Audiences fed an appetite for fear this Halloween weekend, forking over twice as much money for the horror film House on Haunted Hill than for any other release. This proved bad news for Scream director Wes Craven, whose first non-horror movie Music of the Heart opened to fairly tepid business despite good reviews.

Critics weren't so kind to House on Haunted Hill, paging through their thesauri for every variation on "horrid." A remake of the 1958 Vincent Price chiller, the film tells of four strangers who are offered a reward of one million dollars each if they can survive one night in a haunted mansion. Cliff McNeely of Preview says the movie's graphic human torture makes it "a twisted exploitation of violence ... for box office dollars." The United States Catholic Conference calls it an uninspired remake, "offering more gore than goosebumps."

The Best Man

Moviegoers just couldn't get enough of Taye Diggs this weekend, as the Haunted House actor's other movie, The Best Man, took second place at the box office. The comedy from Malcolm D. Lee (cousin of Spike Lee) stars Diggs as a young novelist whose newly published book gets circulated the week before his best friend's wedding and reveals some of his friends' sexual pasts. Christian reviews have mixed enthusiasm with disappointment: John Adair of Preview calls the film "both funny and touching," but the crude sexual elements marred his enjoyment of the film. Likewise, Michael Elliot of The Christian Critic says it's "an overtly sexual but moderately amusing tale." J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth spent time wrestling with the theological issues brought out in the character of Lance, the Bible-believing yet skirt-chasing groom. "Lance genuinely loves God, even if he's also a womanizer. In other directors' hands, Lance might be set up as a hypocrite, but that doesn't happen here. Instead, Lance tries to get Harper [the novelist] to turn to God as well."

Double Jeopardy

Interest remained high in the Ashley Judd thriller Double Jeopardy, which is showing remarkable staying power with audiences—coming in third in its sixth week of release. Judd plays a woman who serves six years in prison after her husband stages his own murder, then tries to kill him for real when she is released. Reviews among Christian critics have been mixed, citing both the film's immoral revenge theme and its ability to entertain. W.J. Kimble, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight on the Movies, says, "It leaves you with that feeling you get when you go to a ballgame to root for an underdog team and they win," but also notes, "God does not agree with the premise of this movie at all." ChildCare says it's "a very well made and opulent movie" but contains "a complex and intricate justification of illegal behavior to right a wrong." Taking issue with the film's entertainment value, however, was Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic, who commented that "because more time wasn't spent in the beginning to involve us in the lives of these people, we aren't all that involved in the story of which they are part."

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American Beauty

Taking fourth place is American Beauty, which follows a suburbanite father committing wildly selfish and immoral acts in a quest to discover some purpose in life. While mainstream critics have been hailing it as a sure Oscar-contender, Christian critics have been divided over whether the movie is celebrating the selfish behavior depicted in the film or showing that selfishness holds no rewards. Joshua Hornbeck, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight on the Movies, says "there is an incredible core to the film's message. ... How can we move past the emotional deadness of our lives and restore the joy we once had? By learning to stop living a 'me' centered life and start living a life of care and concern for others." Others see no such hope in the film, calling it "pseudo-intellectual psycho-babble" (Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic), "sick, ugly and repulsive" (Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family), and "a corrosively bleak portrait of family life" (United States Catholic Conference). The division is so prevalent that The Phantom Tollbooth is running two opposing reviews on its site, one from Steven S. Baldwin who says "the wild endorsements of selfish and destructive behavior in the path to [the film's] conclusion swamp any real meaning along the way" and another from J. Robert Parks who says the film "showed me how beautiful the world is and, just as importantly, how important it is to notice. ... It showed me that if I pay attention I can catch the rhymes of God throughout his world, even in places that seem ugly and degraded."

Music of the Heart

Fifth place went to newcomer Music of the Heart, the true story of Roberta Guaspari (played by Meryl Streep), a violin instructor who fights to keep alive her program for teaching music to elementary students in Harlem. (Her story was previously captured in the 1996 Oscar-nominated documentary Small Wonders.) Mainstream critics have mostly bickered over whether the premise of the film is truly inspirational or cliche-ridden, but Christian critics have embraced the film as a strong, moral story. Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic says, "Ms. Guaspari's teaching secret was her innate awareness that children desire discipline in their lives. She elected to teach them to 'stand strong.' Not just physically, using the proper musician's stance, but internally." Ted Baehr of MovieGuide also finds good lessons in the film: "This is a story of persevering when your world is crumbling, of family sticking beside one another, and ... of regaining one's own self-worth by accomplishing personal dreams lost so long ago and by helping other people." John Adair of Preview says the film offers much food for thought, "most notably how the children in our inner cities should be taught. ... Also raised is the issue of divorce and how it affects the children who are left in its wake. In one scene, Roberta finds herself having to explain to her young son why their father doesn't want to live with them. ... These scenes in particular are very moving and realistic."

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Rounding Out The Top Ten

Despite excellent mainstream reviews and the star power of actor Nicolas Cage and director Martin Scorsese, Bringing out the Dead hasn't been able to locate an audience, finishing the weekend in sixth place. Cage plays a New York City ambulance driver on the edge of burnout, looking for some measure of peace in a job often dominated by horror. Critics have praised Scorsese's technical achievements but found the storyline too disjointed, bleak, tedious, and burdensome to become involved in. Jeffrey Overstreet of Green Lake Reflections said he spent the movie "waiting for Scorsese to give us room to consider questions of faith or an opportunity for love, to contemplate where a soul might find solace in this context." Paul Bicking of Preview took issue with an ambulance driver played by Ving Rhames, who "prays and professes Jesus, but [his] contrary images of immoral behavior may invoke a negative image of Christians."

