Trilogy of Terror: Solarbabies (1986)

This year we’ve already looked at three films featuring games that celebrated, encouraged, accelerated death. With Solarbabies, we cap off the year with one featuring a game that brings life. In each of these films, a heinous social order is upended. It’s only Solarbabies, though, that stays true to the prediction of Gil Scott-Heron; its revolution is not televised.

Solarbabies is also, by quite a wide margin, the worst actual film I’ve ever seen.

By “actual film” I just mean we can totally ignore homemade crap like The Lock In. Of any movie that’s ever had actual effort invested in it by actual human beings with actual equipment, Solarbabies has got to be the worst.

Which, of course, makes it pretty fucking wonderful.

It feels like it’s cobbled together from several scripts of totally different genres.

It’s an action movie, a sports movie, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, a road movie, a coming of age tale, a journey home, a science fiction saga, and God knows what else. It drifts into both body horror and torture porn. There’s even just enough attempted romance in it that I’m willing to believe that someone on the production staff thought that should be at the heart of it as well.

Maybe I shouldn’t distance Solarbabies from The Lock In after all. In each case, the directors had a scatter of ideas they thought would make for a good film. In each case, the filmmakers had no idea how to assemble those ideas, what to leave out, or even how movies work. The only real difference is that Solarbabies wasted a hell of a lot more money trying.

The movie opens with narration, as all truly terrible movies must. It tells us nothing we won’t learn more naturally throughout the course of the next few scenes, but Solarbabies doesn’t give itself any more credit than the rest of the world does.

We’re told that the Earth is dry and largely barren. An organization known as The Protectorate controls all of the water, but a tribe called the Tchigani believe a space creature named Bodhi will eventually come and spray water everywhere for free.

It’s a lot of information, and unnecessarily specific, but it’s delivered by the late, great Charles Durning, so that’s nice. It’s also pretty weird, though. He introduces himself (still in narration, to whomever the fuck you’d like to believe he’s speaking to) as the Warden of Orphanage 43. “Children are brought here at an early age to be indoctrinated to serve The System,” he says. “It hurts me to do what I do. I, too, must serve The System.”

All of which, you know, sort of implies his character will have an arc in the film, or at least some relevance. Instead, yes, we see the Warden a couple of times in the opening scenes, but then he disappears forever.

That’s okay; a lot of characters disappear in a lot of movies. What’s far less common, though, is that the damn narrator disappears.

You can do a lot with a distant narrator in fiction. It can be part of the fun and part of the artistry. Nick Carraway narrates the love story that is The Great Gatsby without any personal experience of love himself. John Dowell narrates The Good Soldier without ever understanding the story he’s trying to tell. Charles Kinbote narrates Pale Fire with a complete refusal to let you read the story you bought the book for; he has a different story he’d like to tell, thank you very much.

The Warden, by contrast, has no reason whatsoever to open Solarbabies with his in-character narration. He might as well say, “Let me explain what happened during this adventure I played no part in, wasn’t present for, and couldn’t possibly know about.”

The actual narration ends on a note only slightly less ridiculous than that. After speaking about the Tchigani / Bodhi crap, Durning says, “Is this legend true? Who knows.”

Seeing it in print, it works well enough. In speech, though, Durning comes across like a not-entirely-sober old man who can’t remember what he wanted to say. The opening narration works hard to provide so much background, and then ends on the possibility that none of it was worth listening to.

I’m telling you, Solarbabies is great.

Things don’t get much less confusing from here. We are launched right into an early-morning game of Skateball, which is named that because somebody on the crew must have realized late in production that Rollerball was taken.

Skateball is played with lacrosse sticks and a basket that stands upright in the center of the rink. After watching Rollerball, I understood both how the game was played and why it was so compelling. After watching Solarbabies I have no clue why Skateball is any more interesting, important, or meaningful than any other game kids might play at recess. We may as well be watching a movie about futuristic hopscotch.

Anyway, the kids sneak out of the orphanage ready to play an intense game of Skateball. A different little kid turns on some stadium lights and is spooked by a spider. Yet another kid rollerskates down a crane and an owl lands on him.

It is the greatest movie ever made.

The match is between two teams: the Solarbabies and the Scorpions. It sucks.

The one kid is here because they need someone to turn on the lights who is also disposable enough to potentially be killed by the spider, I guess. The kid with the owl serves no purpose here whatsoever.

The game progresses firmly in the Solarbabies’ favor, but then some cartoon Nazis show up and shut it down. It turns out Skateball is illegal, giving us our central conflict for the film.

Only joking. That would give us a central conflict for the film. Instead, the cartoon Nazis are mad because this rink is outside the grounds of the orphanage, and there’s a Skateball rink within the grounds of the orphanage that the kids are supposed to be playing Skateball on.


This would be fine if we learn later that the illegal Skateball rink was too close to some kind of Protectorate secret or something, which would warrant the armed response to idiot children rollerskating in a circle, but no. The cartoon Nazis bring tanks and laser guns because the Solarbabies should have been playing in a different rink a few yards to the east.

And, maybe it’s just me, but if the fucking cartoon Nazis have to put all their gear on and load up their armored assault vehicles every time some kids use the illegal rink, why not destroy the illegal rink and never have to worry about it again?

As I’ve said, this movie is very, very good.

The Solarbabies scatter while the cartoon Nazis shoot at them, attempting and failing to execute children for rollerskating on the wrong patch of concrete.

If you’re wondering why I’m not using anyone’s name it’s because we haven’t been properly introduced to anybody yet. Then again, I’ve seen this movie a few times and I still don’t know most of the Solarbabies. There’s the girl one, the black one, the glasses one, and two other guys who look way too much alike to ever register as distinct characters.

The little kid who made a face at a spider ends up in some catacombs, I guess.

He’s an idiot, so he releases the break on a mining cart that for some reason runs straight into a wall, which is as thin as Styrofoam and, coincidentally, breaks like it, too.

Behind the wall is some secret cavern where a magic, glowing ball lives. I guess the miners should have tunneled one more molecule in that direction before giving up for the day. We could have watched a movie about them instead of the Solarbabies.

The kid touches the ball and then emits the most irritating sequence of shrieks imaginable. Sadly, he’s not in immense pain. It’s because he can hear now.

“I can hear,” the kid tells the ball. “You did it. You fixed my ears.”

Oh, did I forget to tell you the kid was deaf? So did the movie, so don’t worry.

I mean, we do see him wearing headphones, which we later find out were some kind of device that helped him hear, but if the movie wants a big moment when a magical creature fixes some kind of medical problem, we should probably know the medical problem exists before we’re assured it’s cured.

If you see me dying of cancer for months and months and then I touch a glowing space ball and I’m instantly cured, that’s magic. But if you have no knowledge of me ever having had cancer and I tell you one day that I totally did but a glowing space ball fixed it you’re just going to think I’m an idiot.

Don’t worry; I won’t describe this thing scene by scene, but this particular moment demonstrates the truly bizarre narrative approach taken by Solarbabies.

See, in most narratives, the characters start somewhere and make progress toward something. In the end they may find it or they may not, but that journey is part of (and often is) the narrative experience. Consider Scrooge’s emotional journey in A Christmas Carol, Ahab’s single-minded, suicidal vengeance in Moby-Dick, Odysseus’s long trek home in The Odyssey.

Or, y’know, consider literally any story you’ve ever enjoyed. The characters are in some kind of position (whether emotional, psychological, logistical, physical, professional, geographical) and would like to be in a different one. Their progress from one to the other (or failure to progress) is what makes a story a story.

Solarbabies treats story like a light switch. Instead of featuring a bunch of characters progressing toward any kind of goal, problems are resolved as quickly as they’re introduced. It’s like the script was written as some kind of cinematic experiment in flash fiction.

First there’s the deaf kid. By the time we learn he can’t hear, he can hear. There’s no chance to identify with the character’s struggle, no way to invest in his journey, and no opportunity to share in his triumph. There shouldn’t even be punctuation between these two states in the Solarbabies plot summary. It should read something like, “He’s deaf actually not anymore.”

This happens again and again throughout the film. The narration says there’s a legend Bodhi will come to Earth, and we immediately see Bodhi come to Earth. The Solarbabies think one of their friends might have died in an explosion, so we find out immediately that she didn’t. The Solarbabies are captured by bounty hunters, and then they are immediately freed. We see a mysterious symbol drawn on a wall and are told it looks like the mark on one of the Solarbabies’ hands…even though we were never shown or told about that mark on her hand before.

