest, or…anything bad, really. The worst they do is touch (literally just physically touch) a copy of Big ‘Uns. In fact, the kid with the video camera won’t even let the pornography drift into shot, so naturally virtuous is he. For crying out loud, their idea of a wild night is participating in a church lock-in.

They’re the most well-behaved little scamps in motion picture history, but director Rich Praytor thinks they deserve to have pitchforks driven into their heads all night for occupying the same space as photographic reproductions of women in various stages of undress. Forgive me if I don’t find that relatable.

But Sam, our equivalent flawed demon-bait here, is deeply relatable. He drinks. He curses. (A lot.) He’s slovenly. He’s a bit of a dick. He fucks. At one point, he seriously contemplates suicide.

The Lock In bent itself into a pretzel to ensure that it would be suitable for airing in a church basement. The Familiar doesn’t care. And the film is infinitely better for it.

What The Familiar understands is that you don’t communicate with people by speaking your own language. You communicate by speaking theirs. The Lock In was a movie by and for people who didn’t need it. The Familiar, at least relatively, understands the people who do.

Granted, Sam is the whitewashed, exaggerated sermon version of a sinner. But there’s humanity in his situation. In his struggle. In his fight against his inner demons that he needs to conquer before he can face his external one. And that’s good. Not unique, no…but serviceable. It functions. It makes this a real movie.

We meet Sam five years after the death of his wife, Katherine. He’s clearly distraught and unhappy. His life is an obvious wreck, and it’s a wreck of his own making. Later in the film we learn that he used to be a church leader of some kind, and that his father still is, but Sam has withdrawn. The fact that he never falls to his knees and blames God for taking his wife and ruining his world qualifies here as a kind of restraint, and it’s a welcome one. It’s obvious that Sam isn’t interested in dramatically blaming anyone…his response is the much more human retreat from the things that used to comfort him and bring him joy.

One day, without a clear explanation, Katherine’s little sister, Laura, shows up on his doorstep. The film is about the relationship they develop, Sam’s gradual emotional recovery, and a crazy pornography demon who chases them around.

You didn’t really think we were done with the pornography demons, did you?

Yes, I have to admit I laughed out loud when another Christian horror film (100% of the Christian horror films I’ve seen!) kicked off with kids looking at some porn they found. You know, come to think of it, are the kids really accountable for this? If they stole it from a convenience store or something, maybe…but if they’re just bumbling around somewhere and find it, as both sets of kids so far do, are they really to blame for anything?

The answer, obviously, is yes, and they should be tormented by supernatural gremlins for the rest of eternity.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure why this is here. It doesn’t set the stage for any of Sam’s later struggles — seeing this chance encounter blossom into a full-fledged pornography addiction could make it an effective cautionary tale — and it really only serves to introduce the presence of demons to the reality of this film.

Sam and his buddy Charlie — who will grow up to become the worst actor in The Familiar — find the pornography and are followed home by some sort of evil force. Many years later, the two of them must face and defeat that force. Why the force had to spring forth from a skin mag and not from something truly horrific — like a marijuana cigarette, or two men holding hands — is beyond me, but it’s all we get.

As an adult, Sam is some kind of gun dealer and/or repairman, and his friend Charlie is a fat cop. I don’t like using the word “fat” to describe a character, but we’d only have “cop” without it.

That’s the extent of his characterization, and roughly half of his scenes consist of him stepping aside to reveal Sam’s father. Sam’s father shows up about 50 times throughout the course of the film and each time it’s supposed to be a surprise. I kept expecting Sam to see Charlie at his door and roll his eyes, saying, “Hello, dad.”

The father’s role in this film is to repeatedly offer his help to Sam in fighting the pornography demon. Sam refuses his help in fighting the pornography demon 49 times. The 50th time, Sam accepts his help in fighting the pornography demon. Together, they fight the pornography demon.

