Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

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!

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. This is the first installment in our trilogy; the second will go live October 24, and the third on Halloween itself.

The films I feature in Trilogy of Terror could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really. This year I’m covering Christian horror. Which, evidently, exists.

Part of the reason I chose this theme was that I wanted to watch Harmless.

Okay, let me take that back, because that’s a lie, and we know where liars go. What I wanted to watch was “that movie about the haunted box of pornography.” That’s all I remembered…that unforgettable and thoroughly ridiculous concept for a film that really, truly couldn’t be anything short of hilarious in execution.

For a while, this movie seemed to be everywhere. Sites I frequented were writing about it and friends were sharing the trailer on Facebook. It looked like a riot. It was, so far as I could tell, a found-footage horror film about a man whose family is terrorized by the monster he let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a box full of pornographic magazines.

I couldn’t remember its title, and I didn’t even know if it had come out…but I knew I’d seen the trailer making the rounds years ago, and surely it couldn’t take that long to make.

And, to be fair, while I had no faith (haha) in the film being good, it wasn’t necessarily doomed from the outset. Yes, it would be low budget. Yes, it would be preachy. Yes, it would be overacted.

But pornography addiction is a very real thing. It’s an actual problem, like any addiction is. And there could possibly be some twisted mileage to get out of turning it into a horror film, with the demon of addiction personified. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I can imagine it working. It would need to be self-aware and at least periodically humorous, but I can see the concept being conducive to exploring addiction — and the way it can tear families apart — in a memorable and interesting way.

After all, isn’t fighting addiction a lot like fighting demons? (The answer is “yes” because that’s exactly the idiom people use to describe that situation.) A movie can bring a demon to life and force the characters (and us) to look it in the eye. The fact that a spiritual filmmaker might see that demon as real and a secular one might see it as a useful metaphor is a big difference, but that shouldn’t in itself dictate how believable or enjoyable the film is.

Unfortunately, it looks like Harmless was never actually made. The trailer lives on, but evidently Rich Praytor — the film’s director — shot footage just for this purpose. They weren’t clips from a film he was making, but rather proofs of concept. I have to give him credit for that. It was a labor of love, and he edited this trailer hoping people would buy in.

I mean that literally. Harmless was a Kickstarter project that failed to meet its paltry goal of $12,500. It pulled in just under $600 in pledges before Praytor saw the writing on the wall and cancelled the campaign.

Of course, as someone who has his own failed Kickstarter behind him, I don’t see that as a specific reason for mockery. Praytor had an idea and he asked the world if it was interested. The world collectively replied, “Nah,” and he moved on with his life. All in all, that’s admirable.

That was in 2012, and as much as I scoured the internet in the hopes that Harmless eventually materialized in some other form, I found nothing. There are sites (including IMDB) that claim it was released, but there’s no evidence of it, the Kickstarter was cancelled, and there are other sources that indeed say the film never happened. The world is poorer for it.

And yet, in 2014, another Richard Praytor film appeared. This one was called The Lock In. And it was a found-footage horror film about teens who are terrorized by the monster they let loose in their lives…which hitched a ride, apparently, in a pornographic magazine.

Harmless may have died, but its spirit rose again in The Lock In. And thus we have this year’s Trilogy of Terror.

Unless it’s relevant to the film — or my reading thereof — I wouldn’t usually bring up outside details of a director’s life. But in this case, looking for Harmless, I came across a lot of information about Praytor. Not as a filmmaker, but as a stand-up comedian. You can watch the nearest thing to a highlight reel here. To his credit, he received an endorsement of his talents from Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. To his larger discredit, the Left Behind series is by no means known for its quality and completely lacks a sense of humor, so these words of praise are exactly as relevant to his craft as they would be coming from his local butcher.

I’m mentioning this because…well, Christian entertainers gonna entertain Christians. I get it. But what was this tepid, family-friendly chuckle-slinger doing investing himself into two different horror movie projects? If Praytor’s gift is comedy, and that’s the talent he’s honed for over a decade now, and what he uses to speak what he considers to be the language of Christ, then why wasn’t he making comedy films instead? Especially as the premise of a spooky porno book would have to work far less hard to succeed as farce than it would as horror?

I honestly have no idea, and I’m baffled. Praytor’s comedy in that compilation isn’t the sort of thing that appeals to me directly, but there’s clearly room for it. I don’t find it especially smart or clever, but I can’t imagine there are many church-appropriate stand-up comedians jostling for the space he occupies. I’d be willing to believe he’s filling a niche. But having watched The Lock In, I’d be unwilling to believe it was directed by anyone with a single funny bone in his body.

The Lock In is terrible, but that’s not its crime. Many movies are terrible and yet compulsively, deliriously watchable. Mystery Science Theater 3000 launched a widespread appreciation of cheesy movies, and the genuine financial success of things like The Room and Sharknado proves that people don’t always need a movie to be good before they’ll devote their time to it…they just need to get some kind of pleasure out of it. Watching the wheels fall off an inept production does bring along with it a kind of thrill, and it’s one that sticks with us. We could watch hundreds of competent ballet performances, but we’re always going to remember the one in which the lead dancer tripped and fell over.

The Lock In, though, is neither competent nor is it humorously awful. It’s just a bad movie. It’s one that does nothing right, but also fails to do anything wrong in any interesting ways. It’s the kind of movie that might have been made by somebody who spent a few hours reading about what movies were, but had never actually seen one.

Praytor doesn’t seem to know enough about film to even attempt anything interesting, and so nothing in the film is. And when the central threat of your film is a pornography ghost, that’s both a real problem and a big missed opportunity.

The plot is simple enough. (Beware of spoilers for a movie you’ve never heard of and which isn’t available for purchase anywhere.)

On their way to a church lock-in, three friends stop to clean out their car. Justin is the one holding the camera, Nick is the nice one who has a crush on a girl named Jessica, and Blake is a prankster. Blake finds a dirty magazine in a dumpster, and thinks it would be funny to smuggle it into church.

He does, and strange things start happening, such as a garbage can falling over, and somebody off camera turning on a faucet. All of the other lock-in participants vanish, leaving the three teenaged idiots to be mildly inconvenienced in the least inventive ways imaginable. At one point they find another of the participants, but then she vanishes again, so there was really no point. The kids scream a lot, and eventually Praytor hits the 90-minute mark and the film ends.

If that sounds impressively unfun for a movie about a pornography demon, that’s because it is. At every opportunity, Praytor chooses the least interesting way forward. But he does — stopped clock that he is — hit upon a strong concept for the film’s presentation right out of the gate. It’s not original, but it’s appropriate, and it sets the film into a kind of identifiable logic that, sadly, falls apart the longer you look at it.