Nothing is set up and then resolved. The setup and the resolution occupy the same space, over and over and over again. If Solarbabies director Alan Johnson did a version of Moby-Dick, it would be eleven seconds long. It would open with Ahab saying, “I really need to find that whale oh there he is boys get him.” It would probably be narrated by Ishmael’s middle school geometry teacher.

Another example of setup and resolution comes soon after the littlest Solarbaby finds Bodhi, and it leads to an even bigger problem with the film.

He hides Bodhi in a trunk, which I guess the Solarbabies keep around even though they have nothing to put in it. Fine. The rest of the Solarbabies come in and start talking about how nice it would be if they were ever able to experience rain.

It immediately begins raining in the barracks, and the Solarbabies dance in it.

This movie was released in the mid-80s, remember, back when studios would be fined heavily if their characters didn’t stop to dance at least twice per movie.

So, once again we see Solarbabies‘ innovative approach to storytelling. “What if X happened hey look X is happening!” But we also see the massive logistical hole at its center.

If Bodhi has come down from the stars to restore water to the Earth and he can make it rain just to baffle some idiot teenagers, why does he never do so again until the end of the film?

It would be easy enough to say that Bodhi doesn’t have his full powers yet, or he has to charge up his abilities for some set period of time or something, but that never comes up. He can generate storms from nothing, on command. He does it here. At the end of the film he does it again, on a larger scale, immediately restoring the planet’s oceans, lakes, and streams.

So…why didn’t he do this earlier? What was stopping him? I know we wouldn’t have a film if Bodhi worked his aquatic mojo in the very first scene we met him, but Bodhi doesn’t know that. What’s stopping him from doing the thing he was sent here to do? It’s not as though he’s busy doing anything else; he spends the entire movie sitting in people’s backpacks. Get to work, you lazy shit! People are dying!

Anyway, the main cartoon Nazi is angry because the Solarbabies skated at the unsanctioned skate park that is totally off limits even though nobody’s even bothered to so much as put a fence around it. He yells at the Warden to punish the Solarbabies. The Warden says he will punish the Solarbabies and the Scorpions. The cartoon Nazi says no just punish the Solarbabies. The Warden says he will just punish the Solarbabies.

Then the cartoon Nazi reveals that he has some kind of futuristic hot Nazi stick that can burn things. You might think this is setting up a time that he will use it to burn things later in the film but you’re watching Solarbabies.

It’s a strange scene, mainly due to the absence of the cartoon Nazi bitching about Skateball. This is the scene where the antagonist should say something like, “I don’t like this ‘Skateball.’ It gives the children hope. It makes them laugh and smile. It’s a frivolous activity that takes time away from their work and their studies, and I insist you put a stop to it immediately, Warden.”

But the cartoon Nazi actually does like Skateball. He just prefers the Scorpions to the Solarbabies. The Warden likes Skateball, too. Everybody likes Skateball! Skateball! The one thing kids and their fascistic oppressors can agree on!

In fact, The Protectorate teaches them to play Skateball, and they hold orphanage-wide Skateball practice, and have all the kids do choreographed Skateball stuff. You’d think this is some kind of indoctrination, and maybe it is, but I sure as hell couldn’t tell you how.

The Protectorate is, for some reason, training all the kids to skate real good. This is great for the kids, because when the Solarbabies go on their adventure they solve every problem by skating real good.

But why is The Protectorate interested in turning them into skating prodigies? Maybe if the cartoon Nazis all skated around it would make sense, because then skate practice could be a kind of subtle training regimen, but the cartoon Nazis don’t skate at all! In fact, the Solarbabies’ ability to skate real good is the only thing that allows them to escape from and defeat the cartoon Nazis. The Protectorate is actively training kids to escape The Protectorate.

One of the kids on the Scorpions is even a cartoon Nazi, and he can skate real good, too, but even he doesn’t skate while in pursuit of the other kids who can skate real good! He can match their skating abilities and he doesn’t do it! So why the living fuck do the cartoon Nazis teach people to skate?

Also, to make sure we know he’s bad, he keeps trying to rape the girl Solarbaby. It’s a wonderful film if you haven’t seen it.

The kid with the owl steals Bodhi and escapes the orphanage to find his tribe, because he’s a Tchigani. The not-deaf kid then escapes the orphanage to find Bodhi. The rest of the Solarbabies then escape the orphanage to find the not-deaf kid. Try locking your fucking doors, Warden. The cartoon Nazis then leave to find the Solarbabies. It’s a chain of morons chasing each other through the desert, and it seems like a setup for one of those scenes in Scooby-Doo when everybody chases each other through doors in a long hallway.

That’s absurd enough, but the fact that all of the kids are rollerskating through the desert is so beautifully idiotic that I can’t help but love it. At first, near the orphanage, I was willing to believe there were maintained roads just beneath the surface of the sand. But as the kids venture deeper into what is referred to as the wasteland, they’re still skating perfectly fine. Over sand! Over rocks! Over the fucking ruins of civilization!

Of course, this is because their training as Solarbabies has prepared them to defy the laws of physics and/or topple the government. There’s a scene during the escape when one of the Solarbabies uses his particular set of Solarbaby skills to deactivate a security camera. And by “deactivate a security camera” I mean smash it with a rock.

Sure, he uses his officially licensed Solarbabies lacrosse stick to launch the rock, but the camera was right there on the ground. He could have just walked up and kicked it. Fucking showoff.

At one early point in their adventure, the Solarbabies are pursued by two cartoon Nazis on motorcycles. To escape, they’ll have to skate real good. Fortunately, the Solarbabies can skate real good!

They skate real good right over a big gap in a bridge, and the cartoon Nazis can’t motorcycle real good so they have to stop, only one of them falls off the edge of the bridge and his motorcycle explodes, blasting his limbs off and cooking him alive.

The Solarbabies cheer their success / this man’s grisly, flesh-melting death.

In fact, I know the Solarbabies are our heroes and all — they’re off to rescue Bodhi, who could have already saved the world in the opening few minutes and let’s not focus on that — but they sure do kill a lot of people along the way.

And it’s not even one of those, “I wish there were a more peaceful solution…” kind of things. The Solarbabies kill and quip as they electrocute people, blow people up, destroy their cities, shove them down holes to get eaten by angry dogs, and get them attacked by malfunctioning robots that drill them to pieces. Admittedly, a good number of these people are cartoon Nazis. A larger number of these people, though, are bystanders or guards who are just doing their jobs and have genuinely no clue what the hell is going on.

At no point does any Solarbaby say, “Hold up, gang. We’ve killed an awful lot of people today. Do you think maybe we should chill out a bit?”

The Solarbabies are supposed to be sympathetic characters. We’re supposed to want them to win. But watching them singlehandedly decimate the formerly peaceful settlement of Tire Town, reducing it to a smoking crater of bodies, it’s hard to think of anything they’re doing as remotely heroic.

In fact, isn’t the whole problem with the Nazi guys that they go into these different towns and wreck them up and burn them down? What the fuck are the Solarbabies doing?

And, again, they aren’t restoring water to the world, which might be worth disemboweling a few hundred thousand innocents. Bodhi is going to do that. He’s just…I dunno, busy brainstorming a novel or something.

I find it very important to keep in mind as you watch the Solarbabies death toll climb that Bodhi could, at any point, do the spheric equivalent of snap his fingers to immediately bring water to the world and remove entirely the need for any further senseless death.

Of course, I don’t think Johnson had any clue what the hell Bodhi was, or what his motivations for saving Earth would be, or how any of this was supposed to work. He knows Bodhi can’t restore the planet’s waters until the end of the film, so that’s when it happens. Beyond that, Johnson has no clue.

Bodhi communicates telepathically with the Solarbabies, but we get conflicting information on how. Sometimes he shows them vague visions meant to suggest their next steps, and sometimes he must speak directly to them in clear English, such as when he teaches them to pronounce his name. Why is he so direct about pronunciation but vague about the fucking future of humanity?

Also, despite the fact that the film specifically tells us that Bodhi communicates telepathically, the Solarbabies all talk to him out loud. They know they don’t have to, but they do anyway. Why?

Well, of course, it would look pretty silly if the Solarbabies just sat around having staring contests with the magical space ball while the audience wonders what they fuck they’re silently communicating, sure. But then why introduce the concept of telepathy at all? If everyone is still going to speak verbally, why point out that they never have to?

At one point, the Solarbabies all play Skateball with Bodhi.

As in, Bodhi is the ball. They lob him around and catch him and stuff, and I guess that’s fine. It’s possible Bodhi is communicating silently to them that he likes it. It’s equally possible that he’s tearfully pleading with them to stop.

We’ll never know. The marvels of telepathy.

Then one Solarbaby pitches Bodhi at another Solarbaby, who fucking smashes it with his lacrosse stick.