So, yeah, The Familiar is pretty dumb. It’s the kind of movie that sounds like it has potential until you look past the synopsis. Nearly every decision is made poorly. It’s watchable, don’t get me wrong. And it has moments (and even stretches!) of genuine competence. But it’s not a good film, and it’s difficult to look at any aspect of it and not see room for improvement.

With one exception.

Laura Spencer plays Laura, and she’s…pretty great actually. To put it in spiritual terms, she redeems the film. She’s certainly what I’ll remember most about it, and she rises so far above the material she’s given it’s almost miraculous.

That’s not to say she’s good in this role. To be honest, she’s kind of not. But she exists on a plane of goodness entirely separate from the film. She may not be the right fit for the character, or what writer/director Miles Hanon calls on her to do, but she’s good on her own, independent of whatever other foolishness is going on.

There’s a disconnect between Laura and the rest of the film, which, as we’ll talk about it more, might seem to be an artful choice. But I honestly feel it’s a happy accident that came about simply because Laura Spencer is genuinely too good for it.

It didn’t take me long to pick her out as the brightest spot of the experience. She’s immediately sweet and warm. A welcome and uplifting presence, which works within the context of the film as a great counterpoint to the drab, dark life Sam is choosing to lead. But it goes further than that. It’s not a directorial choice; it’s a contrast entirely of casting.

Spencer is a natural. A delight. I found myself shocked that in the middle of this instantly-forgotten Christian horror film there was an actor who…I really liked. One I enjoyed spending time with. One I wanted to see more of. While I’ll never know for sure, I’d be willing to bet that Spencer herself is the reason I was able to watch this film in one sitting. She’s not in every scene, but there’s always the promise that she’ll be in the next.

Most of the actors in Christian cinema are ones that are either not talented enough to rise above the low standards of that particular audience, or ones that have fallen far enough professionally that they have no chance of rising again (such as Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo). So my actual love for an actor here came as a surprise. And the more time I spent with her, the more time I refused to believe she belonged here. She should be doing better things. She’s capable of better things. She deserves better things.

And, well, there must be a God, because she indeed has had a pretty strong career post-The Familiar. I’d never seen her in anything before this, but it’s nice to know her star has been rising continuously. This film was one of three she appeared in during 2009, her first year acting professionally. After this she moved onto parts in far bigger projects, such as Criminal Minds, 2 Broke Girls, Bones, Sleepy Hollow, and, most significantly, a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory. In fact, that show has recently promoted her to series regular. That’s huge.

In short, the industry took notice of her, and it was for good reason. You can’t watch The Familiar and not enjoy the time you’ve spent with Laura Spencer. I’m glad she won’t be appearing in Christian horror any time in the future.

It’s amazing how just one excellent element of a film can elevate it, can cause you to open yourself up to it, can earn your attention enough for an otherwise undeserving project to hold it. I spent a good part of the movie not learning good Christian morals because I was trying to imagine what a perfect fit she’d be as Poison Ivy in a Batman film. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a good Batman film. She’d make it worth watching on her own!

She’s also, it must be said, almost painfully cute.

This isn’t even a comment about her attractiveness…there’s just a natural, innate adorableness to her that simply can’t be overlooked. It’s part of who she is.

That’s a necessary comment, I think, because part of her character’s purpose is the temptation she poses to Sam. She’s supposed to be attractive. She’s supposed to be desirable. It’s fair to say Spencer is those things. But she’s also supposed to be sexy, as seen when Sam finds and is transfixed by a recording of a striptease she performed during an audition.

And…Spencer isn’t sexy. She comes across as too pure for that. As too likable. There’s nothing wrong with being sexy (unless you ask these films, natch) but there’s a difference between sexiness and cuteness, and I don’t mean any disrespect by saying Laura Spencer is in the latter camp.

I think we expect something specific of our sexy demons. A certain look. A certain behavior. A certain…something beneath the flesh, within, deeper, conniving, teasing, beating down our defenses…something irresistible.

Spencer is too cute to be a demon, because demons aren’t portrayed as cute. Angels are as cute. Demons are as sexy. I’m all for subverting expectations, but I don’t believe Hanon is doing that. I think he lucked into a solid actress, and then forced her into a role she doesn’t fit.