It begins with what should be a brief interview of Chris, a former youth pastor. I say it should be brief because it actually runs to nearly five minutes, which is a Hell of a long time for a character we don’t know to speak dead-eyed to the camera before the movie even starts.

Chris mentions that footage exists of the lock-in that made him resign from his position as youth pastor, and they’ve edited it down to just the highlights so that the church elders could see what happened. Then there’s a static title card that says:

The following footage is intended for review only by the church board. Any duplication or reproduction is strictly prohibited.

That’s good. It tells us immediately what kind of film we’re going to see (found footage), it explains why this footage happens to be the same length as a movie (it was edited to give a specific audience a beat-by-beat overview of what happened), and it makes us feel as though we’re going to see something important (we’re breaking the strict prohibition by not being a church elder / member of the church board).

That single slide does a lot of work setting the film into motion. Sadly, it’s about the only thing that works, but Praytor at least plays into the kinds of things you can do with the concept. By allowing some unknown editor within the world of his film to “edit” what we’re seeing, we aren’t subject to an hour and a half of unbroken footage directly from the perspective of Justin’s camcorder.

Instead, this was assembled after the fact, with the ostensible goal of providing as full a view of that night’s events as possible, Praytor lets his phantom editor splice in security camera footage, Chris’s interview, and, at one point, footage from a separate recording that has nothing to do with the lock-in but does provide further insight into what’s happening.

That’s all fine. In theory.

In practice, these aspects all fall short. The spliced-in separate recording (which we’ll discuss in greater detail later) doesn’t offer as much insight (or horror) as Praytor thinks it does. The security camera footage could provide a valuable outsider’s perspective, but all it really shows us is a second angle of kids walking down hallways. And nearly all of the film — and certainly all of the important moments — are seen through Justin’s camcorder anyway, usually in extraordinarily (and unwisely) long scenes that positively cry out for editing.

The fact that Chris opens the film telling us it has been edited to just the most important information becomes an unintentional retroactive joke; if you’re editing this down to show the elders that a pornography ghost stomped around their church when nobody was looking, why didn’t we cut out the long scenes of the kids waiting for each other to get ready, making small talk with parents, and sitting at traffic lights?

Admittedly, those are the things that can help with world building in film, particularly at the beginning, when audiences are still getting their bearings. But this footage doesn’t need to build a world; it occupies the same world as the elders who are meant to be viewing it. They know these places, know these people, and know these issues. All they have to see is what happened. Introducing this film as a piece of evidence for church investigation is smart, but incompatible with the actual content of the film.

Praytor seems to want to have it both ways. The scary Blair Witch Project / Paranormal Activity hybrid that traces a tragedy as it unfolds, and a believably mundane buddy film about three youngsters who meddle with things they shouldn’t. But the two approaches are at odds; The Lock In explicitly claims to be one thing, and then relentlessly positions itself as the other.

It’s strange, and the fact that there’s a didactic core to the film that insists viewers never look at pornography at any point in their lives doesn’t do it any favors. It can’t be too scary, because a wide audience needs to see this and be cautioned against the scourge of women who expose their nipples. The boys can’t be too realistic, because teenage boys curse and make crass jokes and do other family-inappropriate things. The Lock In works so hard to make sure it can appeal to everyone that it appeals to precisely no-one.

That’s a gap that all overtly Christian movies struggle to cross. (No pun intended.) Horror movies can’t be too scary, comedies can’t be irreverent, and tragic tales can only be so tragic. These are films pitched directly to the choir, which has always amused me. They aim to teach, but they’re written for those who are already taught. The final product has to be clean and acceptable enough to those who have already learned the lesson, preventing the lesson from reaching the wider audience that actually needs to hear it.

But…who needs to hear it?

In the case of The Lock In, I’m not entirely sure. People who like pornography, I guess. Or at least people who don’t actively hate it so much that they’ll dedicate months of their lives to making a film to convince others that they should hate it, too.

Which is…an odd lesson. If you are going to reach sinners and convince them not to sin, why is this specific sin the one you’re cautioning them against? Why a modern-day parable about the importance of masturbating less? A good number of the Ten Commandments are still pressing concerns for society…do we really need to focus on a deep-cut lesson like this that Jesus himself couldn’t have cared less about?

Once again, though, pornography addiction is a serious problem for those who struggle with it. But I’d argue — with confidence — that the problem is the “addiction” half of that phrase, and not the “pornography” one. Addiction to anything is inherently bad. Even relatively benign addictions sap us of our focus, our money, our time, and drive wedges between us and the people we love. Then, of course, you get into addictions to drugs and alcohol, which additionally sap us of our health and our lives. Further, addictive behaviors involving violence or non-consensual sex acts add direct consequences for others, beyond the addicted individual.

Addiction is absolutely a problem for many people. There’s certainly a scale upon which addictions can be ranked from bad to worse, but addiction to anything should be addressed.

The problem is that The Lock In isn’t about the evils of pornography addiction…it’s about the evils of pornography.

The kids with the dirty magazine don’t struggle with addiction. They just find some pictures of ladies with staples through their stomachs and barely look at any of it. Blake hides it in Nick’s bag as a joke. Nick’s crush Jessica finds it when riffling through his bag for cookies. They immediately get rid of it.

That’s not addiction.

And while the slippery slope possibility is in play — and largely born out by the separate footage we’ll discuss shortly — I don’t buy it. Yes, addiction often has roots in behavior that seems frivolous. It’s just a cigarette. One more beer won’t hurt. Yeah, I’ll pop a pill…everyone else is popping them and they seem fine.

But here, the kids don’t even demonstrate an interest in the magazine. And that’s the interference from the choir again. For these three modern-day Onans to show interest in pornography would be…well, that would be unseemly. And if we want to show this in church, or watch it with grandma, we can’t have that. So even if the kids are meant to represent the first stage of addiction, it doesn’t work. This is even sillier than a movie that shows alcoholism starting with one sip of wine…this is a movie that shows alcoholism starting with an accidental glimpse of the liquor aisle in a supermarket.

In fact, we don’t even get a glimpse of the pornography here, which breaks the reality significantly. Early in the film, the ‘Baters Three find the haunted pornography in a dumpster. Justin, the documentarian, films Blake and Nick as they look at it, but he never attempts to get into an angle that shows the material. Granted, I don’t expect a Christian film to include clear shots of Hustler spreads, but why is Justin filming anything if he’s not even interested in showing his subject?

