Trilogy of Terror: The Familiar (2009)

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

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

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

It was pretty okay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With one exception.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s Rallo? It’s not explained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he indeed leaves her behind.

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, actually, now that I mention it…

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case in point: poor Laura.

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

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

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

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

That’s it.

That’s what makes her a vessel for evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trilogy of Terror: The Lock In (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all fine. In theory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…who needs to hear it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not addiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And come they don’t.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October News! Updates! Features!

Happy October! I know, it’s weird, I didn’t expect to live this long, either.

October is one of the months I look forward to most on Noiseless Chatter, and I really hope you do, too. We’ve got a lot coming up, and so I wanted to take a moment to let you know how the coming weeks will unfold.

– Trilogy of Terror: Oh yes. Trilogy of Terror is one of my favorite features to write, and though we’re only into its third year of existence, the feedback and traffic I get from it tells me you enjoy it, too. Each year I write longform essays about three related horror films in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I’ve got some truly memorable ones for you this time around, along with a theme I very much hope you’ll find as fascinating as I do. I have the first two posts drafted already, and just need to take screenshots to finish them off. I’m thrilled to get to share these with you. What films will they be? You’ll have to tune in and find out. The first installment goes live on Oct. 17, the second on Oct. 24, and the third on Oct. 31. I hope you’ll join me.

Red Dwarf: Red Dwarf is coming back again! Since I’ve reviewed the previous two series on this blog, I figure I might as well do this one, too. I’m not exactly sure when it starts — evidently the online premiere dates still aren’t determined? — but I’ll be here, reviewin’ and stuff. Series X was pretty awful with moments of greatness and series XI was pretty great with moments of awfulness, so I have genuinely no idea what to expect from series XII. Maybe the vending machines will have sex.

– Fight, Megaman!: Another of my favorite features is Fight, Megaman!, but that has a rapidly expiring shelflife. I’ve already covered eight of the 10 games I’m going to look at, and I actually just have the final review left to write. We’re almost to the end of the journey…except that I’ve decided to do something a bit more than I’d originally planned. After Fight, Megaman! is complete, I’m going to flesh out my analyses even further, correct a few things, elaborate on a few other things…and publish it as a book. The book will even feature many games I am not covering here, such as Mega Man & Bass, the Game Boy titles, and various spinoffs. I’ll keep you posted as this progresses, but I hope this is something that satisfies everyone. If you don’t want to buy anything, you still get the entire feature, as promised, here for free. If you do want to buy a book, you get some nice bonuses for your money, and hopefully some cool artwork. Stay tuned.

– Fight, Megaman X!: And, hey, speaking of spinoffs…a number of you have asked if I’ll cover the Mega Man X series next. The answer has to be no; I’m not as familiar with or in love with that series as I am with the classic style games. But we will be covering them here after all! Friend of the website Samurai Karasu will pick up when Fight, Megaman! leaves off. I’m very much looking forward to reading those along with you.

– 5th Annual Xmas Bash!: We’re talking about all my favorite Noiseless Chatter things today. The 5th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! is coming soon. I’ll post details as soon as I have them, but you can expect another five hours of forgotten Xmas specials, holiday commercials, bizarre Christmas music videos, the best live chat on the internet, and so much more. I’ve made a lot of progress putting the stream together already, and after I finish Trilogy of Terror, work will start on that in earnest. If you’ve joined us before, I hope you can make it out again. And if you haven’t…really, come on now. It’s a live stream of vintage Xmas dreck, commentated in real time by people much funnier than me. (Such as you!) Be there!

– Choose Your Own Advent: Last year I debuted a Choose Your Own Advent feature, in which I published an essay about a different novel every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 24. I have an idea for bringing the feature back this year…but it will really come down to how much time I have. My fingers are crossed, but obviously my priority will be the Xmas Bash! Therefore, if this is a feature you really want to see again…speak now!

Anyway, that’s just a taste of what to expect, and an excuse for me to gush a bit early about Trilogy of Terror. It’s going to be great, and I’m excited to hear your thoughts on what I’ve chosen to exhume this year.

I’ll see you soon!

Trilogy of Terror: Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3 is a deeply terrible movie.

I could honestly end this piece right there and move on with my life without regret, but…what the hell, it’s Halloween.

Alien was a masterpiece. Certainly one of the best horror films and one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s somewhere on my list of all-time favorite films period, though obviously it has a lot more competition there. It was moody, atmospheric, and tense. Watching it is an experience, and one that feels important. It’s a work of art. You can see immediately how influential and significant this movie would be for years to come.