One doesn’t look at her and succumb to lustful urgency. One looks at her and wants to hug her. And adopt puppies with her. And beat up whatever guys broke her heart.

Spencer — and therefore Laura — triggers our urge to protect rather than our urge to protect against. She’s terribly cast for a demonic sexbeast, but perfect in her performance of a completely separate character the film doesn’t realize it has.

Because, yes, Laura becomes a demonic sexbeast. Or channels one. Or is manipulated by one. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that’s okay; ambiguity is probably a good thing when it comes to sexbeasts.

The main conflict of the film is that of the Madonna and the Whore. Laura, as you can easily enough guess, represents the latter, with her deceased sister easily filling the role of the former. This somehow manages to not be the most problematic thing about Laura’s treatment, but we’ll get to that.

Boiling females (characters or otherwise) down to those two roles is obviously a bit regressive, and looks even more quaint (and uncomfortable) with each passing year. If we were generous we could redefine these roles as Virtue and Vice, but Hanon’s intentions are clear.

Sam, for a long time, had the sobering influence of a Madonna in his life.

She was honest. She was loyal. She was godly in word in deed. This was Katherine, his wife. When she dies — when her influence is removed — Sam’s spiritual condition is tested by the intoxicating influence of a Whore.

This is emphasized by a genuinely artful moment in which Sam speaks with a hallucination (or spirit, or fantasy) of Katherine, during which the camera pans around to reveal Laura approaching from behind. She causes him to literally turn from his wife.

Sam should stand firm. Should rebuff Laura’s advances. Should bring her to penitence. That is his duty. Will he be strong, or will he lie with woman who is not his wife?

That’s not as much of a worry for a secular audience, and he ends up (relateably) sleeping with her. To a spiritual audience, this would represent a serious faltering. To a secular one, it just makes him human. It works either way, but it’s still a bit distressing that Laura is cast in a negative light for having — and wanting! — a sex life.

Why wouldn’t she? She’s young. She’s attractive. She has a good personality, behaves selflessly, and seems like an all-around decent human being. Would a sex drive automatically damn her? Would it be just if it did?

There are a number of strange aspects at play. It would be one thing if Katherine were still alive, as fornicating with her younger sister would pretty clearly be a jerky thing to do. But the fact that she’s dead — and has been for half a decade by the start of the film — makes it impossible to see the issue as black and white. It’s a very grey area from the outside, and it’s up to the participants only whether or not this is okay.

Are they consenting? Are they comfortable with the fact that they share a relationship to the deceased? Do they see this as being disrespectful to her or her memory?

I’m not here to judge. Personally, no, I don’t think I’d romantically pursue my dead wife’s sister. But I also can’t judge somebody else for the direction their life takes them. What’s more, much ado is made of the fact that Sam and Laura hadn’t seen each other for many years. (The last time was well before Katherine died, and Laura didn’t come to the funeral.) It’s not as though this retroactively makes previous interactions seem like flirtation; there was no connection. If there now is…is that inherently a bad thing?

The Familiar thinks so. I don’t know that I do. I think it’s a topic worthy of discussion, and exploration by an intelligent piece of art.

Intrafamily romances of varying degrees run through works of art from The Royal Tenenbaums to Arrested Development to The Hotel New Hampshire, and each of those works has something unique to say about the subject. In those situations I also wouldn’t behave the way the characters do, but, by the end, I don’t end up judging them, which is why it’s a little disappointing that The Familiar is only interested in judging them.

There’s something to say about this. There’s a valid question. He was happy with Katherine, but he isn’t the one who’s dead. Characters keep telling him to move on, and, yes, he does need to move on. If entering into a new romance is the way in which he chooses to do so, is that a bad thing? What if he and Laura are actually a better match? What if they end up loving each other more deeply? What if that relationship is better for them than his relationship with Katherine was for either of them?