Instead we see Blake and Nick poring over the magazine and making necessarily vague comments about it. (“Nice little magazine,” says one, referring to the pornography. “They don’t make them like that anymore,” replies the other, referring to the great advances in vagina manufacturing that had been made since the pornography was published.)

But Justin never shows us what it is, which is odd for someone who is meant to be documenting the experience. It’s like someone making a nature documentary by filming some scientists talking about their findings without ever turning the camera slightly so that they could actually film the findings. It goes against every creative and human impulse, and it makes the film feel unnatural. That’s a problem that’s even worse for found-footage films, when the entire thing relies on a feeling of worrying familiarity.

Of course, we could assume that Justin is a bit prudish himself, and wouldn’t want to personally see — let alone film — a dirty magazine. But we know this isn’t true, because at the very beginning and the very end of the movie, we see that he possesses pornography of his own. (Quite why he filmed himself flipping through skinmags at the start of the same tape he’d use to film the lock-in is beyond me.)

The fact that we don’t even get context for what the magazine contains, specifically, means it could be a Victoria’s Secret catalog for all we know. Which is a shame, because periodically The Lock In does bump up against some legitimate concerns.

For instance, Pastor Chris — upon discovering the magazine in the church — chides the boys for looking at something that degrades women, and there’s an actual discussion to be had there. The film doesn’t have it, but people are entitled to that opinion. I personally don’t have an issue with pornography as long as the participants know what they’re doing, are willing to do it, and have the right to say no at any point. If that’s how somebody chooses to makes his or her living, so be it. But I can understand the perspective of somebody who thinks it’s inherently demeaning. I don’t agree, but I understand, and they have every right to express their concern.

The fact that we don’t know what the magazine contains, though, works against that concern. Are we talking about some truly appalling smut? Or are we talking about the lingerie section of a Target flier? I keep referring to the magazine as pornographic, and that’s clearly the film’s intention as well, but its actual nature is never revealed. Pastor Chris could either be making a fair point about being respectful enough of other humans to look away from their bad choices, or he could be a Helen Lovejoy, howling with dismay that somebody modeled a swimsuit.

We don’t know, and without knowing, it’s difficult to invest. There’s clearly a vast spectrum between those two extremes, and without defining the specific point on that spectrum Pastor Chris and the Three Jacks are referring to, we can’t share in either their response or their concern. The underpants catalog can’t be met with the same degree of indignation as the snuff film. So where do we start reacting? Where do we start pushing back? To what degree do we fight to keep it out of our lives?

Whatever the nature of the porn, the kids have to speak with Pastor Chris. He lectures them for a while about how looking at these things is like driving to somebody’s house and spying on his wife through the window, which is objectively wrong in every possible way.

Then he teaches them a lesson by rolling it and making them smoke every last bit of pornography.

Frankly, I think Harmless was the smarter idea for a film. It still would have been terrible, but I can see it making some kind of point. The demon that terrorizes that protagonist’s family could function as a metaphor for the way pornography addiction could (figuratively) tear his family apart. The Lock In doesn’t have those kinds of consequences at its core. Nobody’s in danger, aside from the kids who broke the rules in the first place.

With Harmless, you’d have a family of innocents paying for the sins of the father. The stakes are naturally higher, because they don’t deserve whatever evil or turmoil the patriarch brought into their home. On some default level, you want him to atone for what he’s done and for everyone else to make it out unscathed. Here, in The Lock In, once things go wrong, literally everyone else is whisked away somewhere safe. The three boys are left alone in the church, and anyone who isn’t involved is sealed away somewhere that the bad things can’t get them.

That’s a serious miscalculation. Without innocence, there is no horror. There’s nothing at stake. The kids who walked into the meat grinder get ground into meat. That isn’t scary…that’s just a process.

Of course, this opens up a further discussion of its own: horror films are often morality tales, which you’d think would lead them to fit quite well with a didactic, Christian approach.

But innocence is relative. In a horror film, a character may be killed because he or she is guilty of a number of infractions. Having sex, disturbing a spirit, or even just walking into a room they were told not to enter. A knife comes down, fake blood spurts up, and we’re on to our next victim. The specific morality changes from film to film (and from villain to villain), but nearly always the punishment comes as a direct result of something the victims did. The killer didn’t like that they did it, and so he or she exacts revenge.

Rarely, though, will those in the audience agree with the killer’s sense of morality. I’m having trouble thinking of an example of a horror film in which the audience is morally aligned with the killer’s perspective. We may well agree that the teenagers shouldn’t have snuck into the woods to have sex. We may well agree that the shifty guy shouldn’t have stolen the idol. We may well agree that the moron shouldn’t have gone into the basement. But in each case, the brutal reprisal is likely far beyond what we would consider fair. These characters aren’t chided for their perceived misdeeds; they’re decapitated, disemboweled, flayed alive.

The horror lies in that moral gulf. If the punishments were fair, they wouldn’t be scary. They’d be just.

Therefore it’s important that however the villain’s moral compass is calibrated, it’s not in alignment with a representative member of the audience. If it were, well…they wouldn’t be a villain. (And even less would they be a monster.)

Do you see the discrepancy? In a Christian film — one which operates under the rule of the Christian God — we don’t have a crazed man in a hockey mask. We have The Lord Above. There’s still a moral code by which the characters are judged and punished, but those punishments can’t be unjust, because they’re meted out by God Almighty.

The Christian God is fair, the Christian God is loving, and the Christian God forgives. If the Christian God punishes you, it’s because you deserve punishment. Exactly that punishment. There’s no room for discussion, because the Christian God is perfect. When Jason hacks you apart, you don’t deserve it. When God does it, you definitively do.

As with the meat grinder, it’s just a process. Horror films nearly always feature a psychopathic presence or force carving its way through people who don’t deserve to die. God — from the perspective of a Christian director and Christian audience — can’t possibly be viewed through that lens. That’s not what He is, and a film meant to bring others to Him can’t — and by no means should — portray Him as a crazed, vindictive killer.

Which means that there is no innocence here. The sinners get exactly the punishment in line with the degree of their sin. That’s not my personal opinion or reading of the film; that’s what it has to be, because the punishment comes directly from God. It must be right. It must be fair. Therefore it must not be horror.

It’s interesting, the fact that two kinds of morality tales turn out to be entirely incompatible. I’d honestly have expected horror to be a fairly useful vehicle for proselytizing before The Lock In convinced me otherwise.

In fact, injecting the actual Christian God into the film — as opposed to, say, some undefined force of goodness — becomes more problematic the longer you think about it. Perhaps the most amusing wrinkle is that of Pastor Chris, whose interview at the beginning of the film occurs at some point after the night of the lock-in, and Chris talks about how shaken up he was by everything Justin captures on film.