Aliens scraps the template, which is a pretty bold thing to do when the original worked so perfectly and was so well received. But the gamble paid off. James Cameron didn’t just have a different story to tell from Ridley Scott’s original; he had a different kind of story, which necessitated a different approach. It’s a step down in my opinion, as the film doesn’t feel as brainy or artful, but that’s due more to my personal preferences than it is to any serious failings in the film. Aliens did everything a great sequel should do, and did it largely very well. It also cemented the fairly daring idea that sequels in this franchise wouldn’t have to look, sound, or feel very much like any of the previous entries, and its success opened the door for experimentation to come.

Alien 3 sees Ripley crashing on some kind of prison colony, populated by comic book thugs, and also the alien is part dog now.

Alien 3, 1992

It was terrible.

I will say here that the title is usually stylized Alien3, but “Alien Cubed” is meaningless. I’m not even sure why they wanted it stylized that way. I guess mathematics are pretty important to space travel, but beyond that it doesn’t factor into the content of the film at all, unlike the graceful pluralization used for the second film.

So, yes, Alien 3. It’s awful.

The film, from what little I understand, was plagued with problems. Also, from what I understand, those problems spanned every stage of production, from finalizing the screenplay all the way through editing the thing.

I’ll admit right now that I haven’t read or seen much material describing these problems, because I simply don’t care. Alien 3 isn’t a fascinating failure; it’s just a failure. I might be more interested in knowing the specifics if Alien 3 were close to being a good film, but as it stands I just see a bad movie. And I know how those are made, because they’re made hundreds of times a year.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 doesn’t stand out, I think. If it weren’t for its lineage, it would be indistinguishable from any number of ill-conceived, bungled, half-assed, forgettable quasi-action films from the 1990s, and its two predecessors are the only reasons that it’s remembered and discussed at all.

I will also say that there are a few different cuts of the film, some of which are apparently better than others. I don’t doubt this, but I also don’t hate myself enough to endure multiple versions of Alien 3. One was plenty, and if some other version is a marginal improvement to the product, then that’s great, and I wish it much luck.

When I started this particular Trilogy of Terror, I strongly considered writing about Alien: Resurrection instead of this one. Not because I’d necessarily have more to say about that film, but because I really didn’t feel like watching Alien 3 again at all. Alien: Resurrection is by no means great, but it’s much better, more interesting, and infinitely more fun. That, I think, is an example of a fascinating failure. Alien 3, by contrast, is just a disappointment.

Alien 3, 1992

You know what, though? As much of a terrible film as it is, I’ll admit that it’s a terrible film wedged between two pretty great sequences.

The best part of the movie is probably its opening. It’s certainly the bravest part.

At the end of Aliens, Ripley refuses a chance to make it off the planet before the reactor explodes, choosing instead to go after Newt. The young orphan girl disappeared during the escape attempt, and Ripley jeopardizes her own survival — along with the survival of Hicks and Bishop — by running off to get her back.

And she does get her back, after a long stretch of searching, fighting, fleeing, and playing Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots with the alien queen.

In the original film, Ripley was the last survivor of the Nostromo. But in Aliens, her success was larger. She saved Newt. Hicks and Bishop — the latter a bit worse for the wear — made it out as well. And seeing them escape together felt great. It was a fantastic ending to a very good film in what was becoming a great series.

Alien 3 opens by saying that Newt, Hicks, and Bishop all died when we weren’t looking.

Alien 3, 1992

And, man. What a gut punch.

But it’s an effective one, and it’s one of the few times the film has any effect on us at all. I’m not sure if I actually like the fact that Alien 3 killed off those characters so callously, so cruelly, with such a fuck-you to the audience and to Ripley…but at the same time, I admire the audacity of that fuck-you. It’s meaningful. It robs both us and Ripley of even the ghost of the happy ending that Aliens let us believe in, and it says a lot about the universe in which these films take place. Any peace is temporary. Any success is fleeting. And you’d better rest up, because tomorrow’s another fight for your life.

I think I’d like the opening a lot more, however, if it were followed by a better film. If it were, I’d be able to believe that it’s the unflinching vision of a director with something powerful to say. As it stands, it feels like an accidental good decision at best.

The other great scene is the ending. Ripley sacrificing herself — directly, literally, deliberately — is a great cap to the three films as a whole. Granted, we could have left her drifting in hypersleep after either of the previous two films and felt perfectly fine with that, but since we bothered to revive her one more time, her slow motion fall backward into the molten lead is a much more beautiful ending than this film deserved.

Having the alien burst out of her chest on the way down, though, come on. That was awful.

Alien 3, 1992

Can’t I just enjoy my not-half-bad ending in peace?

And, well, as long as we’re on the subject of the only good things in the movie, here’s the only other good thing in the movie: the scene in which Ripley reboots a busted-up Bishop is the only other good thing in the movie.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien 3 was directed by a young man named David Fincher. It was his first film, and it sunk his career forever. Unless you count his incredible number of critical and commercial favorites to follow, including Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl.

