Tuesday, December 28, 2004

What makes a creepy movie creepy

The Devil Rides Out, one of the classic Hammer Studios horror films, is supposed to be scary. It's based on a novel by occult-horror writer Dennis Wheatley and stars Christopher Lee (Saruman in Lord of the Rings). I watched it recently, and I learned that the main attribute of British ceremonial magicians, "black" and "white," is that they spend much time driving from one country house to another in vintage Rolls Royces and Morgans. It's a yawner.

Then there is Brigham City, a low-budget but taut thriller from Zion Films, a company serving a largely Mormon audience.

On one level, it's a modern "Western," with a rural sheriff confronting a baffling string of murders. Richard Dutcher plays the sheriff with one sustained weary expression. No doubt he is weary, because he is also the producer, director, and screenwriter.

Because of his LDS religious convictions, Dutcher created a PG-13 movie without gratuitous sex and violence and not one curse word--even in the bar scenes. Some other directors might profit by watching it: violence that is barely off-screen or understated can still be chilling. But something else was more chilling than the killings.

The sheriff, you see, is also a Mormon bishop. At one point, he summons all the men in this mostly Mormon town for a house-to-house search for one of the victims. To paraphrase The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "We don't need no search warrants. I don't have to show you any steenkin' search warrant!"

Merely to lock out the civilian searchers brings down the sheriff's wrath. When one man does so, he is thrown against the wall of his house. The searchers do find something embarrassing in his home--but it has nothing to do with the murders. In fact, none of the house searches turns up any useful evidence at all.

I don't think that Dutcher intended this lesson of what happens when spiritual and temporal power are identical to be the scary part of the movie, but it is.

At the end, the man whose secret was disclosed is shown sitting in a pew at the Sunday sacrament meeting. He has nowhere else to go. And of course his secret will be known to everyone via the gossip grapevine. Oh well, what's a little Inquisition on the ward? It's not like he questioned the archaeology of the Book of Mormon.


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