Bodhi explodes into a shatter of glimmering stardust or whatever, and the music is triumphant and the kids all gasp in awe, but this is a living thing! How the hell did the Solarbaby know he wouldn’t just kill Bodhi? Or at least give him a concussion? It’s a creature they know nothing about. Why in shit’s name did they think it was okay to club him like a fucking baseball?

What if it did kill Bodhi? What if the magical space ball from beyond the stars came to Earth to rescue humanity, just to get trapped in a cave for God knows how long and then dug up by a bunch of kids who bludgeon it to death? Great fucking movie.

Then, toward the end, the cartoon Nazis and some woman who dresses like Grace Jones get their hands on Bodhi, and they try to destroy it by cooking it and drilling through it.

And I guess it’s nice that they already had a Bodhi-killing machine all rigged up and ready to go, just in case a Bodhi ever showed up, but the weird thing is that while they do this shit to him, we hear Bodhi screaming in agony.

So much for telepathy, huh, pal?

The Solarbabies, of course, show up and rescue Bodhi, which involves much bloodshed and the murders of anonymous henchmen.

There’s an extraordinarily tense moment when one of the kids skates real good so he’s able to vault an electrified fence. He opens the gate for everyone, but because this is a movie it has to automatically close and everyone is worried the not-deaf kid won’t skate real good. But thankfully he skates real good after all.

So they save Bodhi and…he’s fine. In fact, minutes after he was roasted and drilled, he’s ready to restore all the world’s water. Dude doesn’t even need to rest.

So what was all that screaming about, Bodhi?

Was he just…faking it, or something? I guess the people in the audience needed to worry that Bodhi was in actual danger — nothing keeps an audience on the edge of their seats like to possibility of a glowing ball getting broken or something — but within the movie, why was he crying out in pain if he was actually fine?

I’m skipping over large chunks of the movie that make no sense so that I can discuss other chunks of the movie that make less sense. It’s really pretty fantastic.

There’s one scene in which the girl Solarbaby gets separated from the others in a settlement, and we see a hand grab her from behind and cover her mouth. She’s being kidnapped! Oh no! Who could her rapist be this time?!

But, no, it actually turns out that it’s either her father or someone her father sent to bring her home. She’s totally fine and “home” is actually full of comfort and safety and fresh water. What’s more, her dad looks like a kind of Disco Christ. Can’t really complain about anything!

So why did the person taking her home do it in this ridiculously scary way? I understand walking up to someone and saying, “I know your dad; follow me and I’ll take you to him,” can sound pretty shady. But grabbing a woman from behind and muffling her screams is in no way a more comforting approach.

Anyway, the Solarbabies find her and get a tour of her home and the first thing one of them does is jump into a body of water and start stomping around and kicking it at people. What if that was their fucking drinking water, you little shit? What if that was the only water in town? You don’t know squat about this place. Get out of the fucking water!

Solarbabies isn’t all bad, but with one exception I can’t give it specific credit for anything it does right.

The best part of the film is something innately good about any post-apocalyptic media: the chance to see how different settlements have adapted to life in the wasteland.

The settlement with water is safe and happy because they stay deliberately hidden. Tire Town is a labor center that survives by commerce (and, to some extent at least, prostitution). The Orphanage is well stocked but also fortified and has the specific goal of programming youngsters to support The Protectorate. (And the secondary goal of teaching them to skate real good.)

There’s also a Tchigani town that echoes early Native American settlements, bringing society (assuming this takes place in America) full circle. The best part, though, is that the wise elder in this settlement lives in what used to be an amusement park’s haunted house. It’s full of creepy things like skulls and spiderwebs and torture devices, which does a great job of setting the mood both he and the film are going for, and which are fabrications from a more frivolous time, from when symbols of death and misery were a kind of dark entertainment rather than a daily reality.

It’s…actually a fairly intelligent detail. And it’s the only one.

I guess the movie also gets a point for featuring a theme song by Smokey Robinson. Not that it’s good or even marginally listenable, but it’s amusing to me that a genuine legend will now always have something called “Love Will Set You Free (Theme from Solarbabies)” stuck like a stubborn kidney stone in his discography.

With no real purpose to anything that happened, no room for investment in any of these characters, and no clear concept of why the movie was made, it probably shouldn’t be surprising to say that the ending fails to redeem it.

In fact, Solarbabies doesn’t end so much as it just stops happening.

Bodhi fixes the world because if he doesn’t do it now humanity will be cursed with a sequel, and we see that the oceans are back in a sequence deemed insignificant enough that it plays out silently behind the credits.

Further emphasizing the fact that nobody involved in this movie ever met a human being, the Solarbabies run along the beach in their socks. Fucking ew, Solarbabies.

And that’s Solarbabies. The one movie this year in which the central game was never intended to be one of life or death, though the characters sure as hell turn it into one, chuckling all the while over the memories they’re creating together of turning adults they don’t like into burnt skeletons.

Director Alan Johnson died in July of this year, which I didn’t realize until I was doing some research for this review. He’s better known as a choreographer, and Solarbabies was one of only two films he directed. He worked closely with Mel Brooks on a number of movies, and Solarbabies was actually produced by Brooksfilms.

Solarbabies is not a great film, but it’s a great terrible film. If you like to laugh at movies that fail to function on any conceivable level, definitely check this one out. Trust me, I didn’t spoil all the surprises; I barely scratched the surface.

Interestingly, in this year’s batch of films, it’s the most life-affirming one that behaves flippantly toward death.

Whether it was the murder of innocents for which Ben Richards was framed in The Running Man, the failures of Spumoni and Mama Pappalardo to survive their challenges in Deathrow Gameshow, or the braindeath of Moonpie in Rollerball, deaths in these films had consequences that others would have to live with, react to, and move on from.

Solarbabies doesn’t dwell on its many, many deaths, and as such it’s actually the film that treats its deaths most disrespectfully. The one character that is mourned in any capacity is the owl. The owl is collateral damage in a battle between two human factions nobody, least of all the audience, cares about.

The owl mattered to one of the characters, so the other characters bury it and sit in silence for a moment.

It’s almost as though Solarbabies is rubbing it in, what little value human life has in this post-apocalyptic hellscape, when an owl is entitled to a funeral and a stack of charred remains sees teenagers skipping away and giggling.

Almost. Because Solarbabies isn’t smart enough to have any idea of what it’s actually saying.

Any accidental breakthroughs are collateral damage in this mess of conflicting ideas nobody should ever want to see.

So, y’know, be sure to check it out.

And have a happy Halloween.

Trilogy of Terror: Rollerball (1975)

I can’t remember how old I was. Somewhere between 12 and 14. I’d stayed up late to watch a particular movie on television. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Certainly I knew nothing of Rollerball. I was born six years after it came out and it sure as hell wasn’t in the cultural consciousness when I decided to watch it on my little bedroom TV.

This isn’t a vague, distant memory. This is something I remember vividly. A movie I couldn’t have known anything about held me rapt, and its final sequence, which played out in the small hours of the next morning, sent needles of ice into my spine.

Every so often you have one of those moments, experiencing something that you know — already know, deep in your heart — you will never forgot. Any detail that you could conceivably hold on to will be retained. This handful of minutes or seconds will remain embedded permanently in your mind. Maybe not as a fond memory. Maybe like shrapnel.

Watching the ending of Rollerball, watching a broken James Caan limp over a mess of strewn bodies, surrounded by an eerily silent audience, so that he could feed a steel ball into a magnetic basket in a game nobody was even playing anymore, I knew I was experiencing one of those moments.

I knew that this was going to stay with me. Even if I had no God damned idea why.

And so when I decided to write about games of life and death this year, yeah, The Running Man was the first movie that came to mind. But immediately behind it was Rollerball.

Revisiting Rollerball was itself a chilling prospect. What if — as so often happens — the film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered it being? What if watching it again today, now, with so much more knowledge and experience and understanding of effective storytelling, it unraveled before me? Would I lose everything that initial experience with the movie had meant to me? I could still close my eyes and see Caan, maddened, desperate, dragging his busted frame toward the goal, and it still meant something.

What if I watched it again and…it meant nothing?

I ended up rewatching it, obviously, and I’m glad I did. I’m glad I did because that fucking ending is every bit as disarming as it was all those years ago. I may understand it slightly better now, but that does nothing to dilute the horror.

I braced myself to cover Rollerball with the expectation that, on some level, I’d be apologizing for it.

Instead, you know what?

Rollerball is great.

