#TBT Review: Seamless Spells of Religion in Horror


Screen shot 2016-02-18 at 1.15.08 PMJames Cole Clay // Film Critic

Spirituality and religion are both featured prominently in feature films. There’s one key distinction that separates the two ideas thematically: Spirituality gives the filmmakers the chance to explore elements of existentialism, and religion, which allows filmmakers to uncover horrifying subjects that could date back to the Dark Ages.

THE WITCH, from first time director Robert Eggers, comes out in theaters this week, but it’s not simply just a horror film – it’s a family drama. It profiles the persecution of women in great detail and shows how the Puritan lifestyle has the ability to be corrupted.

Eggers has blended religion and horror brilliantly with a film that is genuinely scary, but with just a flair of magic. The best part is that THE WITCH is believable and haunting.

When done correctly, the battle of good vs. evil can be one of the most potent horror tools that utilize human guilt – and, more frighteningly, religion invites the idea that our body could be used as a vessel to harvest a demonic presence.

Religion spans across the globe and it invites a wealth of cultures to join in on the spookiness. We have seen over the years filmmakers like William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST), Roman Polanski (ROSEMARY’S BABY) and more recently Guillermo del Toro (THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE) make some truly twisted pieces of work that come from the very fabric where many place their faith.

Our editorial team comprised a list of several horror films that really know how to turn the crucifix upside down.

suspiria8_copy0SUSPIRIA (1977)

Dario Argento’s classic film SUSPIRIA came out in 1977. From the pink that saturates the frame, to the grimy score by Goblin that becomes an ear worm of terror throughout the film, the Italian filmmaker’s progressive work is still being imitated today

Taking place (almost entirely) in a German ballet academy, this story of witchcraft is told through the eyes of Suzy (Jessica Harper). After a string of grisly murders, Suzy realizes that an ancient form of evil is lurking within the hallways.

This cooky premise of cauldrons and murder is taken in earnest by Argento, and that’s the only way this could work by transcending horror tropes that audiences are still reminded of today. Argento worked diligently to achieve the jarring camera movements and the fever dream atmosphere.

In the film JUNO, Ellen Page says, “SUSPIRIA is the goriest film ever made.” That statement doesn’t hold up, but SUSPIRIA isn’t interested in being the most bloody disgusting ever to be shot – it’s a dazzling exercise in terror that cannot be duplicated. (

Note: A remake coming in 2017. No, really!

— James Cole Clay

FRAILTY (2001)

Horror as a genre is meant to evoke something in the viewer to help them realize a terror that, while fictional in its presentation, is very real within their mind. Nothing cuts further into that fear quite like the element of religion. The fact that the devil is among us is something is both fear of the unknown and fear of the known, depending on your beliefs.

FRAILTY, however, is more about the evil that is born from the religious fanatic; believing in God so much that it skews your perception to commit crimes in the name of God. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) comes to FBI Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe) to give them information regarding the God’s Hands Killer. While Agent Doyle is skeptical at first, Fenton’s alibi checks out and begins telling him about his family. This leads to a separate narrative of young Fenton (Matt O’Leary) and Dad (Bill Paxton), who kills “demons” after receiving a vision from an angel.

While the movie goes from present narrative to flashback narrative, it never seems to disrupt the flow of the story. Paxton is easily in his best role as the psychotic Dad, eager to show Fenton the way as he relishes being an axe murderer. Also, there’s a few glimpses of TRUE DETECTIVE’s Rust Cohle as McConaughey plays the fragile Fenton close to the vest as he leads the FBI to the killer, which is his brother Adam.

As far as horror movies go, FRAILTY keeps the violence to a minimum, making the mood feel shocking without shock value. Directed by Paxton, and written by Brent Hanley, they make sure to keep the horror on the fact that Dad is murdering in front of children, and trying to coerce them to do “God’s work.” The alternating narratives also provide an ambiguity, which is necessary for the impact of FRAILTY’s fantastic swerve as it concludes.

— Jared McMillan

1315494002_1315492062_krasnyj-shtat-2RED STATE (2010)

Last up is our short-and-sweet thoughts on Kevin Smith’s RED STATE, a part horror thriller and part unsettling cult movie.

This was the start of Smith new film direction, which people have heavily criticized. However, the man has told the stories he’s wanted to tell, and now he wants to make the movies he wants to see. So goodbye snootchie boochies and hello weird dazzlers.

RED STATE is indeed as flawed as its characters, but it’s also intensely watchable. It tells of a group of teens who receive an online invitation for sex, to only find out they’ve encountered fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

What begins as a stereotypical horror flick quickly descends into the ultimate splatter-fest fitted with religious and political undertones as subtle as pillow case of soap to the nads. So if you like your movies with enough ridiculous as brains, look no further.

— Preston Barta

THE WITCH opens in theaters tomorrow.

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.