Of course, those words turn out to reveal Chris as one hell of a wimp, as the scariest thing in the footage was a garbage can falling over. But before we get to any of that, Chris spells out the fact that what happened was so horrifying, so soul shattering, so disturbing that he had to retire from the church immediately.

Which is the sort of thing that would be fine in a normal horror film. A docent quits his job at a museum after a night of being tormented by ghosts. A gravedigger flees and becomes a shattered hobo after seeing a skeleton claw its way up from the ground. A nurse can no longer bring herself to work with sick people after barely living through a zombie epidemic.

Fine. Your life is one way. Secure, stable, and predictable. A night of terror throws everything out of whack, and you’re unable to find balance again. That’s okay. That’s human.

But it doesn’t work in a Christian film, with a pastor, because you don’t get to run from spiritual warfare. You are called and commanded to fight. That’s why it’s called spiritual warfare, and not a spiritual scuffle happening across the street that you should probably just ignore. It’s “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” not “Quick, Out the Back Door, While Satan’s Not Looking.”

The Christian God commands us to stand firm in the face of the devil. Of temptation. Of evil itself. Both testaments of the Bible are littered with the corpses of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their faith. They were taunted. Tortured. Killed. They are presented not as fools for clinging to their faith even when it meant their lives, but as heroes. As martyrs. As examples to be followed. Instead, Pastor Chris followed the example laid out in this classic hymn: “When danger reared its ugly head / he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

I know he might have been afraid of dying, but that’s literally what you’re supposed to do for your faith. You can’t even make the argument that by surviving he is able to reach more people, because he stopped being a pastor!

Pastor Chris, from a narrative standpoint, is meant to frame what we’re about to see. He’s a much more easily shaken Rod Serling. Praytor needs him to be so frightened that he quit his job to sell insurance — and cut off all contact with the kids he used to mentor…the children who relied on him…including those who had nothing to do with what unfolded that night — because we in the audience need to grasp the severity of just what went down.

But, from a Christian standpoint, Pastor Chris doesn’t get to do that. He isn’t allowed to see the fiery eyes of the dark lord and flee for his life. He must fight. Must stare the devil down. Must protect his charges. That’s what he’s there for, specifically. Instead, we are left with the mental image of Pastor Chris scampering away to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

Pastor Chris’s response means he can only function as a comic character, but this isn’t a comedy, and nothing is funny. It also means that he can’t be the wise and honest man of great integrity that the film needs him to be. If he is, then he was a shitty youth pastor. And if he’s not, then his film-opening cautions against what we are about to see are meaningless.

And, again, please remember that what he was shaken up about was footage of a trash can falling over.

I don’t mean to keep harping on that, but for a horror movie, in which a demon is awakened, in which teenagers ostensibly fend for their lives, in which evil itself is on the prowl, and which lasts an hour and a half, you’d expect something more to happen. You really would. And it doesn’t. It’s a movie about haunted pornography, and a trash can falling over is its moneyshot. If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.

In fairness to the film, other theoretically spooky things do happen. Everyone vanishing, for instance. Doors locking of their own accord. The church being thrust into literal darkness. Though Satan, terrified of being cited for yet another OSHA violation, makes sure to keep the fire exit signs lit.

But those things are more for atmosphere (darkness is scary) and logistics (there isn’t a movie if the kids can open a door and escape). In short, those aren’t the scares…they set the stage for scares to come.

And come they don’t.

A few attempts at scares are made, such as when the kids find an irrelevant little boy crouched alone in a room. They go up to him, he makes a demon face, and that’s that. He factors into nothing, let alone any conceivable theme in the film, and doesn’t have anything to do with what came before or what follows.

Strangely — but not surprisingly — the other scare pulls the exact same trick. This time it’s a man in some interview footage the kids find in Pastor Chris’s office. The man speaks about his addiction to pornography, and we get as close as we’ll ever get to the film addressing a real-world consequence of looking at too much porn. In fact, it almost sounds as though this guy is reciting the elevator pitch for Harmless. Might as well stick it somewhere, I guess.

The guy tells his sad tale of addiction and of a sense of creeping horror in his home that he feels while cranking one out to www.actualphotosoffemaleshoulders.com. At some point during the recording, Pastor Chris gets up and leaves the room. (Which seems to be his way of dealing with any spiritual struggle.) The guy makes his own demon face at the camera.

Boo!

It’s not scary — it’s pretty funny — but all the scene did was make me wonder why Pastor Chris filmed this to begin with. What’s he going to do with footage of a parishoner describing his sad masturbation sessions? It’s strange. And didn’t Pastor Chris look at the footage later and see the demon? I don’t get it. What was it for if not for reviewing later? The demon face wasn’t even an illusion that the kids saw; it was actually in Pastor Chris’s film, as evidenced by the fact that we don’t see it through Justin’s viewfinder…it’s spliced in from the original source.

At one point the boys find Jessica shrieking in a closet, which comes as some kind of relief to them, but then she gets abducted by an unseen pornography goblin, or something, and none of them bat an eye. In fact, they later perform some kind of strange puppet show with paper cups to amuse themselves (a cuppet show?), which certainly goes a long way toward convincing me they can’t possibly be in any danger at all. I wouldn’t put on a puppet show after finding out I lost a $20 bill, let alone after I saw my girlfriend get dragged screaming into Hell.

It’s easy to figure out that Jessica is there (“left behind,” to use a term I just invented) because she also touched the magazine. But that’s more than a little unfair. She pulled a paper bag out of Nick’s backpack because she thought there were snacks in there. The moment she noticed it contained pornography, she shrieked and reared back, as all soldiers of Christ are commanded to do. She even got on the phone to complain to some unrelated peer that a guy she knows has gazed upon a woman’s flesh.

So why is she being punished? That…doesn’t seem just. Does God (as viewed by Praytor) insist that you don’t gaze upon pornography with lust in your heart? Or does He insist that you don’t even accidentally touch it with the back of your hand? Poor Jessica.

The three boys are then picked off one by one, with the exception of Justin, who stumbles around alone for a while, and then finds himself back at the beginning of the night, as the lock-in begins. Everybody is safe and accounted for, Pastor Chris is giving the same little “don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” speech he gave at the start of the event, and nobody believes Justin when he starts describing the crazy things that happened.

Which in turn makes him regret that never thought to film the entire thing hey waitaminute…

Justin never gets the idea to grab Pastor Chris by the neck and say, “Look, Bozo,” and replay the footage — the evidence — that he’s literally holding in his hand. He doesn’t do anything with it.