It’s not enough to say, “No, it’s wrong,” and shut the door on discussion. Many, many kinds of sexual interactions are inherently wrong. Forming a relationship with an ex’s sibling is not.

Especially when the possibility is only raised for the purpose of dismissing one of those siblings as a Whore, which Hanon does here.

The contrast is clear and intentional, with the sisters each characterized by their opposition to each other. It’s also strongly suggested that the state of Sam’s soul is at play. He can follow the influence of his dead wife to Heaven — where, in the reality of this film, she certainly has gone — or the influence of her sister to Hell.

The end of the film makes clear that Laura is not beyond salvation, but her gravity certainly pulls Sam down rather than up. After all, the demon was released (or summoned, or awakened, or interested…it’s not clear) when the boys found the pornography. Laura not only attempts (successfully) to seduce Sam into actual, extramarital fornication, but she ultimately serves as a vessel for the forces of Hell themselves.

…man, we’re drifting really close to the despicable thing at the heart of this film that I really don’t want to talk about. Let’s yak for a bit about those forces instead. Or rather, that force, as Hell’s emissary (missionary?) here is Rallo.

Who’s Rallo? It’s not explained.

Why is he called Rallo? It’s not explained.

What is actually happening here? It’s not explained.

“Rallo” is such an uncommon and oddly specific name that I have to assume it means something, but unless The Familiar was hoping to do some cross-promotion with The Cleveland Show I’ve got nothing.*

Wherever the name comes from, Rallo is the demon Sam and Charlie face at the beginning and end of the film. Between those two confrontations, Rallo torments Laura, seemingly because something about her makes her a viable channel for him and his objectives. More on that to come…

Laura at one point is aware of some kind of presence in Sam’s home, and becomes very worried. It even attacks her at one point. She goes to Sam for help and he talks to her about spirits. Specifically, Sam tells her how to tell the difference between good and bad spirits: bad spirits hate the name Jesus.

Personally, I’d get Laura and myself the hell out of my house if we were being savaged by demons, but I guess his response is good, too.

Or, it would be, but his advice was pretty vague. Laura goes back to her room and feels the presence there again. She says Jesus’ name, and it seems to me like the demon gets upset. We don’t see the demon physically, but it’s clearly there, and it exhales in a kind of huff that blows her hair around. Seems pretty clearly like a negative response to me, but she takes it as confirmation that the demon is a good spirit, and that’s that.

Friends, if you’re staying in a house haunted by any spirit, go find a motel.

I’m tempted to see Sam’s advice as artfully useless. I want Hanon to be using this to illustrate Sam’s spiritual rustiness. Had he not been a drinking, cursing, fucking fool, he could have given Laura some much more actionable (or at least specific) advice. He explains that good and bad spirits can be told apart, but not in a way that helps her to reach the right conclusion. Especially since Laura has been physically assaulted by it, with the scars to prove it.

This should be a gimme. If Sam’s advice can’t help her see that the spirit that already attacked her is sort of bad, he’s genuinely useless.

I’m not really sure if we’re meant to see it that way, though. We can read it that way, but it doesn’t play that way in the film. Usually when attention is drawn to Sam’s shortcomings, it’s drawn clearly and without potential for misunderstanding. This is hugely important in a didactic film; if you leave any room whatsoever for your audience to admire the wrong traits, some of them will. Therefore you can’t leave these things to interpretation.

As a related example, at one point in the film, after Rallo is riled up and on the offensive, Sam and Laura both panic. Rightly so. Sam sees an opportunity to flee the house, but doing so would leave Laura behind, at Rallo’s mercy.

And he indeed leaves her behind.

The film doesn’t treat this as a positive thing. I’d certainly agree that it isn’t. We could debate the ethics on either side (is guaranteed survival for one party better than a reduced possibility of survival for both parties?) but I actually like the way the film plays this moment. It’s a human response, and it’s a flawed human response.

It’s a plot point and characterization at once. And, of course, it both sets the stage for and makes it more rewarding when Sam actively stands up to Rallo to save Laura at the end. The plot has progressed, but so has Sam. He’s grown. It works.