So, yes, I know very little about the production of Alien 3, but I think it’s safe to conclude that a lack of talent behind the camera was not to blame. It fell down elsewhere. And the scene with Bishop makes two of the weakest points clear to me: the acting, and the lack of invention.

Lance Henricksen, to be frank, runs circles around any of the Alien 3-specific actors. Ripley plugs him in, we spend a much-too-brief time with him, and then he asks to be disconnected because he doesn’t want to be in this awful movie.

But in that time, coming as it does after we’ve spent enough time with the residents of the prison colony to realize they’re all interchangeable and worthless, we are reminded of how much better the characters in this series used to be.

Alien 3, 1992

Bishop was great. I have no problem with him being switched off for good, except for the fact that there’s really no replacement for him. Who was your favorite character in the prison? That one bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Or that other bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence? Personally, I like the bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence, and sometimes stood behind another bald guy who cursed a lot and threatened violence.

None of the characters here feel distinct, and certainly none of them were interesting or worth spending time with. They were also, to a man, horribly acted, as they all seemed to fall back on the same mindless snarling that you might get from prison extras in an especially poor Batman film. The difference here is that they aren’t extras; they’re main characters, and we’re spending nearly all of the film with them.

This is an important problem. In films like this and the original Alien, the characters need to be distinct and identifiable. Ideally we’d care about them, but at the very least we need to be able to identify them.

That’s because they’re going to be picked off, one after another, by some kind of powerful force, and we need to know who is down and who is still standing. We need to know who we can rely on, and who is liable to betray us. We need to know who is brave, and who is breaking under the pressure. We need to know who is worth keeping alive, and who the film can sacrifice for the sake of showing the beast’s abilities.

Alien 3, 1992

We can illustrate this easily, simply by looking back at the previous films.

In Alien, every character was distinct. It was a small crew, so Scott had the room to give everybody a personality and some unique personal characteristics as well. I can talk to you about the flustered and overwhelmed — but certainly well-meaning — Captain Dallas. I can tell you about the panicky, fragile Lambert. I can tell you about Parker, who begins the film frustrated and uncooperative but grows in dedication and focus as the danger becomes more real. I can tell you about the detached, eerily calm Ash, who seems to be the “brilliant asshole” character for a while before he reveals himself to be something else entirely. The list, of course, goes on.

Each character being distinct was less important in Aliens, because there were so many of them, and distinguishing them all would have led to a film that was far too busy. Instead we just need enough of the characters to be distinct, and the film absolutely succeeded there. Burke was a complex villain…one who at times really did seem to care about Ripley and others, but who was ultimately driven by greed to do awful things that he was able to justify in his own mind. Gorman was an unready, untested commanding officer, awarded a station beyond his level of competence, who believably failed to lead his soldiers effectively. Hicks was a soldier who received a battlefield promotion and had to either rise to the challenge or have a lot of blood on his hands for failing. Newt was a normal little girl, broken and traumatized by a life that became, in a heartbeat, one of sheer hell. Once again, the list goes on.

Then there’s Alien 3.

Alien 3, 1992

Tell me about Boggs. Tell me about Eric. Tell me about Morse, or Junior, or David.

I just watched the film, and I don’t even know who those characters are. They all bleed together into some vague idea of a character, without any of them actually being one. This is a failure of the acting, the costume design (they are all bald and dress very much alike), the casting (they look and sound very similar), and the writing (they all say “fuck you” a lot, which is about the only thing they say outside of plot exposition).

There’s also the problem of the prisoners being victims we don’t actually mind getting killed. Alien had an innocent crew fed through its grinder. Aliens had a colony of innocent families, and then a squad of ill-prepared colonial marines, eviscerated by the monsters. But Alien 3 sets the beast loose in a colony of characters we are told are murderers, rapists, and child molesters.

Alien 3, 1992

And…y’know…isn’t that okay? I’m not trying to make some statement here about capital punishment, or the wisdom of defining a man by his crimes, or anything like that. I’m just speaking as a member of the viewing audience, who knows nothing about these characters other than what we’re told.

A colony of criminals that we’re told time and again have committed heinous acts — and about whom we learn little or nothing else — is not equivalent to an innocent crew or a group of soldiers in terms of tension generated by possible loss of life. We want the crew of the Nostromo to survive. We want somebody to come out of the warzone alive. I don’t think there’s as much incentive to root for the survival and safe return of a serial rapist.

But then again, are these prisoners the hardened, irredeemable thugs the film keeps telling us they are? Sure, there’s a scene in which they grab Ripley and try to rape her, and, yes, of course, that’s terrible. But it’s also done in such a boneheaded, overwrought manner that it’s difficult to feel any menace in them.

They’re comic book henchmen, at best, and their attempted physical violation of our main character doesn’t seem to happen because that’s who they are and what they do, but because a screenwriter told them they’d need to do it.

So they glower from the shadows. They make faces somebody must have once told them look scary by B-movie standards. One of them even pauses to put his trademark goggles on, for crying out loud.

