Horror movies' unholy mess


Films fall from grace when religious tradition used to set higher tone


The separation of church and state has grown ever-fuzzier in our civic life. Before things get even further out of hand, I'd like to propose a separation of church and state in our horror movies. I don't mean religion; good and evil, heaven and hell, souls saved and savaged are at the core of horror fiction. But when moviemakers exploit church traditions to give their ghouls and goblins higher tone, the holiness rings hollow. And few combinations are as unsavory as sanctimony and sensationalism.

The movie that did the most to popularize that pernicious blend was The Exorcist (1973), which used Catholic imagery and rituals to scare the bejesus out of audiences. Arriving in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate and the druggy death-throes of the counter-culture, The Exorcist became, as Pauline Kael wrote, "the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary."

It wasn't urbane and perverse like Rosemary's Baby (1968), and it didn't tap into common emotions, the way Rosemary's Baby did into expectant mothers' anxieties. The Exorcist was more like a handbook for harrowing the fallen.

The original The Omen (1976), with its Satanic plot and quotes from the Book of Revelation, was the child of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. The new version of The Omen is simply the old one's clone. (The movie's one plus is bringing the skillful, witty and exquisite Mia Farrow - Rosemary herself - back in the public eye.)

It's pitiful and hilarious to read that its director, John Moore, has tried to summon apocalyptic clout for this recooked turkey by saying, "The true nature of evil has never been more apparent. In just the past four years alone, the world has been hit with devastating events - political, natural and man-made. One can't help but notice a certain momentum."

Happily, not even that infusion of hot air can give The Omen a semblance of life or after-life. It should die its own unnatural death.


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