But — and this is my main point here — all of that happens very clearly. We don’t see Sam leave Laura to Rallo’s attack and believe he made the right choice. The film won’t let us see it that way. Ditto the amount of time he spends watching Laura’s ostensibly sexy audition tape; we know he’s wrong to keep watching it, and every second his decision grows wronger. There’s no opportunity to read it in any other way.

So when he gives lousy advice to Laura about telling demons apart, I’m not convinced it’s deliberate evidence of his flawed spiritual state. I think it’s just clumsy writing. Laura’s told what to do, she does it, and she comes to the wrong conclusion.

If this were a better film, perhaps Laura would have had her own wrong ideas about how to tell spirits apart. Perhaps they could have been based on…let’s say…her personal spiritual leanings, which aren’t in line with Sam’s correct ones.

Hey, actually, now that I mention it…

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.

Laura is a good person. Possibly even a great person. She’s human, so she makes mistakes and acts in her best interests at times whether or not it’s the “right” thing to do. But as a member of the viewing audience and not a member of the production team, I’m confident in saying that Laura’s a good human being. I’d get along with her. I think most people would. She deserves good things and I’d look forward to seeing what she does with her life as she grows and matures.

Hanon clearly disagrees. And he disagrees because he’s viewing her through a different lens than we would (and should) in reality.

This is part of the inherent problem with religious media. When you wish to promote particular values, characters who don’t share those values are automatically wrong. And while you probably realize this, I’ll say it anyway: I’m not referring to large, ethical, relatively universal values. I’m not referring to “don’t kill.” I’m not referring to “help the needy.” I’m not referring to “don’t torture animals.”

I’m referring to…well, in this case, Christianity.

And while Christianity at its core can be said to be a religion of love, ethics, and honesty, many rules (formal and informal) have built up around it, so that being a good person is no longer enough. You also have to do a, b, and c, as well as avoid x, y, and z. There are expected behaviors, habits, and mindsets that — from a social standpoint at the very least — inform what it means to be a good Christian.

Those change — in nature, number, and degree — between denominations, but there’s always** more to it than belief. There’s a world of functional difference between the Silent Worship of Quakers and the testimony-based, door-knocking approach of Mormons, even if the roots of their beliefs are quite similar.

I wasn’t able to identify the specific denomination that The Familiar endorses, but it certainly endorses something. It’s not enough to be a good person or even to be Christ-like; you need to do and believe very specific things, lest you become a conduit for evil.

Case in point: poor Laura.

Laura gets dragged through the mud, both by the film and by the characters within the film. And at no point does she deserve it. While we can point at decisions she’s made and disagree with them, we can (and are encouraged to) do that with Sam, as well. It’s not a matter of someone getting everything right and someone else getting everything wrong; it’s a matter of only one character getting things right in the right way. (She even says, in the spirit of tolerance, “To each his own,” regarding the fact that Charlie and Sam have different values than she does. They look at her as though she slapped them.)

Laura’s crime is that she gets things right in the wrong way. She’s not whatever specific kind of Christian The Familiar thinks she should be. She’s a Light Seeker.

I’ve found some people online who call themselves by the same name, but I get the sense Hanon invented the concept for his film as a kind of catchall. (For what? We’ll get to that.) I think any actual relation to real-life Light Seekers is coincidental. Hanon didn’t make The Familiar to tear real-world Light Seekers down. He made The Familiar to caution against following anything other than The One True Path.

And so when Laura shows up at Sam’s door, she’s not a negative influence in any kind of secular sense; she’s only a negative influence through a very specific (and very narrow) spiritual lens. She believes something other than what Sam believes, which means she has the potential to pull him further away from the truth.

That’s it.

That’s what makes her a vessel for evil.

Here are just some of her nefarious deeds. She cleans up Sam’s house for him, so that he is no longer living in the Christian horror film equivalent of squalor. She performs much needed maintenance around his house, such as clearing gutters and taking care of the yard. She speaks to him about his problems and fears, encouraging him to work to overcome the emotional hurdles that have destroyed his life.

