The Christians Are Coming!
A few weeks back, Film Forum sorted through portrayals of Christians on the big screen. Some were convincing, even if the characters portrayed were flawed. Others betrayed the anti-Christian bias of their storytellers. Still others reflected the filmmakers' lack of understanding regarding what Christians believe.
This week, look out: a whole host of Christian characters are parading across the big screen. Some come from Christian filmmakers (Hangman's Curse). Some inhabit MTV's idea of a Baptist church (The Fighting Temptations). Malevolent priests haunt one particularly troubling film (The Order.) And the Messiah himself appears in the latest installment of the Visual Bible (The Gospel of John).
Peretti's Hangman's Curseskips blood'n'guts, chokes on agenda
Frank Peretti, the Christian novelist who found success in religious and mainstream bookstores with This Present Darkness, is now the brains behind a movie. Hangman's Curse, adapted from his novel with the help of screenwriters Kathy Mackel and Stan Foster, looks at first glance like a horror film. It is playing on only a few screens around the country, but it will be available at video stores soon.
Curse begins with Abel Frye, a troubled teen, hanging himself. His fellow high school students, believing their school is now haunted by Frye's ghost, experience increasing anxiety as some of their classmates suffer hallucinations and illness. They believe Frye is attempting revenge from beyond the grave on those who taunted him in the halls—the school bullies. Suspicion also falls on the goth crowd, who are apparently involved in some kind of Satan worship.
Since the schoolteachers seem inept and out-of-touch, it's up to a family of secret agents to root out the evil at its source. Spy kids Elijah and Elisha Springfield (Douglas Smith and Leighton Meester) are part of a family involved in the Veritas Project, a government agency that investigates suspicious circumstances. Posing as students, they infiltrate the school and get to work solving its mysteries. Their parents, Nate (David Keith) and Sarah (Mel Harris), play the parts of a gym teacher and a guidance counselor. Little by little, they work to discredit the supernatural theories and close in on whatever trickster is endangering the school.
Peretti's film is flashy compared to other films funded and produced by Christian organizations. It borrows from The X-Files, Spy Kids, and a host of prime-time teen soap operas. Parents can rest easy knowing that it recommends kindness rather than meanness, and that viewers will not be learning any foul language or witnessing anything nasty—except a few arachnids.
And for most of its running time, Curse avoids any kind of Christian preachiness. But the filmmakers' agenda is painfully clear, especially because the "Christianly correct" opinions come from the mouths of the nice, smart, and glamorous kids. Basically, what we have here are Christian filmmakers stooping to use the same manipulative storytelling tactics that anti-Christian filmmakers often use to express their own bias. Many conversations are rigged to make our young righteous heroes look like super-intellects while grownups who teach evolution or oppose school prayer are made to look like pompous imbeciles. This does not promote intelligent conversation amongst viewers—it promotes a feeling of smug superiority among those who agree with the filmmakers, and more than likely it will put off viewers who disagree.
At the film's conclusion, that restraint collapses entirely. The heroine endures her moment of highest stress by singing "Jesus Loves Me," a startling choice, since spirituality has not been an important part of the plot thus far. Then, as if trying to stuff in a sermon before time runs out, the soundtrack hijacks the movie during its climactic scene, serving up a solo performance of, believe it or not, the Doxology! Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) correctly calls this "a stunt that feels about as fluid as postscripting Scream 3 with the 'Hallelujah Chorus.'"