Think about that. He has an actual, physical recording that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that the God they are told to worship and the demons they are told to fear are real. He has proof. He can save every soul in that room just by pressing “play.” He can save every soul in the world by uploading this to the internet. Hell, at the very least, he can claim his one million dollars from The Amazing Randi.

At this point, Justin is an actual prophet. He should be coming down from the mountain with his hair white, preaching the word of God. He should be the modern-day Moses…one who’s actually in a better position, because he was allowed to bring his GoPro up Mount Sinai.

Instead he just shrugs and goes home, amazed nobody else remembers what happened.

And, again, this wasn’t an illusion; it did happen, which is why the footage is being submitted to the church elders and Pastor Chris is selling insurance out of the trunk of his car. This is real. God and Satan revealed themselves to Justin in turn, and allowed him to film their arm-wrestling match. Mere moments later, he rides silently in the back of his friend’s car, on the way home to throw out his pornography.

The ultimate cosmic truth was revealed to him, and him alone. He also has it documented. The fact that he uses this profound, urgent knowledge to give up wanking would be comical if The Lock In had any degree of self-awareness whatsoever. Instead it’s like a man developing super powers, but only using them to warm up his coffee.

The Lock In doesn’t just fail at making its point…I think it unmakes other points. It’s a damp squib when it should be a sensational blast. It’s a can’t-miss premise for a legendarily bad movie that misses the mark of fun entirely. It’s the anti-masturbation screed the world never needed, told through an illogical format and unwatchable clumsiness.

It’s difficult to fault the actors. They’re asked to scream and run in circles far more often than they’re asked to recite lines, and the lines they do recite are clearly not of their own making. (The teenagers all speak like what a 40-something Christian humorist assumes teenagers must speak like.) Their hearts aren’t in this, and I’m proud of them for that. They don’t even get credited in the film, and I’d be shocked if they got paid for it.

Whoever they are, I hope they make it to Heaven. The ridicule they’ll receive from their peers until the day they die for starring in Don’t Touch Willy: The Horror Movie is punishment enough.

Note: Due to the nature of this year’s theme, please keep comments relevant. Discussing the ways in which these films handle theology is appropriate, but bashing or preaching outside of that context is not. Let’s talk about what the films get wrong. Let’s talk about what I get wrong. Let’s not talk about what Christianity, or any religion, gets wrong. There are places to do that, but this is a place where I say bad words at movies.

Around this time last year, my girlfriend introduced me to the music of Carman. I’ve been…fascinated ever since. And, to be frank, I’m shocked that he hasn’t been pounced upon by the relentless mockery of the wider internet.

Let me be clear at the start: I’m not, by any means, suggesting that Carman Licciardello — who performs under the mononym Carman, the spelling of which makes him sound like a Mega Man villain — should be mocked. I’m certainly not calling upon people to gang up on him or anything along those lines. Period. But I am sort of surprised it hasn’t happened naturally.

Carman is a Christian musician. Not a musician who is Christian, but rather a Christian who preaches primarily through music. I’d be tempted to call him a Christian rocker or something, but the guy raps, funks, boogies, honky-tonks, and discos across so many genres that I feel I’d be doing the sheer variety of his output a disservice by calling it anything specific at all.

He’s also terrible.

Like…just…just bad.

No. I take that back. He’s not just bad. We’ve all heard bad musicians before. But Carman takes it further, because he doesn’t just record music; he records short films to go along with his music.

Here’s one in which he moseys into a wild west saloon and guns down Satan.

So…that happened. And this isn’t just some weird oddity of a music video from a strange point in his career. This is who Carman is. This is how he operates. Spiritual or not, you have to admit, this is terrible stuff. And yet…it’s kind of incredible.

I’m genuinely intrigued by Carman, and shocked that I’d never heard of him before. He’s exactly the blend of sincerity and absurdity that you’d think would have landed him on my radar at some point. Christ, this is exactly the sort of thing I look for every year when I curate material for the Xmas Bash!!!!!.

In fact, speaking of the Xmas Bash!!!!!, I was very tempted to include one of his specific videos this last time around. In the end I decided not to. Yeah, anything Jesus-y would fit, but if it’s not about the birth of Christ or Christmas in general, I tend to feel like it’s too much of a reach. So there was no Carman last year.

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you the video I would have shown, in which Carman parades around in lockstep and whacks on an incredibly sexy Satan with a big candy cane.

These are real. These are not supposed to be funny. And yet, when I watch them, I have to wonder if I’ve ever seen anything funnier in my life. In fact, they’re so funny that I try not to laugh, for fear of missing something even more incredible.

He’s creating these works of astounding comic genius without even realizing it. He’s the Jan Terri of Christian fundamentalism.

And while it’s tempting to assume he’s in on the joke, or at least being a bit tongue in cheek, he’s not. He’s deadly serious. He truly believes he’s saving souls, and that’s important to him. His website and any bit of promotional material I’ve seen ascribes specific figures to the number of souls he’s saved. (No clue how you’d tabulate that, personally…) The marketing materials all speak of his intensity. His passion. The great work he’s doing for God.

Not one of them ever mentions the guy’s sense of humor. Here’s why, I’m sure: he doesn’t have one.

This is just who Carman is.

Even when he accidentally channels the scene in which Homer brings Bart to a gay steel mill:

This is real life. I need you to remember that. This is real life. (Though I’ll give him credit for the groove in that one; it’s by far his best, and it deserves a much better song sitting on top of it.)

Carman’s first album was released in 1980. Since then, he’s released twenty-two more. The guy can’t stop.

And we watch.

And we shake our heads.

And we laugh.

But that’s not the extent of my fascination. Sure, some guy writes awful songs and films vanity music videos, and that’s a hoot.

That isn’t all, though. Because my girlfriend was there. And remembers this music from when it was released.

She wasn’t laughing. She was terrified.

She even got dragged to a live Carman concert. (And if you’ve ever wondered if there could be a Hell, please refer to the fact that I was able to string together the words “live Carman concert.”) It was horrifying. The imagery wasn’t silly or campy to a girl that age; it was frightening.

Looking back on it, she sees that it’s all a bit ropey. But at the time, it was scary stuff. She was young and impressionable. Carman had her ear. And he didn’t use it to speak of Christ’s love or God’s plan or eternal redemption.

No. He used it to speak of Satanists, evil, demons, witchcraft, torture, torment. As he does here, in what I can assure you is the least infectious song ever written:

Is that scary? Probably not. But to a child or young adult who has been primed to fear for the safety of his or her soul, Carman’s defiant adventure in the Satanist’s dayroom feels like it has real stakes. Listeners are made to feel like they’ll need to fight every day of their lives. It suggests that conversations with people who think or believe differently than you should be confrontations.