Oh, and she literally prevents him from committing suicide. It’s her ring of the doorbell that keeps him from pulling the trigger.

Laura’s first action in the film is to save the life of our protagonist, and she’s still made out to be a negative influence.

The Familiar cares a lot about the Bible, but doesn’t seem all that interested in the “by their fruits, ye shall know them” bits. Despite that passage in Matthew making it clear that “good fruit” cannot come from a corrupt tree, Laura provides only good fruit, and yet is also explicitly made out to be a corrupt tree. That’s bad theology and bad characterization at the same time. (The Bible literally laid out the rules for your characters!)

In fact, I’d argue that Laura’s production of good fruits happens far more frequently than Sam’s. Early in the film they have a discussion about their respective faiths. Oh, actually, wait, my mistake. Early in the film, Sam chews her out for believing something other than what he believes.

The confrontation occurs over a framed Light Seeker prayer Laura displays. It’s so similar in content to the various framed prayers I’ve seen in my life that I can’t imagine Sam having an issue with it. But he does.

When he brings it up, Laura demonstrates an openness to the faiths of others that Sam makes it clear he doesn’t share. Laura is willing to listen, to learn, and to accept. Sam is willing to do nothing but shut down those who don’t already believe in him. She’s open to Sam’s personal views of Christianity, whereas Sam is not open to hers.

Specifically, when she discusses her beliefs, sharing with him something that’s deeply personal to her, he replies, “Are you an idiot or something?”

This clearly hurts her. She stands up and leaves the room so that he won’t see her cry.

Which is the good fruit? Who is the better person?

It ultimately comes down not to the roots of their beliefs (neither of which, tellingly, are ever mentioned) but to the labels, to the rituals, to the symbology of each. We’re both right, but I’m right in the right way.

And, of course, this mindset manifests itself in our world not just theologically, but politically.

The democratic divide is significant. It’s why certain voters never accepted Obama as a Christian, no matter what they heard through his words or saw through his deeds, while those same voters do accept Trump as one…in spite of his words and deeds. In spite of their quality of the fruits they bring forth. In spite of their respective tendencies toward unifying and dividing.

I use these two as examples because they’re recent, of course; I’m not trying to make a grand point about Obama or about Trump specifically. But it is clear that in a general sense, much of the “true Christian” mindset extends to the political sphere. It’s not enough to disagree with somebody…it’s our obligation to vote against them.

As such, The Familiar is filled with conservative dogwhistles. We don’t see Sam lamenting the then-recent defeat of John McCain, but we do see his quaint, homey, conservative view of the world threatened by a woman who will literally serve as a demon’s surrogate.

In brief, she’s more liberal than he is.

She expresses feelings of acceptance. Of tolerance. Of peace. She’s sexually liberated. She’s made mistakes but doesn’t carry around her guilt. She seeks and discusses opposing viewpoints. Hell, at some point she even says she doesn’t see why people should own guns! That’s one step away from forcibly taking guns away from all true Americans!***

These aren’t bad things. These are the things that make her likable. And yet they are also the things that, in The Familiar, ultimately make her a monster who must be stopped.

The political aspect doesn’t take much digging to find. (In fact, it doesn’t take any; it’s right there on the surface and lacks only an explicit label.) Much like Katherine and Laura, Sam and Laura are defined by their opposition.

Katherine’s status as Madonna reinforces Laura’s as Whore, and vice versa. And Laura’s unwelcome intrusion into Sam’s rural, small-town, literally backwoods life serves as its own dichotomy. (She’s from, as though this says it all, “the city.”) They have opposing values, and in order for the film to be didactic at all, one set of those values has to conclusively be proven wrong.

That’s a dangerous and destructive mindset. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s foolish to believe that we can’t accomplish more when unified than we can while divided. Hanon has the right to say whatever he likes — it’s his film, and, frankly, it’s not a half-bad one — but I do think The Familiar would work better, and be more focused, if it were entirely about a struggle for Sam’s spiritual state, and not about one worldview functioning as the path to Heaven with the other being a direct portal to Hell.