Of course, I still have no clue why I decided to watch it or stuck with it when I was younger. I’d like to be very clear about this: my critical faculties were far from developed. There were a few good films and television shows that I just happened to like, but rarely did I enjoy or have the patience for anything too brainy.

Not that Rollerball could ever be said to be too brainy.

Maybe it happened to be just brainy enough.

To summarize Rollerball is to rob it of a good portion of its narrative magic. It never sits down and tells you what its own story is, rather parceling it out in various conversations and suggesting it through things the characters strategically choose not to say.

What’s more, there are the rules of Rollerball itself, the most popular sport in this unidentified future year. Some of them are spelled out. Some of them are inferred. Any of them can (and some do) change between games. There is no tedious scene or careless text crawl explaining the game to us. In fact, the film opens with a match between the Houston and Madrid teams, and you get your bearings simply by being a spectator.

The film paints a rich portrait of a hideous world and brutal sport by focusing, perhaps surprisingly, on a character who has a decidedly narrow view of it. If we pay attention and do some mental assembly, we can understand a lot of the story. If we don’t pay attention and come only for the spectacle, we’ll understand enough. Either way, Rollerball turns out to be one hell of a window into a social nightmare.

I think that’s what held me rapt when I first watched it on television. Rollerball could have easily been a dumb movie (and it was later remade as one!), but it builds its universe so smoothly, so effortlessly, so completely, that it’s tremendously easy to get swept up on it, even if you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing. I’ve rewatched this film a few times just to write this review, and I found myself each time getting lost in the movie. Watching it unfold. Considering the world in which these characters lived and died.

At some point in recent history (at least within some of these characters’ lifetimes), the Corporate Wars took place, ultimately replacing nationality with industry. The regions on Earth are broken up based not on political ideals, but on what they can most efficiently produce, or the service they can best provide.

Houston, home of Jonathan E., our Rollerballing hero, is an energy city. Chicago is a food city. Other, unnamed cities, are dedicated to communication, to housing, to luxury, and so on. The corporations that run each city are said to take good care of their residents. “Everyone has all the comforts,” Energy Corporation Chairman Mr. Bartholomew says. “No poverty, no sickness. No needs and many luxuries.”

However, he says this to Jonathan E., an athlete who signed on to play Rollerball in exchange for this lifestyle. Mr. Bartholomew even explains that Jonathan E. enjoys these things just as if he were “in the executive class.”

The executive class gets to live a comfortable lifestyle. We get to see this comfortable lifestyle because Jonathan E., who is emphatically not in the executive class, is in a position in which he gets to live it as a reward. We never see how the other classes live, where Jonathan E. would be if he weren’t playing Rollerball.

Even if it’s true, however, and the corporations really do take universally good care of everybody, at all levels, Jonathan E. isn’t convinced it’s worth it.

“It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between, well, having all them nice things or freedom,” he says, working it through in his mind. “Of course, they chose comfort.”

“But comfort is freedom,” he’s told in response. “It always has been.”

And it’s here, perhaps, that Rollerball is at its smartest, if only because both sides of that argument are absolutely valid. Isn’t comfort freedom?

The only reason I get to spend any time doing what I love, visiting places I want to see, having fun with people I care about, is because I’ve achieved a certain level of comfort. Any time I spend doing these things — the actual time I’m spending writing this review — is time I can only spend because I don’t have to use it making a living. I can afford to work only 40-50 hours each week. I can afford to actually enjoy my downtime. I can afford my necessities, which allows me to branch into luxuries. That’s freedom.

But Jonathan E. isn’t wrong, either. This is a world in which that freedom is curated. You have your downtime, but only because the rest of your time is strictly regulated by the needs of the corporation. You have television, but only what the corporation will show you. You can engage in educational pursuits, but only with corporate teachers and edited texts. Jonathan E., like the rest of the Rollerballers, gets to live a life of luxury…but it’s also a life without personality.

And the moment he starts to develop one, the corporation takes notice.

Jonathan E. is a threat, and the way in which this gradually reveals itself is one of Rollerball‘s best touches.

He’s not an intellectual. He doesn’t have the public’s ear, except through carefully regulated channels. He isn’t rich or powerful. His downtime is spent on his isolated ranch, with a chain of women cycled through to keep him satisfied. He is in no position whatsoever to buck the system.

But he’s a threat, simply because he exists.

Rollerball, we learn, is a sport designed to “demonstrate the futility of individual effort.” How? Well, I’m no kind of sports historian so I can’t speak to that with much authority. (Though I very, very much welcome comments explaining how Rollerball, as a sport, does or doesn’t support that intention.)

Rollerball is a sort of cross between roller derby and basketball. It’s played in a circular rink with a significant slope leading down toward the center, where a gutter collects dead balls and removes them from play. The ostensible object of the game is to score points by taking possession of a heavy steel ball and sinking it into a magnetic basket in the outer wall.

It’s a contact sport encouraging a kind of strategic brutality. Jonathan E. explains to new additions to the Houston team that it might be worth taking “a little three-minute penalty” to injure an opponent who’s “skating a little too good.”

Teams consist of skaters and bikers, which are self-explanatory roles. Everybody moves counter-clockwise around the rink, whether on skates or scooters, and works to either score a goal or prevent the other team from doing so, depending upon who has possession of the steel ball.

I get the sense the futility of individual effort is meant to come across in the sheer difficulty of the sport. No one person can reasonably expect to achieve anything without teamwork. Surely no Rollerballer can succeed on his own, at least for long, when faced with a wall of beefy opponents and motorscooters between him and the goal.

Rollerball, perhaps, is designed to be a bit less of a showcase for individual talents than most sports. A pitcher who can reliably strike hitters out or a hitter who can reliably hit home runs would certainly cement his place as a baseball star rather than necessarily elevate the reputation of his team. Ditto a basketballer who reliably sinks mid-court shots, or a goalie who maintains total control of the net.

In Rollerball, you can’t do it alone. The steel ball is far too heavy to be thrown any great distance, and you won’t get near the basket without help. Both offense and defense are team initiatives, and though a Rollerballer might get a few lucky breaks on his own, his personal efforts will never rise consistently above the efforts of his team.

This may also be why the Rollerballers use nicknames. They may be assigned, they may be chosen, but the players we meet are certainly not being referred to by their given names. Moonpie, Blue, Toughie. We are at least that degree removed from knowing who they actually are. Jonathan E. gets around it somewhat; he gets what we have no reason to disbelieve is his real name as part of his nickname.

That is perhaps the first snowflake in what eventually becomes an avalanche, because Jonathan E. does rise above the identity of his team. Through skill and at least a little bit of luck, he ends up with a Rollerball career spanning 10 years, something we’re told no other player has ever achieved. Whether that’s because they retired or died, we aren’t told, but my money is on the latter.

Mr. Bartholomew, the great John Houseman (who you may recognize as the man weaving a campfire tale at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Fog), shows up in the locker room after the match that opens the film to congratulate the winning Houston team. At least, that’s what it’s meant to look like. Really he’s there to summon Jonathan E. for a private audience the next day.

While he’s there he delivers an artfully empty speech full of hollow bullshit that’s flattering enough that nobody thinks to question it. He knows that the Rollerballers dream of being in the executive class, but he has some news for them. “Do you know what those executives dream about, out there behind their desks?” he asks. “They dream they’re great Rollerballers.”

The team roars. Of course it does. The elite pretend that really, deep down, they’re jealous of the lower class. It must be difficult sleeping in their mansions with the beautiful women they hand-select as they see fit.

That isn’t exaggeration, though Jonathan E. certainly wishes it were. At some point long before the film begins, an executive decides the woman he wants is the one married to the star Rollerballer. And that’s that. She no longer belongs to Jonathan E.

We meet her later — Ella, played by Bond-girl Maud Adams — and we learn that she’s happy with her new executive husband. They have a family. She’s advanced in society. But that only makes it sting all the more for poor Jonathan E., who loved her, and who refuses to be satisfied by the string of substitutes with whom the corporation stocks his bedroom.

It’s never stated in the film, but I get the sense that this is what tips Jonathan E. into outright Rollerball obsession. Without Ella, there is nothing else in his life that he loves. All of his time, focus, attention, and energy goes to Rollerball. He becomes the best. Crowds love him and cheer for him. Not for Houston, but for Jonathan E.

There’s a fantastic scene in which Jonathan E. meets with Mr. Bartholomew in private. They’re on Mr. Bartholomew’s turf, of course. It’s a large, white room, with chairs in the middle. The sitting area is surrounded by hanging glass. Mr. Batholomew is in the middle of some kind of meditation, or at least deep thought. “Keep silence with me for a minute, won’t you?” he asks the rising star of the sport that shouldn’t have any.