Alien 3, 1992

This isn’t a rape, it’s a scene in a movie that feels calculated and fabricated in every aspect, and it exists only so that Charles S. Dutton can smack one of them around with a pipe and prove that he’s not all bad.

Outside of that, how bad are any of them? They just sit around sneering and making angry faces. They curse at each other. They’re filthy and scarred, but they don’t do anything. And while that could be a comment on the way society has treated them — they’re not actually that bad, but are funneled here due to a flawed prison / criminal justice system — I think the idea is that they’re supposed to be to be as bad and dangerous as the film tells us, and it just does a predictably awful job of demonstrating that.

Watching it again for this review, the thought struck me that the setting was maybe, at some point in the creative process, intended to be a mining colony and not a penal colony. That would explain the significant amount of accessible underground areas and the molten metal systems (why would a prison need or want those, exactly?), and would also explain why the “prisoners” really just seem a bit under-educated and uncouth as opposed to psychopathic and dangerous.

Alien 3, 1992

The idea of a prison setting is a good one — it places Ripley in clear peril and does a great job of cementing her, yet again, as a disrespected outsider — but the execution just seems off, and the conflict feels artificial.

Another way in which the film falls down is the alien itself. While it looks a bit silly by today’s standards, the alien in the first film at least feels like it’s there, and a very real danger to the crew. And while I can pick apart Aliens maybe more than most people are keen to do, I absolutely cannot fault the film on its effects work, as the aliens themselves in that movie were incredibly lifelike. What’s more, the facehugger across both films was an absolute triumph of horror movie making.

But Alien 3 leans on CGI, and not very convincingly. The characters here feel like they’re being hunted by an ugly cartoon. It doesn’t feel like it’s there, because it’s not there.

It was a huge step back in a series that was actually quite effective in its creature effects up until this point, where it just looks idiotic.

Alien 3, 1992

That’s at least partially why Alien 3 isn’t scary. It wants to tap into the claustrophobic horror of Scott’s original, but it doesn’t work. The alien doesn’t feel like a threat, and the prisoners aren’t victims I especially care about. Hell, I don’t even know who they are, so why would I care if one lives and another dies? I couldn’t tell them apart to begin with.

Even Aliens, which was more of an action film than it was horror, was legitimately scary, and the scene with Ripley and Newt trapped in a room with the two facehuggers is still one of the most effectively frightening things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It was an incredible setpiece that featured excellent acting, great effects, flawless editing, and masterful tension. What’s more, it built naturally from the various relationships and situations that had been set up by the film up to that point.

Alien 3 doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of tension. The first film used a tracking device and desperate radio chatter to build a sense of encroaching terror, and when the alien appeared — especially when it got the drop on Dallas in the vents — it wasn’t a surprise so much as it was a horrific inevitability. That was scary.

Alien 3, 1992

Here, characters just turn a corner and the alien kills them. No buildup, no tension, and no reason to feel particularly invested in their deaths. They’re alive in one frame, dead in the next. A puff of red food coloring gets sprayed into frame, and we move on.

It’s tremendously disappointing, as Alien 3 wishes to return to the slasher roots of the first film but never bothered to figure out how or why it worked there to begin with.

Sigourney Weaver deserves none of the blame for whatever flaws the film may have. If she’s any less good than she was before it’s because the material fails her. And it often does, as Alien 3 requires her to shift from mourning her dead love interest and surrogate daughter to flirting and sleeping with some weird, creepy doctor she just met in what seems to be a matter of hours.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s a forced development that serves no purpose as far as I can tell, and is not easily compatible with anything I came to know about Ellen Ripley over the course of the previous two films. Two films that, it must be said, explored her actual character, rather than forced her to do things for the sake of doing them.

Here the romance rings false. So false that I can’t believe in it to any degree. It doesn’t feel like Ripley, and it doesn’t feel like a real development. It’s just there because it might as well be there, and it happens far too quickly after she’s reeling from the unexpected deaths of people who were genuinely important to her.

In fact, she doesn’t seem to care much about Newt or Hicks after their brief funeral. I know services like that are supposed to be for the comfort of the living, but, man, that’s some instant closure. Ain’t no funeral like a prison funeral, I guess.

Charles Dance as Dr. Clemens isn’t exactly bad…he just doesn’t seem to fit. He’s some kind of character from some kind of movie, but I don’t believe in him here, with these people, in this context.

He delivers his lines competently but not impressively, and just seems to exist because we needed someone Ripley might conceivably talk to. Once he’s served that purpose the alien pops his head like a pimple and neither we nor Ripley ever think about him again.

Alien 3, 1992

There’s more wrong with the film.

Much more.