Toward the end of the film, Rallo possesses Laura and tells Sam that Laura only came to him in the first place because she was pregnant, and she wanted him to help her raise the child.

Of course, since this is a demon speaking, we don’t know if there’s any truth to it. (Wisely, Hanon doesn’t confirm it either way.) But it’s framed, obviously, as a terrible thing for Laura to do, and evidence of her status as Whore.

In reality, though, I’m not sure that it is. It’s not clear what specifically made Laura a valid receptacle for Rallo. It could be her sexuality. It could be her liberal bent. It could be her openness to hearing others out. (The line, one might suggest, should be drawn before hearing out actual demons from Hell.)

But the climactic placement of Rallo’s explanation in the film suggests that Laura’s intentions when running to Sam were evil, giving the demon something to latch onto. It even knocks Rallo for a loop when Sam says, “Okay, sure. I’ll raise the kid. Now what?”

Rallo has no answer. He really thought that was his ace in the hole.

We don’t know if Laura was really pregnant. But even if she was…and even if she wanted Sam to help raise the child…what’s the problem?

Granted, she didn’t tell him about the child, but maybe she was waiting. Maybe she wanted to get a sense of what Sam was like now — and what his life was like now — before foisting a child on him. Maybe she did come with the intention of swindling him into caring for the kid, but thought better of it when she realized she had actual feelings for him, and might be able to create a real family together. Or, hey, maybe the fact that she was being chased around by Satan Jr. made some other things slip her mind.

The fact is that this grand reveal is meant — based upon its structural context — to cement Laura as the bad person in need of redemption. This again in opposition to Sam, the good person who is standing up to a demon as proof that he’s been redeemed.

But it doesn’t make me like Laura any less. Much like the casting of Spencer herself, the character isn’t a believable demon. She’s too good. She’s too real. Her flaws don’t register as flaws.

As much as the movie wants me to judge her, it’s hard to ignore the fact that nearly everybody I know in life has done far worse than she has, often with worse motives…and yet they’re still people. I’m okay with them. I like them, and I want to see them grow and mature and succeed.

I can’t hate Laura. I can’t hate Sam. All I see are two flawed people that have a lot in common at their cores, yet who we’re supposed to view as diametric opposites. I don’t think that either of them is right, and I don’t think that either of them is wrong. I think they both have a lot to learn, but I honestly feel as though Laura is closer to learning it. If that makes me a conduit for evil, so be it. If I show up pregnant on your doorstep, feel free to throw me out.

I just can’t help but wonder if The Familiar would have been a better movie if it were about two people learning from each other, rather than a movie about one learning from the other…especially when the other is kind of a fuckup.

It didn’t have to be this way. There’s a lot The Familiar does right. But it also strikes a sour, divisive note. It reinforces the concept of a definitive right way and a definitive wrong way to live one’s life, but it doesn’t provide a compelling argument for it. It’s right because it’s right, and that’s that.

There’s a decent personal story buried here, and sometimes it’s not even buried too deeply. The Familiar is about a man facing his demons who eventually ends up facing a demon. That can work. It falters when it casts the first stone at Laura, who is far more of a redemptive force than the movie actually realizes.

I didn’t hate The Familiar. I can’t say I recommend it, either. But it’s stuck with me. It’s given me things to think about.

And, one day, when Laura Spencer is the star she deserves to be, it will serve as one Hell of a fascinating footnote.

—–
* If there’s not a church-oriented PR firm called Cross Promotion there can be no God.

** Of course, I’m speaking of organized Christianity. Any human being has a right to follow whatever teachings they like in their own way. The moment you structure it, though, the maintenance of that very structure becomes an additional concern.

*** Charlie warns Sam as follows: “Anybody that doesn’t like guns…gotta be something wrong with them.” Sure enough, she opens the portal to Hell. This is why we don’t tolerate dissent, people!

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