Jonathan E. does, but he’s uncomfortable doing so. On his way in, he accidentally brushes the hanging glass, setting off a series of chimes. He steadies them and cuts his hand in doing so. Mr. Bartholomew has to offer him a handkerchief to keep him from leaving his red blood on the perfect whiteness of the room around them.

This entire sequence could be played for laughs. I’m sure there are some people for whom it elicits an awkward chuckle. But the overpowering emotion conveyed is that Jonathan E. does not belong here. That’s what we’re supposed to feel, and what Jonathan E. is supposed to feel. He’s supposed to be uncomfortable. He’s supposed to be out of his element. He’s supposed to realize that he’s not the one in control.

In fact, Mr. Bartholomew spells this out for him later on, when he thinks Jonathan E. isn’t getting it. “Why argue about decisions you’re not powerful enough to make for yourself?” It’s a hell of a statement when what they’re discussing is Jonathan E.’s own future.

People well above Mr. Bartholomew have decided that Jonathan E. will retire from Rollerball. All they have to do is convince Jonathan E. to decide the same thing.

They first appeal to his ego by airing, globally, a special all about him, something no Rollerballer has had before. It will be a showcase, a highlights reel, a celebration…and it will be capped off with a high-profile retirement announcement from Jonathan E. himself.

When he refuses, people start to outright plead with him. Mr. Bartholomew, team coach Rusty, latest dedicated lay Daphne. And, to be honest, they seem genuine in their concern (if not their motives). They know Jonathan E. won’t get to make any other decision, so they want him to take the offer now. To live the rest of his life in comfort. To survive.

After all…why not? Why continue playing? “I don’t understand your resistance,” Mr. Bartholomew says. “And I don’t think anyone else will either.” He can keep playing Rollerball until he’s inevitably killed by it, or he can do what nobody has ever been able to do before: get out alive.

But without Ella, what does he have to live for? Rollerball is his career, his hobby, his outlet, and the only thing he seems to enjoy. Why give it up? And if so many powerful people are insisting he give it up…what’s their angle?

Finally, when all else has failed, the corporations agree to rule changes.

We only see three games of Rollerball throughout the film, but the small changes to the rules result in massive changes to the experience. The first game is fairly standard. Players are injured, but that’s part of the game. (There’s even a constant tally of injuries on the scoreboard.) After all, these men are hurtling around at breakneck speeds, fighting for control of a heavy steel ball, speeding around an enclosed space on motorscooters…people get hurt. It happens.

In the second game, though, the rules are tweaked: no penalties and limited substitutions. The players become more aggressive — and brutal — because they won’t even get a measly three-minute time out for roughing someone up. And the coaches are hesitant to swap out injured players, because they can only do it so many times.

But Jonathan E. keeps playing, so the rules are tweaked again for the final game. There are now no penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. If you’re wondering how a winner can be determined in a game that’s never scheduled to end, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

The first rule change is specifically intended to encourage Jonathan E. to retire as the sport grows more dangerous. The second is intended to kill him.

He tries to figure out what’s happening…why the corporations, or something above them, are trying to strongarm the most popular player out of the most popular sport.

He never does get a definitive answer, which is understandable. Jonathan E. is never portrayed as especially bright, and he’s trying to outthink a society that’s been structured to discourage thinking at all. He isn’t sure of what he’s looking for, and the corporations have come together to ensure that even if he were, he’d never find it.

He requests books from a library, where am empty-headed clerk informs him that they can only provide him with corporate-edited versions. He enlists help from his trainer Cletus — who lived through the Corporate Wars, and who seems to be Jonathan E.’s single remaining human connection — to ask around, but Cletus doesn’t get anything beyond the corporate line.

Finally, he travels to a computer bank in Geneva, where he’s told he can perform his research to his heart’s content.

It’s the Geneva scene that provides some of Rollerball‘s best moments, as well as its unrivaled worst.

On the positive side of the ledger we have Ralph Richardson as the head librarian. A celebrated veteran of stage, screen, and radio, it’s impossible to provide even a sample of his roles here, but I certainly know him best as The Supreme Being from Time Bandits.

Richardson is absolutely incredible in such a small role here, and he’s certainly one of the best one-scene characters in my estimation. He’s constantly reacting, much like Richard Liberty as the mad scientist in Day of the Dead, always processing so much that we get the very real sense that he can’t manage to share more than a fraction of it. He comes across as both intelligent and mindless at once, which, truth be told, is both impressive and deeply appropriate for the nature of the film.

When he meets Jonathan E. he welcomes him as a celebrity, but soon afterward he forces him to leave his coat and hat behind, as a presumable sign of respect. Not for a person they’re about to meet, but for a computer.

On the way there, he chats with Jonathan E. At one point he sits down on the steps, and Jonathan remains standing just long enough that it becomes awkward. He sits down and Richardson immediately stands up again to walk further on. Jonathan has no fucking clue what’s going on, and we sure as hell don’t, either. It’s a fascinating, bizarre, brilliant performance.

He also delivers what might be the film’s darkest joke: they’ve misplaced the whole of the 13th century.

As everything is digitized and stored, some data gets lost. It happens. In this case, it was just every piece of information pertaining to the 13th century.

Richardson lets slip that this wasn’t a human error…it was the error of Zero, “the world’s file cabinet.” A computer accidentally losing a massive chunk of human history is scary enough…but we learn before long that Zero has the ability to choose what information it will and will not share with those who seek it, which means this may have been something other than accidental.

He realizes he may have overshared, and so he doubles back later in the conversation to assure Jonathan E. that the 13th century isn’t much of a loss. After all, it’s “just Dante and a few corrupt popes.”

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so God damned terrifying.

Sadly, though, we actually then meet Zero. The premise is solid; a computer that serves as the world’s knowledge database also has the ability to withhold information at will, without explanation. That’s its own story right there, and I’m happy enough with that being part of the universe that birthed Rollerball.

But the execution is completely lacking. Whereas most of this film actually looks pretty great by today’s standards, right down to the incredible stunts and game choreography that make Rollerball feel genuinely real, Zero comes across as an embarrassing mid-70s misunderstanding of how computers would evolve.

Zero is a tank of some kind of fluid, and instead of a standard interface it takes and responds to queries verbally. It’s a distractingly silly sequence, undercutting what should be a profoundly dispiriting moment for Jonathan E. with the unintentional comedy of an old man beating up a fish tank.

I’d be tempted to say the entire Geneva section of the film should have been cut, but losing Richardson and the exchange about the 13th century wouldn’t be worth it, so we’re stuck with a tremendously dumb moment embedded in an otherwise great one.

Jonathan E.’s success in the rink doesn’t seem to be due only to his individual abilities, but rather his ability to strategize on behalf of his team. He’s good at what he does, but he’s also been fortunate enough to have teammates who respect him, admire him, and complement his strengths.

The most significant bond we see on the team is between Jonathan E. and Moonpie, a beefy new player who serves as a force of sheer power and brutality. Moonpie’s signature move involves waiting patiently at the outside wall and then skating quickly inward to launch himself at a biker. It’s worth the penalty.

To him, Rollerball is about raw power, something we’re assured the Houston team as a whole excels at. (Which is a nice, unacknowledged pun on Houston being a city of energy.) Before the limited-substitution, no-penalty match against Tokyo, Moonpie leads a strange resistance toward the strategist the coach brought in to advise them.

Moonpie doesn’t need strategy. He needs power. Houston needs power. It doesn’t matter what Tokyo has planned. We can take them down.

Knowing what happens to Moonpie in that match, it’s interesting to pay attention to the sequence of events leading up to it.

First he shuts down the strategist. Later he sizes up the Tokyo team as they size him up in return. During the match he suffers a minor injury, and Jonathan E. tells him, repeatedly, to keep close.

But Jonathan himself gets injured later, and is temporarily taken out of play. While he is, Tokyo gangs up on Moonpie, Houston’s dedicated bruiser. With no penalties, there’s nothing to keep them from ignoring the ball entirely and pounding Moonpie into unconsciousness.

We find out after the match that Moonpie is in a permanent vegetative state. A coma from which he will never recover. He has no family. The doctor in Tokyo tries to get Jonathan E. to sign the forms that will allow Moonpie’s life support to be shut down.

But Jonathan E. refuses. It’s a rule he can buck, and an outcome he refuses to accept. He doesn’t understand Moonpie’s situation. He struggles to comprehend how his friend can be both alive and dead at once. He doesn’t have the information he needs to make a decision, and he can’t get it. He can only get what he’s given.

“Even a plant feels something,” Jonathan tries, searching for a way to understand the situation.