Debate over Fight Club has dominated the press in recent weeks, but judging by the film's tumble to seventh place, it looks like audiences aren't interested in joining the conversation. The film follows a yuppie numbed by his consumerist lifestyle who, looking for some way to feel again, starts crashing support-group meetings and eventually hooks up with an anarchist to start an underground bare-fisted fighting circle. Christian critics disagree, as with American Beauty, whether the movie is celebrating a nihilistic view of life or showing that nihilism holds no answers. Cliff McNeely of Christian Spotlight on the Movies says "Fight Club is a sado-masochistic venue to physical self-destruction and offers no real hope to its members." Ted Baehr of MovieGuide adds, "The narrator trades one false life for another, resulting in tragedy. Filled with violence and an abandonment of reason for falsehood, this ranks as one of the most dangerous movies released this year." Jeffrey Overstreet of Green Lake Reflections opposes this thinking, saying the film "sets out to subvert the ideas it presents, not to preach them. Fight Club is about what happens when people respond against a dehumanizing culture by reacting violently. ... Ultimately, they create their own dehumanizing culture." Jason Murphy, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight at the Movies, asserts that the film "strives to show where the violence comes from. ... In the face of this society, many people feel impotent, unable to change their lives. They feel owed. And, like it or not, violence is one way to exert at least a small amount of control over the people around them."

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The supernatural drama The Sixth Sense stayed in the top ten for the 13th consecutive week, buoyed by the Halloween season. Bruce Willis plays a psychologist trying to help a young boy who can see into the spiritual realm and encounters dead people. Most Christian critics have criticized the film for portraying communication with the dead as attractive, including Mia J. Burrows, guest reviewer for Christian Spotlight on the Movies, Sarah Barnett of Culture@Home, John Evans of Preview, and Bob Smithouser of Focus on the Family, who adds that The Sixth Sense sorely lacks a "hope-filled understanding of what lies beyond" found in the Bible. A differing opinion is found from David Bruce of Hollywood Jesus, who sees the film's premise as a metaphor for the things that separate one person from another, saying that the director "is very clear that his film is about the importance of good and truthful communication within relationships. Bad communication acts like doors and windows which separate us from the loving relationships we need." Peter T. Chattaway of ChristianWeek understands the loving friendship between the psychologist and the boy as a fleshing out of 1 John 4:18, which tells us that perfect love drives out fear.

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Dropping to ninth place is another Bruce Willis film, The Story of Us, a comedy/drama about a husband and wife on the verge of divorce after 15 years together. Nearly every Christian critic found the film to be of low entertainment value ("The bulk of the film bogs down with interminable verbal battles and morose woe-is-me brooding," says Steven Isaac of Focus on the Family), but it got many high marks for depicting the sanctity of marriage. Cliff McNeely of Preview says, "This honest look at marriage is no day at the park, but ... [contains] some positive messages about marital fidelity." Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic notes that "the premise of the film is something that is important to consider. Contrary to popular thought and hundreds of romantic comedies, love is not something one 'falls in or out of.'" ChildCare disagrees, summarizing the film as "another heaping helping of marital hate and vengeance served up under an ultimate statement of reconciliation."

Still in the top ten in its fifth week was Three Kings—a comedic drama about four American soldiers who attempt to steal gold bullion from the Iraqis at the end of the Gulf War and instead discover America's cease-fire has left many Kuwaiti resistance groups easy targets. Christian critics have praised the film for its depiction of compassion and honor, although for some the intense violence of the war scenes tarnished the overall movie. Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic praises the film's message that "even in the midst of a devilish, hellish environment, it is available to maintain one's morality and compassion," while for Tom Neven of Focus on the Family, "any redeeming value is buried beneath a lot of muck." Jeffrey Overstreet of Green Lake Reflections says yes, the film is violent, but it demonstrates a responsible violence: "Every time there is a violent act, we are forced to think about it, to deal with it, to realize the madness of war, its consequences on those involved both physically and psychologically." Ted Baehr of MovieGuide takes issue with the character played by Ice Cube, who "doesn't maintain moral strength despite his Christian faith. He remains a thief. Furthermore, he has some strange practices such as 'the Jesus Ring of Fire' which he says can protect him."

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Beyond The Top Ten

The Christian-backed independent film The Omega Code has made a small rustle at the box office as it collected an impressive $4.5 million in its first two weeks while playing at only 306 theaters nationwide. This apocalyptic thriller is centered around an Antichrist figure who pursues a decryption program uncovering hidden prophecies in original Hebrew biblical manuscripts about the end of the world. (The concept was earlier made popular by the recent bestseller book The Bible Code.) The movie has been lambasted by the mainstream press—"Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do," deadpans Tom Keogh of—but has received tenuous support from Christian critics. Nearly every review has embraced the injection of biblically minded themes into the nations theaters, including guest reviewer Douglas Downs of Christian Spotlight on the Movies, who raves that it's "by far the best film to date with a religious theme." Most reviewers have held back from total endorsement because of the movie's violence, its B-grade production values, and "the controversial issue of the Bible Code itself, which many scholars believe is a dubious construct at best" (Ted Baehr of MovieGuide). Michael Elliott of The Christian Critic says, "We would be better served if we would simply embrace the Bible."

Also of note is David Lynch's The Straight Story, based on the true story of a man who drove his riding lawnmower cross-state to visit his estranged brother who'd had a stroke. Ted Baehr of MovieGuide says it's "a powerfully understated, beautifully-crafted, outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace ... a family film with mature themes."

Steve Lansingh is editor of, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.