Carman knew, and knows, that. He embraces that. You and I can watch these and laugh, but he’s not making them for us. We’re lost, as far as he’s concerned, and good riddance to us. He makes these songs, these videos, these harrowing concert experiences for those who are already scared. He taps into those insecurities, and tells his listeners that they’re right to feel insecure. Carman ministers terror. He’s inept enough that you and I think he’s a harmless clown. But to those who don’t know better, he’s a source of spiritual anguish and actual nightmares.

That’s interesting to me. Carman is far from the only person to preach a gospel of fear, but he is the only one whose methods resemble a fantasy episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. See, for instance, this video, the CGI in which makes Rapsittie Street Kids look like Finding Nemo:

Legitimate kudos for the literal reading of “God is my co-pilot,” though.

Part of me wonders how spiritual Carman actually feels. Certainly Christianity is important to him, at the very least because it gave him a career and a platform for his awful, awful talents.

But then you learn that he sold his house to self-finance a film that he wrote, in which he plays a retired boxer who ministers to children.

I’m not kidding:

That’s all lovely. Then you actually watch the film, and see that there’s almost no ministry or even spirituality in it at all; it’s just Carman showing off his muscles, seducing a much younger Latina, and at one point blowing up a truck full of would-be assassins. It’s Carman the action hero, when he promised his audience Carman the man of God.

Of course, that’s just ancillary material. My girlfriend and I did watch that film — it’s called The Champion, if you hate yourself — and had a good laugh at just how accidentally immoral (and often non-sensical) it turned out to be. But Carman isn’t a filmmaker; he’s a musician. If you’re going to understand the contents of his heart, his music is what you’ll need to focus on.

And, even there, something about Carman just rings false. No, I don’t enjoy his tunes, but at the same time they don’t feel…genuine.

I think I’ve figured out why. There’s something missing: there’s no humility.

When you think of godly people or godly characters or even the godly humans you encounter in the Bible, you see humility. You see other things, of course, but humility is a pretty big aspect. It’s a bit of a running theme. Hell, it’s an example.

But Carman isn’t humble. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in the songs embedded above, but God and Jesus get some basic lip-service now and then. It’s Satan who really interests him. It’s Satan who keeps making cameos. It’s Satan who seems to inspire Carman more than God does. God gets a “yeah, thanks” every so often; Satan gets six verses and a chorus.

In fact, there’s a lot of Christian virtue that just isn’t…there. Like, all of it. Yes, we’ve seen that you’re willing to bitchslap Satan six ways from Sunday, Carman, but where are you helping the needy? Being there for someone in need? Standing up for the oppressed? Loving the neighbor who wronged you? Donating your time and money and energy to fight for the rights of your fellow man?

Why isn’t that stuff in these Christian songs? Why wouldn’t that stuff be in Christian songs?

I find this all to be both amusing and unnerving. Carman’s method of spreading the word of God is done in a way that honestly seems better suited to delivering the message of Satan. It’s prideful, defiant, unwilling to listen or engage, self-concerned, brutal. It’s all swagger and bravado and bluster. It’s full of spite and anger. It’s self-righteous. It’s mean.

I don’t know. I’ve never met the guy. I have nothing against him, and I find his output deeply funny. I hope you do, too.

But I also think of him a pretty amazing character. One I’d be proud of having written. Mainly because I think he’d make for a perfect protagonist in a cautionary tale.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

Okay, okay, it’s a week late. I would have loved for this to run on Christmas week, but there wasn’t much I could do apart from either a) review the show out of order or b) review two episodes in a week so that this could run sooner.

In regards to A, I didn’t feel that would really be fair. I know continuity isn’t one of ALF‘s strongest points, but if I decided to jump all around and resequence the episodes, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t missing information that would have helped me to understand something better. ALF is a lousy show, but I want to make sure I’m appraising its actual lousiness, and not confusing myself into finding new issues that aren’t really there.

In regards to B no fucking way am I reviewing two episodes in a week.

What I decided to do, for those that missed it, is host a live stream of this episode the week of Christmas. I’m writing this review in advance of that, because I don’t want to accidentally include anything you guys might have said, or have my opinions colored by the immense outpouring of love and affection that I expect happened when we all watched this together. So, yeah. That was the best I could really do. If you don’t like it, go start your own ALF review project. And if you do, let me know, so I can stop mine.

Anyway it’s Christmas Eve in the Tanner house! Willie and Kate are laying in bed reading old Christmas cards, which shows just how desperate they are for any excuse to avoid having sex with each other. ALF comes in wearing his stocking on his head and waving a noise-maker around, announcing that he hid all the eggs.

Yes, it’s stupid. But, you know what? I’m always going on about how ALF should be getting Earth things wrong, and that’s what’s happening here. So, God help me, I actually like this. Granted, he should be misunderstanding much more than this…but while you could conceivably base an episode around ALF misunderstanding the concept of a museum, or how the bus lines work or something, Christmas is truly a goldmine.

It’s a more or less global event, after all. No matter where you are, within any culture that chooses to celebrate it, you’ll find it tangled up with all sorts of traditions and and connotations and iconography that make perfect sense to you, because you’ve lived with it all your life. To an interplanetary interloper, however, it would be absolutely baffling. And it would lead to literally countless ways for the creature to misunderstand what’s happening around him.

Birthdays, for instance, might seem a bit silly to an alien, but you could at least explain them pretty easily. “So-and-so was born on this day, however many years ago. Every time another year passes, we celebrate and give him presents.” That might sound silly to the alien, but there wouldn’t be too much room for confusion.

Think of everything attached to Christmas, though. The birth of Christ. Who wasn’t actually born anywhere near Christmas. The co-opting of a Pagan holiday so that Christians could avoid detection. Christmas lists. Carols. TV specials. A tree that you bring inside and decorate. Stockings hanging over a fireplace. Presents sneakily dropped off in the middle of the night. Eggnog. Santa Claus. The North Pole. Flying reindeer, elfin toymakers, milk and cookies…

The list goes on. And I’m just describing the stuff that would come to mind for me. An Englishman would probably add Christmas crackers to that list. A German would shout a lot. You get the picture.

So, yeah. This is the right thing to do. Especially since the fact that during the course of the conversation ALF confuses it with Easter, New Year’s and Halloween proves that he’s trying. He’s not being a dick, for once. He’s just lost. We Earthlings have an awful lot of holidays and they each come with their attendant traditions and mores and preparations. He’s mixing them up not because he wants to ruin things, but because there’s too much for an outsider to keep straight.