“Who can say?” replies the doctor, masterfully dismissive, shoving a pen and clipboard at him.

In the final match, against New York, half the crowd cheers Jonathan E. The other half jeers, “Jonathan’s dead.”

Only the barest efforts are made in this match to keep up the charade that this is a game at all. It quickly becomes a brawl, and then a bloodbath. The medical responders are taken down in the tumult, preventing bodies from being removed from play.

A violent game becomes an openly murderous one. There’s no time limit. No penalties. No substitutions. It builds to that unforgettable moment in which James Caan, battered and limping, moves silently through a play area littered with the dead.

He was reduced to the raw animality the rule changes were intended to elicit, but he wasn’t the lone survivor. At the very end of the match he and one New York player are all that is left.

Jonathan E. hovers above him, holding the heavy steel ball aloft. The red mist fades…and he lets his opponent live. He either retains the last remaining threads of his humanity, or he no longer sees the purpose in anything. It’s up to you what you think. It depends on what goes through your head as James Caan, dragging his broken body toward the goal, processes what goes through his.

The raging, bloodthirsty crowd at one point falls completely silent, and stays that way through the very end of the game. They came to see blood, but they get so much of it they’re shocked into total silence. They’re speechless. They got everything they were hoping to get when they bought their tickets and the sheer brutality of the event, stripped of its gamified veil, makes them wonder why they wanted this at all.

What goes through their heads? What goes through yours?

James Caan limps emptily toward a goal nobody is around to defend anymore.

The more I watch Rollerball, the more detail I notice. Most recently, I picked up on the language that’s used to reinforce the world the corporations have created. When people explain the situation to Jonathan E., they often follow it up with some variation on, “you know that.” They aren’t telling him anything he doesn’t already know, even if they are. Whatever they’re saying, they insist it’s something he accepts, believes, understands. It’s one small way of externally rewiring him.

But the other linguistic tic I picked up on this time through is what prevents that one from working on him: the characters speak often, in many contexts, of dreams.

Whether it’s the Rollerballers dreaming of being executives, executives dreaming of playing Rollerball, the “material dream world” in which the characters live, the possibility of Moonpie dreaming in his coma…the corporation can’t take away the ability to dream.

They can try, and they do. And when Jonathan E. fights back, fights through, fights his way out, he never actually knows why he’s fighting, or exactly what he’s fighting against.

But he knows he’s going to fight until he wins.

He scores the only goal in that final game. It was watched worldwide. Viewers otherwise under the control of various corporations saw the one thing they were never supposed to see: one man beating a rigged system.

I was one of those viewers. In another place, in another time, but I was watching it, through the darkness, into the next morning, unable to turn away.

We didn’t know any better than Jonathan E. what was at stake here.

But we felt it, just like he did. And whatever statement he made at the end, just by making it to the end, we knew it mattered.

I mean, something has to matter. Right?

Otherwise…what’s the point?

Trilogy of Terror: Deathrow Gameshow (1987)

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 this year’s 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’s theme is “The Most Dangerous Games,” movies about competitions whose outcomes mean the difference between life and death.

As a bonus entry this year, I took at look at the page-to-screen adaptation of The Running Man. You may want to read that before continuing into this review, as it served as an unexpectedly great point of comparison.

Once I decided to cover games of life and death, The Running Man came immediately to mind. I didn’t realize at that point, however, that in the exact same year, another, much smaller film was released that handled the same premise far better.

Deathrow Gameshow is actually fun. Not great, and I probably wouldn’t push back too hard if you told me it wasn’t even good, but it sure as hell approached its premise creatively and with an infectious giddiness. The Running Man was too busy letting Arnold Schwarzenegger disembowel his pursuers and his dialogue too have any fun. Deathrow Gameshow can’t imagine doing a movie like this and not having fun.

It’s a silly comedy that may have something to say about the media, desensitization, celebrity, and God knows what else, but a cheap laugh is still a laugh and it will gladly stoop to one at any time.

The premises in the two films are remarkably similar, and certainly coincidental. The fact that they were released in the same year means writer and director Mark Pirro happened to come up with Deathrow Gameshow in a case of parallel invention.

Deathrow Gameshow, just like The Running Man, focuses on a popular game show in which convicted criminals risk their lives for a chance at freedom.

Here, that show is called Live or Die, and it combines familiar elements from Let’s Make a Deal, The Price is Right, Double Dare, and more.

Live or Die is hosted by Chuck Toedan, played by John McCafferty as a character who’s far better described as amoral than evil. He gets no particular thrill out of killing his contestants, but rather respects his role as the modern evolution of a necessary profession: that of executioner.

McCafferty is no Richard Dawson, but he does well enough with this spin on the character type, and it’s nice to follow the experiences of the host rather than one of the show’s contestants.

He plays the role perfectly, which is assisted by his naturally boyish good looks. He’s not the old hand that Dawson is, the seasoned, calm professional…he’s the young buck who enjoys the attention and likes seeing himself on television. He’s easily frazzled and instantly terrified whenever someone or something forces him to step out of his comfort zone. He oozes oily charm, but none of it is calculated. He’s just naturally hollow enough to make for a great game show host.

Chuck, also unlike Damon Killian, is a divisive personality within the world of the film. He has his legions of supporters and mindlessly cheering fans, but he also has a large number of detractors that push back against Live or Die, seeing it for the exploitative horror that it really is.

The thing that allows Chuck to sleep at night is that these are convicts who were already on death row; they’ve been found guilty of their crimes and have already been sentenced to death. What’s wrong with giving them a showy sendoff? With giving them something to look forward to? With giving them a chance to win some money for their families on the way out?

Live or Die has also had a seemingly positive impact on society, with Chuck claiming in a talk show appearance that violent crime has dropped 30% since the game show debuted. It’s keeping viewers entertained and indirectly making their world safer.

Additionally, it offers a small ray of hope in the darkest situations. A caller during that talk show appearance thanks Chuck for killing her father on national television. After all, it allowed him to go out entertaining millions rather than alone in a dank room. His death got to be one of personality rather than procedure.

And early in the film a woman sleeps with Chuck in the hope of convincing him to let her incarcerated boyfriend on the show. If he wins, he’ll go free, and if he loses, maybe she’ll get a parting gift. Either way, everybody wins…and her boyfriend was going to die anyway…

But, of course, it’s public execution, beamed directly into America’s living rooms. It’s not something that makes everybody happy. Protesters hound him at work, for instance, and the frequency of abuse he endures on the road caused him to have this installed:

His most vocal critic is Gloria Sternvirgin, a stand-in for real-world feminist activist Gloria Steinem, played by Robyn Blythe. She represents WAAMAF: Women Against Anything Men Are For, which is a joke that feels orphaned from a Married…With Children script.

Blythe’s performance is the one thing that helps the character feel like less of an unfair jab at feminism than she probably actually is. Chuck and host Roy Montague both call her a bitch at various points, and she’s without question meant to register at first as a ridiculous killjoy, the sort of character we may logically and ethically agree with, but who we can’t stand.

Blythe plays her straight, though, and she’s perhaps the only character that gets to be human and never becomes a cartoon. This may sound like an insult to the other characters, but I assure you it’s only a distinction. Deathrow Gameshow knows exactly what it’s doing, and any shifts in character and tone are done knowingly, if not always expertly.

She holds her own against Chuck and, ultimately, it’s Chuck who comes around, not Gloria. The fact that Deathrow Gameshow aligns itself with her perspective by the end rather than his does quite a bit to declaw the swipes at her character, as does the fact that she and Chuck soon come to share an adversary.

That adversary is Luigi Pappalardo — played by a man with the fantastic mononym Beano — who is seeking vengeance, or at least restitution, for Chuck’s killing of a crime boss, which we see in a flashback that perfectly encompasses everything that makes Deathrow Gameshow work.

We learn that the crime boss, whose name is Spumoni, indeed died on Chuck’s show, but Chuck had no idea who he was. The fact that contestants are only referred to by their prison identification number and never by name is a nice wink toward their dehumanization at the same time it serves as a plot point. (Or, actually, two plot points.)

The crime boss has found himself in this show’s equivalent of a physical challenge. He’s stripped naked and rigged up to a machine that will electrocute him if he gets an erection. To win, all he has to do is make it through Chuck’s lovely assistant’s Dance of the Seven Boners.

It’s plot, backstory, riff on the film’s central premise, and juvenile joke all at once.

Of course, when Spumoni dies, it isn’t truly Chuck’s fault, right? He was condemned to death already, and all Chuck did was host a game show. Perhaps Luigi would be upset, and perhaps he’d still seek vengeance, but it’s hard to hold Chuck too accountable for what’s bound to happen…

Except that it doesn’t happen. Spumoni makes it all the way through the performance, and we get the sense that he only barely manages to do so. Spumoni gets to go free.