There’s the confusion about where exactly the alien is in the big finale — its relation to the prisoners, the doors, the piston, and everything else we’re told is crucial to the success of this plan. There’s the half-dog half-alien thing that I guess is supposed to make up for the lack of facehuggers and alien queens and all of the other inventive, genuinely interesting creations of the previous films. There’s the uninspired, vague industrial backdrop that you saw in the finale of just about every 1990s action movie, and which, again, seems more like something you’d see in a mining facility than a prison. There’s the barely-sketched-in overtures toward some kind of vague, spiritual theme that fails to cohere.

But if I tried to talk about all that, we’d be here until next Halloween.

Alien 3, 1992

It’s enough to say that Alien 3 isn’t a good movie. The fact that it followed up a great movie and then a very good one is disappointing, and while it made its money back (a relatively modest three times its budget), it caused a lot of people to lose faith and interest in the franchise. As such, the Alien films have been in a kind of aimless creative spin ever since, with prequels and offshoots coming every so often, but no proper sequel.

Well, no proper sequel outside of Alien: Resurrection, which I still believe was a step back in the right direction, but it was also too little, too late.

It was over.

Alien 3, 1992

Alien and Aliens taught us that previous successes didn’t have to be repeated beat for beat in order to find success in the future. But Alien 3 is an unwittingly strong argument for repetition. It was an experiment without direction, without ambition, without even clear intention, and for all practical purposes it sunk the series.

It did something different, and scared us right back into believing that to be a bad thing.

One day, I promise, I’ll cover a film series in which the third entry isn’t the runaway worst.

But until then, thanks for reading, and have a great Halloween.

Trilogy of Terror: Aliens (1986)

Alien was an instant classic, and its clout has only grown since. Looking back on it for last week’s review, I find it hard to identify anything that it did wrong. Sure, I might disagree with the need for one narrative wrinkle or another, and certainly the alien itself looks a bit silly compared to the rest of the effects and sets, but it’s impossible to deny its masterful atmosphere, its solid performances, the deliberate, creeping terror that unfolds at an almost unbearable pace.

Audiences liked it. Critics liked it. Sigourney Weaver became a star, the design of the alien became a standard against which others would be measured, and even the film’s tagline (“In space no one can hear you scream”) took on a life of its own.

Oh, and it made something like 20 times its budget back at the box office. Presumably that was important to someone…

None of which leads me to say that a sequel was inevitable, exactly, but there were certainly plenty of parties interested in the possibility. When we did finally get one, it was with a different director and an almost entirely different cast.

James Cameron took over for Ridley Scott, and Weaver — returning as Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo — was the only returning face.

Aliens, 1986

Occam’s Law of Film Titles was undoubtedly adhered to here, as pluralizing the original really was the simplest and best idea. It also made sense in terms of the film’s content. Alien featured one alien. Aliens featured many aliens. Alien3 featured aliens made of Lego.

The title was also great because Alien 2 would have suggested little more than a sequel. And, yes, Aliens is a sequel, but it’s also an entirely separate film.

It takes place in the same universe, but it doesn’t have to. And just a little bit of rewriting would, hypothetically, allow this film to exist without the previous one having happened at all. Aliens is the rare sequel that genuinely wishes to be appraised on its own merits.

Of course, that’s no more an inherently good thing than an inherently bad thing, but it’s nice to see a sequel to a popular film that does more than repeat the original, beat for beat, to diminished returns.

Aliens in fact repeats relatively little, and the viewers that it’s bound to disappoint most are those who want more of the same.

Aliens, 1986

To some extent, I think I wanted more of the same. At the very least, I don’t like Aliens nearly as much as I like Alien.

They’re both successful in what they set out to achieve, but Alien set out to achieve many of the things that I enjoy in a film. It was contemplative, sedate, artful, intelligent. Aliens set out to achieve many of the things that I don’t like. It was flashy, loud, action-heavy, and interested in filling in gaps that Alien left deliberately open.

They’re both good at what they do, but I don’t enjoy what they do equally. There are obviously those who prefer the sequel to the original, and I’m happy for them. But I also imagine that they and I wouldn’t have much overlap in our lists of favorite films.

Aliens, 1986

Aliens picks up exactly where the previous installment left off.

…in a way.

We ended Alien with Ripley entering deep sleep, and we open Aliens with her being revived. There was a fairly long gap between films in the real world — seven years, to be exact — and Cameron expands that gap by another 50 years.

Yes, Ripley’s been asleep in that pod for 57 years. Ripley didn’t just outlive her previous crew…she outlived her own young daughter.

She returns to an Earth that isn’t exactly the same as what she left behind, without any of the social or family connections she once had. Very quickly her professional connections are severed as well, as Ripley is tried for the destruction of the Nostromo.

Aliens, 1986

The trial scene is great, not least because it’s a very natural, believable way for the last film’s tragedy to be addressed: in an overly bureaucratic concern for lost revenue.