This is good. This is the right way to do it. Even ALF’s inevitable fit of destruction is well-intentioned:
ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

He chopped up the Christmas tree for firewood. For once, though, I’m on ALF’s side. Did Willie and Kate really wait until Christmas Eve to explain to him what the tree was for? It obviously wasn’t decorated yet, so unless somebody told him differently — and we see here that they did not — how would he know that this particular tree at this particular time of year is just supposed to sit inside covered in tinsel and baubles? He doesn’t know this shit. ALF is right and Willie and Kate are in the wrong here. If that’s not a Christmas miracle I don’t know what is.

It’s also justified by a funny exchange. (This early in the episode? Is this actually going to be a good one?)* ALF tells Willie that he has a surprise, and then Kate shouts from the next room for Willie to come quick, because ALF did something horrible to the tree. Willie asks ALF what he did, and ALF says, “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

See? This isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s fully competent comedy. It’s really not that hard!

And look at that lighting through the window! They actually went through the trouble of making it look like that sort of dull, hazy, early-morning sunshine, and it’s even shining from a lower angle onto the set than it is normally. That’s some impressive detail for this show right there.

We’re off to a good start. Heck, by ALF standards it’s a great start. There’s enough potential absurdity in the idea of an alien celebrating his first Christmas that there really should be no problem filling out 21 minutes. Right?

…right?

…fuck you. You know that’s not right.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The credits are just the normal sequence…no superimposed snowflakes or sleigh-bells or anything. Once they end we see everyone dressed up for Christmas, I guess. I don’t know what ALF is wearing. It looks like red suspenders, but then later he gets up and I can’t tell if it’s really a ribbon draped over his shoulders for some reason, or if the suspenders they made for the puppet are just horribly tailored.

Also Lynn is wearing what I assume is a Christmas sweater, but it’s hard to tell because it always looks like she dressed herself right after hitting her head in a car accident. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be an ugly sweater. I mean, it is, but it’s no worse than anything else she wears any other day of the year so who knows.

Damn, I’m catty. I’m like Joan Rivers, but with all of my original skin.

Lynn is sitting on the couch, disentangling Christmas lights. That’s absolutely something that folks do around the holidays, and it’s a nice touch. I’m actually pretty impressed that they would bother to give her something appropriate to do rather than sit her motionless on the couch, waiting in awkward silence until it’s her turn to talk.

At the table, though, ALF and Brian seem to be sorting branches into piles. I assume they’re the branches from the tree ALF chopped up, but what are they doing? Organizing them by size for later storage? Why not throw them out? I honestly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing there.

Willie is out getting a new tree, and ALF says that he hopes he makes it home before it starts snowing. Kate explains that it doesn’t snow in their part of the state, but ALF explains that it has to snow, because it’s Christmas; that’s what he learned from all the Christmas stuff he’s been seeing on TV.

Again, this is good. I like that ALF has no actual experience of Christmas, and so needs to piece things together from what he’s told and what he sees. Again, this is evidence that he’s trying, which is a lot funnier than having him be a dick all the time. Good intentions with unfortunate outcomes fuel great comedy. Rampaging dickitude is just tiring.

It might seem a little silly that ALF would believe weather patterns were dictated by a holiday, but compared to everything else we are expected to believe around Christmas — whether it’s that the Son of God showed up and saved us all from Hell or that an old man in a flying sleigh is watching our every move — isn’t “snow is guaranteed to fall” a relatively small absurdity? It works. It’s not a stretch. It’s organic.

ALF outlines all of the things that he learned from Christmas specials, and he concludes by folding in some imagery from that old commercial where Santa Claus rides a Norelco razor through the snow. Guys, this is getting dangerously close to funny. Was the writing staff visited by three spirits in the night or something?

While they decorate Lynn and Kate find some of the eggs that ALF hid, making for one of those very rare moments in this show where something that happens has anything to do with something else that happened.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie comes home with a fake tree in a box, and the episode is still being good. I honestly don’t know what happened, but Willie gets a nice little speech here with actual character work as its punchline. He explains that he drove all over town to find another tree, but everybody was sold out. At one lot he found a tree, but it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Willie says he left when the bidding reached $100, because he has his pride.

That’s funny. Not almost funny, but actually funny and it got an actual laugh out of me. He then says that the tree came with a can of simulated snow, and ALF says he should have gotten a second can so that they could build a simulated snowman.

IT IS REALLY NOT THAT HARD TO WRITE COMEDY THIS IS NOT BAD

Anyway, ALF is disappointed that this is the replacement, because he wants a real tree. This might be the first sign of real weakness in the episode — why exactly does he care when he doesn’t have any experience with either type of tree yet? — but it’s certainly not the last.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The family hears some carolers outside and they go to the window to watch them. I shouldn’t have been so quick to compliment the lighting crew earlier, because now for some reason it looks like they’re staring into the fiery ball of ultimate carnage that’s six seconds away from colliding with the Earth.

Kate, Lynn and Brian decide to go with the carolers, because they can see the writing on the wall and don’t want to be around when this episode inevitably falls apart.

There is one more good joke after they leave, though, when ALF says that on Melmac you would never let children go caroling. Willie asks him why, but ALF says he can’t explain, because “you’d have to know Carol.” Yeah, that’s Fozzie Bear level stuff, but there’s a reason we like Fozzie Bear. It’s not the quality of his material…it’s the charm behind it. For the first time since the Jodie episode, ALF has some charm behind it.

I know you guys don’t like it when I enjoy things, but I’ve got give credit where it’s due. Don’t worry; I start cursing later, so you can skip down to that if you want to.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

We jump ahead a little bit in time, and we can’t see the tree until Willie steps aside to reveal it. I don’t know if this bit of blocking was done on purpose, since there’s no laughter that wells up on the soundtrack, but it is pretty funny. It’s an effectively shitty prop, and a nice example of the show’s low budget actually working in its favor and strengthening the reality.

Willie hates the tree, and he and ALF decide to go chop down a real one from the same place he and Kate used to chop down trees years ago. It’s certainly a contrived premise, but it’s at least playing out in a reasonable, rational way: it’s a holiday, something went wrong, Willie wants to fix it before the family gets back.

Again, not groundbreaking, but it’s better than, say, having it be Willie’s birthday, and so he finds out his wife slept with Joe Namath, then he decides to jump out of a plane.