Chuck, however, places a chummy hand on Spumoni’s shoulder, and the stimulation of physical contact is too much. He fries anyway.

His death was accidental, but it was Chuck’s accident. As a result, our hero has spent the past six months as the target of various threats and attempts on his life. One of these comes immediately after his talk show appearance with Gloria, and he whisks her away from harm. (Don’t worry, though; he won’t be a sympathetic character for at least another hour.) Unfortunately, the fact that she’s seen fleeing with him puts her in Luigi’s crosshairs as well.

At various points throughout the film, Pirro drifts firmly into sketch comedy territory, which surprised and disoriented me on my first viewing. I expected dark humor for sure, but I didn’t expect silly, isolated skits that had nearly nothing to do with the film I was watching.

One of these comes during the first round we see of Live or Die. A convict has his head in a guillotine, and if he wants to take it out again he has to identify the famous film he’s shown on the monitor.

We get to watch it with him. A figure wrapped in bandages lunges at a screaming woman, who gets away. The monster lets loose a humorously long string of frustrated profanity.

Recognize the movie? The prisoner didn’t, either. Chuck lets us know the film is called Curses of the Mummy.

A bit later, Pirro shows us slow-motion footage of kids crossing the street, which we cut to several times.

Why? Because Pirro is saving the reveal of the SLOW CHILDREN sign for the very end of the sequence.

The silliness of the jokes works, though. I wanted Pirro to view the horrors he created through a dark lens, but he insisted on seeing them in a fun-house mirror. Once my vision adjusted, I could appreciate the movie for what it actually was. Deathrow Gameshow is frequently dumb, but never stupid.

The best of the dopey gags, though, are the ones that flesh out the media landscape of Pirro’s world.

I’m referring to the television commercials that also take advantage of death row inmates. In one, a horrified mother can’t tell whether the desperate cries of her son being executed are genuine, or the remarkably clear audio quality offered by Glamorex cassette tapes.

In another, a criminal is given two cheese samples and asked to identify which is real and which is imitation. Unfortunately, the commercial is actually for Rodento cheese-flavored rat poison.

Scenes like this certainly make the world seem less real, but they also make it feel more cohesive. Once criminals sentenced to death are turned into entertainment, why not advertise with them, too?

Spumoni is actually the only criminal we see who expresses a desire not to be part of the show. (He did sign a release, though.) The others jump up and down with excitement as they await their turn, engage in banter with Chuck, and enjoy the thrill of the proceedings. (If not their termination point.)

In fact, in one of the film’s best jokes, Luigi takes over the show and releases the prisoners…who then sit down to watch the show themselves. From victim to audience in a literal heartbeat.

Families of the condemned even turn up to watch the prisoners compete live, hoping their loved ones either cheat death or leave them with some prize money as a consolation. In a great, unspoken moment, a contestant’s wife covers her daughter’s eyes but not her son’s.

Then, of course, there’s an angry viewer who accosts Chuck in public. He accuses Chuck of being a despicable human being doing unforgivable things, but we get the sense he never misses an episode. “I’ve been watching your show for two years,” he shouts, “and I think it’s sick!”

Chuck even launches into a “we give the people what they want” speech during his talk show appearance, which coincidentally sounds damned similar to the one Killian delivers at the end of The Running Man.

Deathrow Gameshow understands exactly why a show like Live or Die could succeed. Enough of the people who watch it enjoy it, and those who don’t still can’t pull themselves away. There’s something innately seductive about death, and watching those condemned to it trying to conquer it…well, of course they should cancel that show. But did you see it last night? It was wild…

Chuck offers Luigi a bribe to leave him alone, but the cartoonishly Italian assassin isn’t willing to be paid off. At least, not with money.

Mama Pappalardo happens to be a big fan of Make a Big Deal, another game show that films at the same time as Live or Die. You know exactly where this is going, and Deathrow Gameshow knows you know exactly where this is going, which allows the film to play with its own inevitability.

It does so, and it’s incredible.

Luigi suggests that if Mama Pappalardo can be in the audience for Make a Big Deal, maybe he can forget about that whole unfortunate dead crime boss thing.

Chuck doesn’t have control over Make a Big Deal, but through his secretary he manages to get Mama Pappalardo invited to the show. She even escorts the old woman to the Make a Big Deal studio personally while Chuck and Luigi set the world to rights.

And, of course, Make a Big Deal‘s audience shows up in costume, just like our real-world Let’s Make a Deal. Mama Pappalardo shows up dressed as a prisoner from Alcatraz.

Again, you know exactly where this is going…

Things should be fine; the two game shows film in entirely different studios, after all.

Mama Pappalardo has to use the restroom, however, so she gets out of line.

When she’s done she can’t find her way back, and a helpful young stagehand guides her onto the set of Live or Die.

The methodical plod through these circumstances is tremendously fun to watch unfold. Pirro just needs to get Chuck to throw a lever or something and kill an old woman, but the fact that we establish an entirely different game show with its own, very specific, fan base to get us there is great. Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t have many surprises to offer; it’s just fun to watch it play with its toys.

Of course, none of this would be an issue, except that Chuck didn’t get to see Mama Pappalardo before she headed off to Make a Big Deal. And Luigi hates Chuck’s show and doesn’t want to watch it. And he drags Gloria along to the Italian restaurant across the street, so he doesn’t join his mother at the other game show, either.

Mama Pappalardo appears on Live or Die, as she must. She’s the only one to buzz in to answer the trivia question, and she gets it right. As she must. Chuck rewards her with a physical challenge. As he must.

And if there’s any doubt about the film’s willingness to play with inevitability — to never undercut expectations but rather to drag them out lovingly — this sequence lays them to rest.

It’s not enough to know Mama Pappalardo is not long for this world; we need to see an old woman holding two canisters of gasoline, hopping weakly through rings of fire.

As she gets near the end of the sequence of flaming rings, Chuck’s lovely assistant blows flames that nearly singe the old lady. She’s not trying to complicate things…she’s just kind of a ditz.

Mama Pappalardo doesn’t explode. She does what no other contestant has done in our presence: she survives. She sets the canisters down next to some candles and celebrates, thinking she’s won Make a Big Deal.

The table collapses. The gasoline ignites. Mama Pappalardo is sprayed all over the studio backlot.

There’s nothing artful about it. Nothing clever. A doddering old lady explodes. But Pirro treats it with the appropriate gravitas: none whatsoever.

I absolutely love Mama Pappalardo. In fitting with the overall tone of the movie, it feels like she stepped right out of a Monty Python skit. In fact, she’s even played by a man in drag: Mark Lasky, who also plays Spumoni.

She’s never fully present in any of scenes, consistently confused and distant. She likely doesn’t know or understand how her son earns his money, and she certainly doesn’t know or understand anything else that’s going on around her.

Her goofy enthusiasm for leaping through the burning hoops is one of the film’s biggest and best laughs, as she finally comes to life in exactly the wrong situation. Nothing we observe or know about Mama Pappalardo suggests that she deserves her fate, which is what makes her explosive exit from the film such a giddy delight.

We know it’s coming, the movie knows we know it’s coming, and then it gives us exactly what we tuned in to see. Deathrow Gameshow is operating on the very same wavelength as Live or Die, and it’s getting the same reactions from its audience as well.

After the show, Chuck learns who he killed and is mortified. He immediately launches a plan to edit her death out of the episode and hide the truth from Luigi, which leads directly to Luigi seeing the footage himself.

The acting in Deathrow Gameshow is no better than we got from Arnold in The Running Man, but it’s far more appropriate to the film. Arnold seemed to be acting in an entirely different movie, operating on a plane of mental existence that wasn’t shared by any of his costars.

Here, none of the actors were in any danger of winning awards for their roles, but they all understood what they were doing, and that makes it work so much better.

They’re ridiculous people in ridiculous situations, saying and doing ridiculous things…but it makes the film feel more real than The Running Man felt, because everything is actually working together rather than the film being at odds with itself. Knowing you’re ridiculous allows you to establish a consistent identity. Not knowing you’re ridiculous leaves you flailing.

In addition to the main characters we’ve already discussed, there are two more worth noting.

The simplest and most successful is Debra Lamb as Chuck’s lovely assistant Shanna Shallow. Like much of the dedicated eye candy on game shows — Vanna White most notably — Shanna doesn’t get anything to say. Not just on Live or Die, but in the larger film itself.