It’s also tremendously difficult not to feel sorry for Ripley during this scene. She escaped by the skin of her teeth at the end of Alien, but that stroke of good fortune turns out to be the first shift in her next avalanche of misfortune. There’s no evidence to corroborate her story; we know she isn’t lying, because we were there, but these folks sitting around a table know nothing except that she detonated the ship and fled.

Sure, there could have been an alien, and it could have murdered the crew, but she just as easily could have gone insane and blown up the ship for no real reason.

In fact, to them, that’s actually the more likely outcome…there have been humans colonizing the very planet upon which she claims to have encountered the alien, and they never complained about any hostile organisms.

Aliens, 1986

That’s where the film gets going in earnest. Ripley warns that the ship full of alien eggs is definitely on that planet, and, of course, the company immediately sends somebody to seek it out. (In a nice bit of sad symmetry, it’s Newt’s family who does so. Ripley unknowingly robs the girl of her parents before stepping in to serve as their surrogate.)

It’s also where the film deviates entirely from the approach of the original. Yes, giving Ripley a daughter, and explicitly naming and spending time with Weyland-Yutani as opposed to casual and vague mentions of “the company,” takes the film in a unique direction, but the way in which the cast of each film confronts the alien menace is the defining difference.

In Alien, the crew had no choice. Once the alien was aboard, they were trapped. The shuttle wouldn’t fit all of them, so they had to fight…and they had to fight with what few resources were at hand. In Aliens, we send in the marines with as many resources as they like, and direct them to shoot the living shit out of whatever they encounter.

Aliens, 1986

The former approach lends itself to a concern for caution that gradually gives way to all-out desperation and panic. The latter approach lends itself to…well, an action film.

Alien had a cattle prod and a flame thrower, neither of which did anyone much good. If anything, they were symbols of protection that didn’t actually offer any; they were a small psychological concession rather than anything that actually helped. Aliens by contrast has bullets whizzing by, grenades exploding, aliens tumbling out of the ductwork, heads bursting in plumes of acid…

At times, it gets pretty mindless, as an action film does. It relies on spectacle — impressive though much of it is, visually — rather than consideration. It’s a film that contains intelligence without actually rewarding intelligent viewing. If you’re there for fire and blood you’ll be much better served than if you’re there for smart, efficient storytelling.

Aliens, 1986

I mentioned last week that Alien predated the home-video renaissance. Aliens, by contrast, landed just about at the very beginning, and I think that this shaped the film’s approach. After all, seeing a film in theaters was no longer the end of its profitability. Now a theatrical release could double as a commercial for its purchase on home video. Don’t show somebody a movie they enjoy; show them a movie that thrills them. Show them something they’ll want to own.

So Aliens screams. It bellows. It hollers. It commands and demands attention. It’s vast, long, and sensational. It shook theater seats. It got audiences excited.

Long, silent pans down the deserted corridors of the Nostromo? Who’s going to buy that? Give us gunfire and waves of alien guts!

Aliens, 1986

It’s a bit of a cynical way to look at what is, strictly speaking, a pretty solid action film. But as a sequel to Alien, and as a deliberate evolution of the series, it’s instructive.

Bombast sells. Videos, action figures, video games… Introspection doesn’t shift units.

Cameron, to his credit, doesn’t let spectacle run away with the film. At least, not overall. And it’s worth taking a moment to spotlight a few of the things that his sequel did exactly right.

For starters, it’s good in itself that it was so different. This meant that no matter how the film was received, it would leave the reputation of the original untarnished. Maybe you’d love Aliens and maybe you wouldn’t, but no matter how you felt it wasn’t likely to change your opinion of the first film.

Sequels to other franchises often hew so closely to the original formula that it retroactively makes you feel tired of the film you once enjoyed. (See: Austin Powers.) But when the sequel is so different, so unique, so independent of the original experience…well, it allows both films to just exist, without any necessary comparison between the two.

This is a uniformly positive thing.

Aliens, 1986

Cameron also iterates impressively upon a few of the breadcrumbs sprinkled by Scott’s film.

Most notable, of course, is “the company” becoming Weyland-Yutani, with a slogan, a series of commercials, and a disregard for employee welfare that would make Donald Trump blush. While we saw the company treat one single, presumably small crew as expendable, here we see them treat an entire colony — consisting not only of employees but of those employees’ families — as expendable.

Greed knows no boundary…something made clear enough by the first film, but illustrated with horrifying clarity in this one.

Aliens, 1986

Weyland-Yutani is personified here by Burke, played by Paul Reiser, in a role that miraculously holds up.

One would be forgiven for assuming that his years of starring in punchlines like My Two Dads and Mad About You would render any menace here inert, but he does a genuinely great job with his material. He seems every bit the dedicated, somewhat dim company man — and ally — he pretends to be to Ripley, but once he makes his turn he’s no less believable.

