As horror film fans, we often feel like we’ve seen it all…chainsaw massacres, eyes gouged out, dismemberments, people being exploded from within, hideous transformations — you get the idea. Ironically, I find that I don’t find many horror films necessarily scary…sure, they might raise the hackles a bit, a jump-scare might really get me sometimes, but the large majority of horror flicks don’t really create fear and loathing as much as simply suspense and giddy revulsion — and a lot of folks I talk to seem to feel the same way. Of course, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that (I certainly still love my slashers and other exploitative exposition), but I for one like my horror to actually create a little dread for me sometimes — on occasion, I want it to really spook me out a bit, recapturing some of that feeling from behind the couch in my youth, watching the films my parents didn’t want me to…convinced that I wouldn’t make it back to my bedroom down the darkened hallway alive.
Of course, the most effective horror is that which holds up a mirror to the world we live in every day, showing us the farthest extreme toward the sinister that could exist in our reality. Larry Kent’s film, She Who Must Burn, sets out to do just that.
In a small town that appears to be in America’s Heartland, a doctor at a Planned Parenthood clinic is brutally gunned down by a fundamental extremist. Flash forward a few days, and the clinic has been shut down by the state — obviously, they’re aware that the very strict and unforgiving church there has far too much of an iron grip on the community for such a place to exist, and it’s suggested that the congregation is even entrenched in city, county, or even state government. However, one of the counselors from the clinic, Angela, refuses to leave the town, knowing that the women there still need a voice of reason amongst the highly overzealous, unreasonable grip of the church. Jeremiah Baarker, now pastor and son of the former pastor (none other than the murderous zealot at the beginning) finds this a minor nuisance, content that the clinic has been shut down — until his own abused wife seeks help from Angela, who spirits her out of town after one too many rapes and beatings at his hands (she shouldn’t have made him do it, of course). This, coupled with his sister’s stillborn child (amongst a rash of still-births, which despite evidence that the local mine polluting the water supply is the likeliest cause, the Baarker’s blame on Angela’s “evil”), causes Jeremiah and the remnants of the Baarker clan to take their congregation’s protesting and name calling from Angela’s front lawn to a much higher, medieval level…
Going back to my topic of a film being scary, if you’re like me, this film will, if not scare you, at least rattle your nerves — not only on a level that it could happen, but taken even farther by knowing that there really are people like this in the world. Of course, religious extremists that go this far are the exception rather than the rule, but one need only examine the history of Jonestown or the Heaven’s Gate cult, read reports of radical Jihadist atrocities, or watch the news as the Westboro Baptist Church celebrates the death of people that they deem “un-Godly” (outside of their funerals, no less) to know that this kind of thinking exists in our world. Kent pulls no punches with his narrative, firmly painting the fundamentalists as close-minded, evil hypocrites…of which such people exist. However, some may be put off that there’s not really any sympathy placed on the highly conservative side of the argument here (a woman’s right to choose, of course), but it’s not that kind of film. Taking any denominational context out of it, I feel that the focus is how a blind adherence to a philosophy, with no room for differing opinions and a belief that any dissention is evil in its very nature, is a terribly dangerous and deadly combination given the right set of circumstances. In this context, the Baarkers are as incapable of being negotiated with as Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers — and I think that’s the point Kent is trying to make.
The performances are by and large very good, although the argument can be made that the Baarker’s overact quite a bit (and they do, to be honest), but if you’ve ever watched an extremist on any side of an argument on the news, you know that such behavior is not unheard of. I personally wish that Sarah Smyth had been given a bit more time to develop her character (she is the main protagonist, after all), but that takes a backseat to spotlighting the sheer batshit craziness of the Baarkers –which despite the overacting I mentioned, is pretty damned effective. FX wise, while it’s not a gore-flick, there are some rather hellishly disturbing moments in the film, both with bloody bits, a harrowing moment with a mother and her child, a rape scene that’s difficult to stomach, and some other viscerally horrifying scenes. Kent lets the camera roll blankly on these, a silent witness to these events, letting it linger on far past the point where even the most hardened eye can be in a comfort zone…challenging the viewer to either bear witness to the horror, or look away.
I’m of course not going to give away the ending, but I will say that it was not in any way what I expected. Others have expressed dissatisfaction with it, but I’m on the fence — despite seeming somewhat contrived, I think after the sheer emotion that the film generates, the obvious alternative would have been too much. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
I can’t say that I liked this one, folks — as I said, it jangles the nerves and has a high possibility of pissing one off, simply because of horrors that are wrought for hypocritical reasons. However, I can say that She Who Must Burn is a taut, thought-provoking, well-shot and well-acted film…and if the purpose of a flick is to make you feel something, this one certainly delivers.
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