She’s just a presence, and an increasingly bizarre one as we learn that she’s still speechless when the cameras are off, always staring blankly into the middle distance as though she’s been genetically engineered to be the perfect lovely assistant. This isn’t her job…it’s her existence.

Shanna barely even reacts toward the end of the film when Luigi takes over the show and forces the crew into a large cage on set. While they’re all trapped inside, Shanna postures and poses, introducing some imaginary Brand New Car on her right.

It’s funny and well played. Slightly less successful is Darwyn Carson as Chuck’s secretary, Trudy.

I actually feel bad saying so because Carson had far more to do than Lamb, and I don’t think she did a poor job. I think it’s more the case that she’s less defined as a character.

Trudy works best as an unintentional foil for Chuck. We only get a few scenes of the two of them interacting in this way, but it’s some of the best stuff in movie.

CHUCK: Any messages, Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes sir, Mr. Toedan, two I believe. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: Who’s Lisa Whitman?
TRUDY: I don’t know, sir.
CHUCK: Well, what happened then?
TRUDY: She apologized and then hung up.
CHUCK: Trudy?
TRUDY: Yes, sir?
CHUCK: Isn’t it possible that this could have been a wrong number?
TRUDY: No, sir! It rang right here.
CHUCK: What about the other call?
TRUDY: Other call?
CHUCK: You said there were two calls.
TRUDY: Oh, yeah. A lady called asking for Lisa Whitman.
CHUCK: You told me that already.
TRUDY: She must have called back.

It’s corny, sure, and it’s the kind of comedy routine that we’ve seen thousands of times across all media, but it works. It’s funny. It’s the type of exchange that’s fun to write, act out, and watch. It plays well here, and is a welcome drift into a more familiar kind of insanity.

There’s also a great, unacknowledged visual gag involving the various notes Chuck leaves Trudy to clean up her work area…which accumulate so quickly they become their own kind of clutter.

All of this is good, but I get the sense that Deathrow Gameshow only intermittently knows what it wants to do with her. Another running gag, and a far less successful one, involves her secretly masturbating at work. I suppose there’s a way to make that funny or interesting, but Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t manage it.

In a way, that’s fine. In a screwball, wackadoo comedy like this, not every joke needs to (or can be reasonably expected to) land. It’s disappointing, though, because Deathrow Gameshow has stumbled on to several other ways to make Trudy funny, and this feels like a holdover from an earlier version of the script that couldn’t think of anything else for her to do.

I don’t mean to oversell Deathrow Gameshow. It’s not going to change anybody’s life or offer them compelling insight into difficult questions. It is, as they say, just a movie.

But it’s a movie that works. It’s a movie that achieves its own goals. They aren’t lofty goals, but they’re worth shooting for. They give us a movie that’s memorable, a movie with personality, a movie with a lot of great laughs and a few strong digs at the actual media we know, love, and follow.

It’s a cheap movie, but it uses its budget wisely. Setting the vast majority of the action on a game show set is a wise way to keep costs down; just like a real game show, most of it is static and props can be wheeled in or out to suit the changing needs of the scenes.

Pirro claims on his website that the film was produced for $200,000, which I certainly believe. But it went on to make $1.5 million in home video and cable revenue. (I suspect this will grow with the recent rerelease by the fantastic film restoration company Vinegar Syndrome.)

That sounds like a paltry sum, and for a major Hollywood movie it certainly would be. But for a winking labor of love like Deathrow Gameshow, that’s damned impressive. I don’t think the film is due for a universal reappraisal or anything, and whatever level of cult appreciation it holds today is unlikely to increase significantly in the future, but it’s a movie I really enjoyed. It will stick with me as an example of having as much fun as possible with a concept, and then shaking it off completely before it gets stale.

Deathrow Gameshow doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it underdeliver. When I told a friend I was reviewing this movie, she asked, “Does it actually have a death row game show?”

It’s the same question anyone should ask if they grew up renting horror movies, making decisions based on title and box art, feeling disappointed when the movie that looked like it should have been awesome offered barely a glimpse of the concept that hooked you.

Deathrow Gameshow delivers what it promises. It doesn’t attempt to trick its audience or even surprise them. You get exactly what you asked for. No more, no less. But in the horror genre, which so frequently fails to live up to its own hype, “no more, no less” can actually mean “significantly more than we should reasonably expect.”

I was disappointed the first time I started watching the film, because I wanted something that would disturb me, upset me, fire me up against the media, against the entertainment industry’s dubious sense of ethics, against the way we view and treat prisoners in this country…

But I got a carefree farce instead. Once I realized it wasn’t the movie I hoped it would be, I was free to enjoy the movie it actually was.

You don’t watch Deathrow Gameshow because you want to see what happens, or because you care about the characters. You watch it because it enjoys itself, and however corny or telegraphed the jokes might be, you end up falling into its spell.

Paul Michael Glaser spent $30 million to make a movie about convicts fighting for their lives on a popular gameshow. Mark Pirro spent $200,000 to make a far superior one. History may not remember Deathrow Gameshow, but I certainly and happily will.

Update: Time Slips Away

Is it too soon to plan the rest of the year? When you’re someone who overstretches themselves at every opportunity…no!

For a while, even at my slowest, I was able to produce one new post here every two weeks. I thought that was a pace that was fair to both of us. But time makes fools of us all, as a wise man once observed, so I wanted to check in and let you know what to expect for the rest of 2018.

– For starters, I’m sorry. I know it stinks to keep visiting the page to find nothing new. I did know this was going to happen, and I tried to make sure I gave you a long, classic-style ALF review to remind you that I’m not going anywhere…but I have another large project that’s been dominating my time.

– That project, of course, is the book. I’m still not able to reveal much about it specifically, but I assure you that while I’m not pumping out blog content, I am still writing; you’ll just get it all in one shot when the book is released, possibly next year. I’m making great progress on it and I’m very happy with how it’s turning out. I’d say the draft is around 70% done. I’m excited to share more information with you, hopefully relatively soon.

– However, there are deadlines I need to adhere to. I owe my publisher a completed first draft by Dec. 1. That’s unquestionably a realistic target. But it does leave me with a lot less time for blog content. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked!

– October will of course see the return of Trilogy of Terror. This will be the fourth year for the series, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a highlight of my year since I’ve introduced it, and I love the opportunity it gives me to dig deeper into certain films than I ever would have otherwise thought to.

– That means September will be given over to watching the movies, researching them, writing about them, gathering screenshots, editing the writeups…you know. All that fun stuff that happens behind the scenes. It’s a lot of work, but I enjoy Trilogy of Terror and I know you guys do, too, so I always want to do it justice. In fact, to get you excited about it, this year’s theme is Games of Life and Death.

– Also, because I’m never happy without too much on my plate, I really want to do a Fiction into Film that complements that theme. That’s another project that requires a lot of work, but it’s also something I’d love to cover.

– I’d also really like to do another Xmas Bash! But those take a lot of work as well. If I’m going to have another group of Christmas specials / commercials / music videos ready to go in December, I need to get it finished (or nearly so) in November.

– That leaves August for me to get my draft done. Oh, except The Venture Bros. and Better Call Saul debut their new seasons in August. I plan on covering the latter, for sure. The former, I think I definitively have to pass on writing about. There’s simply not enough time.

– On top of all this, I have a job, a social life, the fallout from getting rear-ended at a stoplight in April…I’m a busy bee.

– So, yeah, don’t expect much in the way of frequent updates between now and the end of the year. I really, truly hate to say that. But do expect big, important, substantive things. What I do post is going to count, I can assure you of that much. You just might have to wait a while between posts. I’ll do my absolute best to make that wait worth it.

– I know I don’t need to post an update every time I’m going to focus elsewhere, but I respect your time as readers, and I appreciate it every time you’ve come back to see what exciting new topic I’m going to be thoroughly wrong about. I don’t want to waste your time or squander your attention. So, as a reward for being good, here’s one more bit of information about my upcoming book: it’s horror related.

– Lastly, if you’ve been visiting for more than a year or so, you probably remember that I had official Noiseless Chatter mugs for sale. They were great, but I sold out of them a while back. I’ve been wanting to get some kind of new merchandise made, for folks who want to support the site. I’m not a big fan of taking donations in exchange for nothing, and I don’t want to just get more mugs made because the shipping was prohibitively expensive for readers in other countries. So let me know what kind of things you’d like to see and would be willing to buy, and I’ll poke around!

Whew. Thanks for reading. Be patient. I’m sure I’ll have a few surprises for you along the way, but this is shaping up to be a very busy sprint to the end of the year. I thank you for your understanding, and I appreciate that you’re taking this journey with me.

As ever, stay tuned.

Trilogy of Terror: Remake (2012)

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 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.