We never have to see Burke as a criminal mastermind…just somebody who would willfully sacrifice others for the sake of padding his wallet. He’s not evil because he doesn’t believe he’s evil. He thinks he’s smart, and knows that you don’t win a game of chess without sacrificing a few pieces. Reiser does excellent work here, blending both halves of Burke so seamlessly that neither feels more real than the other.

Then there’s the other major seed planted by Scott: Ripley’s distrust of androids.

Aliens, 1986

Aboard the Nostromo she had to contend with Ash, the science officer, who was secretly an artificial person. The revelation came as an unpleasant surprise for the crew, as they realized that he endangered them for the sake of a company that programmed him to do so.

Ripley is already en route to deal with the aliens before she realizes that Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen, is also an android. It’s too late to turn back, and Bishop swears that he would never do anything to jeopardize a human life, but she doesn’t accept that. She tells him to stay away from her, smacks the tray of food out of his hands, and makes it clear that she will not trust him.

Cameron could have gone either way with this. The way he did choose to go — Bishop was genuinely well-intentioned, and willing to sacrifice himself to protect her — was probably for the best, but either could have worked.

After all, Ripley was already going back to face the aliens against her better judgment; serving with an android that ultimately betrayed her for a second time would just be salt in the wound.

Aliens, 1986

Instead, Bishop’s a good guy. Far from inviting the tragedy to them as Ash did, Bishop is the only reason, several times over, that anybody is able to escape this one.

This means that for most of the film, Ripley is the antagonist, at least from Bishop’s point of view. And that’s a pretty impressive flourish, I have to admit. Her mistrust is understandable at the same time that it’s out of line. Her experience being pushed around on the Nostromo prepared her to push back against the one character who truly wants to help.

It’s also impressive that Cameron doesn’t feel beholden to the themes Scott established and explored in his previous film.

Here, we chart new territory. Most significant are the meditations on motherhood, but he also has a lot to say about the United States’ militaristic mindset, and colonialism in general. We’ll come back to each of those, but they’re worth bringing up here, briefly, as evidence that Cameron had something to say with this film, even if he didn’t say any of it as gracefully as Scott did in the last.

Aliens, 1986

There’s also a nice way of retaining Ripley’s outcast status, even while her knowledge of and experience with the alien are invaluable: she’s not a soldier.

The company, and the military in general, may respect her experience and understand how much they need her, but the soldiers themselves are grunts. (No offense.) They don’t respect her, they don’t care about her, and they’re much more interested in themselves than they are in anything she has to say. This keeps Ripley on the strategic sidelines once again, which is important, because if she had it her way they’d have nuked the planet from orbit to begin with, and, in the words of Kermit the Frog, that’d be a real short movie.

Those are the good things. The bad things, however, are not in short supply.

Most urgently, I think, is the quality of the acting, which simply was not on par with the tight performances of the first film.

Aliens, 1986

Sigourney Weaver, unquestionably, is great. There’s no scene or moment that is not elevated by her presence. Aliens calls for a broader range of emotions than Alien did, and Weaver hits them all perfectly.

She’s great, and the film’s clear MVP. Paul Reiser turns in a surprisingly good performance. Lance Henriksen makes a great android. And…that’s about it.

Somewhere in the middle we have Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks, who would probably be a lot better if he had more to do, and Carrie Henn as Newt, who would probably be a lot better if she had less to do.

Aliens, 1986

The marines on the whole, though, come off like caricatures. They don’t feel real…they feel overacted. The kind of thing somebody might picture after reading a lot about the Marine Corps. but without ever actually meeting someone who served.

The marine scenes seem amateur and unnatural, and like the work of a director who…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what any director would be going for with these performances. They’re broad. Forced. Too-obvious relics of fiction in a film that feels otherwise grounded.

The marines operate on a very different tonal plane from the rest of the film, and, frankly, I don’t believe in them. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be one thing in a film that needs another.

My position is one that’s admittedly easier to take when you’re not watching the film, and nearly falls apart when you are: Cameron is trying to embed an anti-war satire in the middle of a film that’s otherwise not satirical.

This explains the performances, and even allows for them. It explains why we’re suddenly in the company of a squad of cartoon characters instead of nuanced individuals. It explains their purpose.

Aliens, 1986

But watching the film, they don’t actually feel satirical so much as they feel misjudged.

I think there are important things to be said about the way the U.S. is so quick to resort to mindless firepower, to dismiss or disregard intelligence, to believe in an inherent and sustained rightness that had everything to do with our egos and nothing to do with what’s actually happening in reality.

But I don’t think that Aliens comments on those things adequately, or at least not adequately enough to justify the inconsistent performances. It really should be impossible to look at Bill Paxton’s performance and Sigourney Weaver’s, and believe that they both originated in the same film.

And yet, here we are.