Seriously dudes, that one sucked.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie and ALF sit in a fake car and pretend to drive while some stock footage of a forest plays behind them. They explain for our benefit that they can’t find the place Willie used to go to cut down trees, which I definitely buy if it’s been a long time and it’s dark out, but it is a little bit silly that he doesn’t just pull over and chop down one of the tens of millions of trees we’re watching him drive by right now.

ALF is navigating. He tells Willie to make a turn onto a road that’s not actually there, and they end up in a ditch. You know, there was a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael drove into a lake because his GPS told him to turn there.

I never had a problem with that because I thought it was a nice — though admittedly absurd — joke about the way we rely on instructions rather than trusting our common sense, but apparently a lot of people felt that that was “too stupid” for the show and were turned off by it. Maybe I just didn’t think that way because the show was already pretty fuckin’ stupid, but what do I know.

Either way, I bring that up because while it might be pretty dumb to drive into a lake because you’re used to trusting your GPS, what happens here is infinitely more moronic. Willie doesn’t see a road, but he takes ALF’s word for it that it exists…despite the fact that he can see there is not a road there and he is driving into a ditch. What’s more, ALF is an alien. He doesn’t know this area. How could he? How could he even know how to read a map properly?

Obeying a GPS makes some kind of sense because you’re deferring to what you assume is an authority on the subject. Here Willie is actively disregarding what he actually sees happening in order to defer to somebody who unquestionably knows nothing about what’s going on.

In a word, it’s bullshit.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Anyway the family comes home from a night of caroling, and they find the tree unfinished. They read a note that Willie left, and start to worry because he left it a while ago and he’s still not home.

Then they hear somebody else singing outside, and their door opens to reveal…

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Mr. Ochmonek! Holy shit! We haven’t seen this guy in…ten episodes! Jesus.

I was excited because I thought this meant we’d find out what happened to his wife, but…nope. We don’t even find out why he came over. It’s really bizarre.

He kisses Kate under the mistletoe, and there’s a funny enough moment when he passively demands some eggnog, but what, exactly, is the point of this scene?

When I first watched the episode I thought the payoff would be that he goes out to find Willie or something, but instead he just shows up for about a minute and we never see him again. What’s he doing on Christmas Eve without his wife? Why is he here? Nobody invited his ass.

It’s like ALF thought it would be nice for us to see a beloved character again, but that doesn’t work when we’ve only seen the guy once before, ten weeks ago, and didn’t even care about him then. “Hey, everybody! Remember your old pal Mr. Ochmonek?! No? Well, here he is! Merry Christmas!”

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

By this point the episode is almost totally off the rails. (In a very short time, it will be totally off the rails.) They sure did squander all the good-will the first act managed to build up.

ALF and Willie are still stuck in the car, which should be a promising enough situation. Especially as Willie starts to tell ALF about the Christmases he had as a kid, and the fact that they always had a real tree and so forth.

This should be nice. Maybe a bit maudlin, but so what? It’s Christmas Eve. Willie can reminisce and wish he was with his family. In fact, this moment would ideally tie right back into the first scene, with he and Kate reading the old Christmas cards. This speech should end with him realizing that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what made Christmas really great, or something, and got hung up on how things looked.

I don’t know. I’m not saying that would be good. But it would be sort of neutrally lame in a well-established way. Instead it’s Willie and ALF in a car and a story that literally gets abandoned because the writers don’t want to figure out a way to turn it into anything.

Stuff like this is why I feel as though we’re watching these characters act out the first draft of the script; they write the story up to a certain point, realize they’re no longer interested in doing what they planned to do, and then just skip over things or abandon them.

That’s okay. I’m a writer, too. Not only is it a given that you’ll end up following a different narrative path than you might have expected, but it’s a good thing as well. Your job, then, is to write this better story as it revealed itself to you, and then go back and fix things (if not completely rewrite them) so that this new story makes sense. What you don’t do is what this show does weekly: leave everything exactly as it is and hope to shit your audience isn’t paying attention.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

As if on cue, hey look, a dream sequence. Lucky us.

Willie drifts off and dreams about his family in the living room. Nothing is different except for their clothes, which, to be honest, change every day anyway and so this is no evidence of Willie having any creativity whatsoever.

Everything is pretty much as it really is back home, except that Mr. Ochmonek isn’t drunkenly fumbling around with Kate’s tits. Willie comes home, in the dream, with the same fake tree he had before, only this time the family loves it.

He says something about how glad he is that an alien doesn’t live here, which implies that things are happier in this fantasy without ALF. I’m glad that Willie’s awareness of the fact that ALF bends his life over and fucks it every chance he gets is manifesting itself in some way…but I do wish it was manifesting itself as a brutal screwdriver attack on the alien instead.

Kate says that she thinks the tree is leaning too far to the left, so she calls the tree repairman. When he shows up, it turns out to be ALF.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

I think it’s funny that in both of Willie’s unnecessary dream sequences so far, ALF shows up for even less necessary reasons. Did Fusco insist on being in every scene, even if his character had jack-shit to do with anything?

Willie panics because ALF is an alien or something. I don’t know. Neither do the writers; they’re just running out the clock. “Oh, Tannerbaum” started out just fine, but then nobody on the staff knew where to go from there and so we’re getting silly dream sequences with just a few minutes left in the episode because that’s easier than actually wrapping up anything that happened earlier.

Anyway ALF the tree repairman has to take the tree back to the shop to fix it, and Willie gets upset and tries to keep the tree. He and ALF tug on it for a while. I half expected the credits to come up at this point and make it abundantly clear that the people making this show literally stopped giving a shit at this precise moment.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie wakes up only to find that there is a real tree in the car with them, because ALF went out and chopped it down while he was sleeping. Willie feels bad, and there you go. That’s your Christmas moral: don’t ever dream mean things about an alien, because while you are dreaming them that same alien might be doing nice things for you.

Amen.

It starts to snow, a park ranger comes up and gets mad at Willie for cutting down the tree without a permit, ALF hides under a blanket, and he and Willie whisper “Merry Christmas” to each other. Sweet holy barf did that episode fall apart.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Fortunately it’s Christmas Eve, and as per tradition every adult male is allowed to commit one crime of their choice without there being any consequence, so the Tanners get to keep the tree.

Nah, I’m being wry. Willie does say that he had to pay a fine, but honestly I’m not sure why he still gets to keep the tree. If you caught me stealing the Scales of Justice from in front of the courthouse, I’d expect to be hit with a fine or something, sure. I wouldn’t expect that after I paid the fine I’d get to keep them, though.

It’s bizarre. I don’t know. Who cares. ALF gets a ViewMaster and the episode is over.

Merry Christmas you fucks.

——
* No.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...