Aliens, 1986

Newt as a character serves a purpose, both structurally and thematically, but, again, I’m not sure that she was handled entirely the way she needed to be.

Henn does well enough for a child actor, but she’s still a child actor. She screams a lot, because she’s told to scream a lot. She stumbles over lines, because she’s a little kid being asked to tackle a difficult role, and to pretend she’s in the throes of a trauma she can’t actually imagine.

But she looks the part, and when she’s not talking, she’s actually pretty great. She has expressive eyes. She trembles believably. When she’s at her most frightened and vulnerable, I believe in Newt, and I want Ripley to protect her. When she has to say anything, or do something other than scurry away, though, it’s easy to be swept out of the moment.

Aliens, 1986

What I do like about her is that she seems almost like a comment on the first film. Whereas in Alien it might have seemed pretty careless for Ripley to go back for the god-damned cat, it’s much more believable that she’d go back for Newt.

She needs to save Newt. She’s already lost one daughter and countless associates; saving Newt makes a kind of narrative sense that saving the cat, to me, never did.

Newt also reinforces the theme of motherhood, which is strongly at play in Aliens and is a valid filter through which to view the entire film.

The “I” on the title screen actually spreads itself open as though giving birth. We learn that Ripley is a mother…or was. She has alien-specific nightmares about being impregnated…a term that’s used with notable caution in the film.

Aliens, 1986

Newt is newly motherless, and is also seemingly the only survivor of the entire colony, scarred and horrified though she is. Ripley and Hicks fall into a kind of parental relationship with the girl, and into (at the very least) a mutual respect for each other. (It’s also pretty great that Ripley befriends Hicks by respecting him when he becomes the de facto first in command; something her crewmates on the Nostromo did not do for her. Kindred spirits.)

And, of course, there’s the alien queen. A mother herself. And their big showdown toward the end of the film sees each of them fighting to protect their children.

On one level, it’s a big action sequence. But keep in the mind the theme of motherhood, and it becomes much more layered, more complex, and more nuanced.

Aliens, 1986

The ending, though, it needs to be said, goes on far too long. I like all of it, to some extent, but it’s in serious need of editing. At the very least I don’t think they need to lose Newt just to find her again just to lose her again just to find her again, and the very fact that she slips down that laundry chute — or whatever it was — feels like padding.

Moments like that can create tension, but use them too frequently, or too clumsily, and they only engender frustration.

We should absolutely keep the part where Ripley beats the shit out of the alien queen in her powerloader and says GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH though because that’s incredible.

Aliens, 1986

Ultimately, though, the film’s biggest crime was redefining Ripley as an action hero. As we discussed last week, she didn’t survive the Nostromo because she was brilliant, or powerful, or anything else, really. We were just grading on a curve, because the alien grabbed the slowest animal in the pack each time.

Ripley survived because she was the fittest of that sample. She kept a relatively clear head, was relatively competent, and was relatively calm.

Everything was relative.

Here, she legitimately kicks ass.

Over, and over, and over again.

Aliens, 1986

She’s an action hero, and while it’s admittedly nice to see a female busting heads now and again in the interests of equality, it makes her a lot less interesting as a human being. Action heroes are less interesting as human beings, because they all tend to speak the same language: that of violence and triumph.

Ellen Ripley attempted violence in Alien, but quick thinking and a bit of luck is what actually saved her. And she triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, with every other member of the crew wiped out, the ship destroyed, and her life and career ruined upon her return.

She was a human being. In Aliens, though she has some very human moments, she’s not.

She becomes a powerful force in her own right, which can be fun, but can’t as easily be cared about.

Aliens, 1986

I do care about Ripley. I’m glad that she forged a bond with Hicks. I’m glad that she rescued Newt. I’m glad that she had a nice moment with Bishop before he was ripped in half. And I’m glad she survived another film. But whereas that survival was a genuine surprise in the first movie, it was a foregone conclusion in this one. Of course she survived.

She’s an action hero, and Alien is now a franchise.

Then again, in a sense, maybe it’s not Ripley we should worry about. Aliens potentially gives us a new victim: the aliens themselves.

After all, aren’t we impeding on their turf? Aren’t they just trying to survive the way their natures require them to survive? They didn’t come to us…in each film, we went to them. The fact that they didn’t play ball, did not submit to us, did not go gentle into that good night…well, is that really their fault?

Sure, they’re violent and deadly, but that’s also their nature. And at the end of the film, that’s a human being roasting alien eggs with a flame thrower while the queen shrieks with helpless horror, is it not?

We side with the humans because we are human, but that’s just self-interest.

Aliens, 1986

On the alien homeworld they made the same movie, and it wasn’t an action film. It was a profoundly distressing tragedy.

But, hey, at least those brave alien soldiers fought to the very end, against invaders they never provoked in the first place.

Join us next week, when any discussion of intelligence, artistry, or competence will have no place whatsoever.