Bay of the Living Dead: She Who Must Burn, A Post-Trump Chiller
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice a month column about the horror genre, past, present and future.
This column returns after a one month hiatus. It’s been a difficult month, what with Donald Trump’s unexpected and terrifying victory. I needed a little break. But I’m glad to be back, and I return to the fold with the perfect chiller for our post-Trump world.
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Larry Kent’s She Who Must Burn is powerful. The low budget Canadian film tackles the pro-choice/pro-life argument in a way we’ve not seen before–in the context of a horror movie. Set in an unnamed small town, She Who Must Burn paints a scary-as-hell portrait of religious fundamentalism run amok.
Shane Twerdun, who wrote the film with Kent, may be the most disconcerting monster we’ve seen in many years. As Pastor Jeremiah Baarker, Twerdun quietly controls his flock while he terrorizes those who do not follow the word of “The Lord”. Baarker is a sociopath who believes that he’s doing the Lord’s work when he rapes his wife and then beats her for practicing birth control. He loves Jesus so much that he’s even willing to commit murder for his Savior, Praise the Lord!
Twerdun is not a well known actor, but that will hopefully soon change. His performance as a preacher gone mad is reminiscent of Anthony Perkins’ iconic turn as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho–Baarker preaches the gospel in a softly gentle voice. Look at his eyes. Beneath his loving, God-fearing demeanor lurks an out-of-control lunatic. The actor expertly conveys the dual nature of his character’s personality–Baarker’s mere presence invokes a creeping sense of dread.
Twerdun’s magnificent performance is almost dwarfed by the phenomenal acting of Missy Cross, another little known actor who we hope will rise to stardom. Cross plays Rebecca, Baarker’s schizophrenic sister-in-law–when she maniacally speaks in tongues she puts her psychosis on the table for all to see. The voices in Rebecca’s head tell her that she must kill for the Lord–there’s an abortion clinic in town and it must be stopped.
There are scenes in She Who Must Burn which are genuinely shocking. During one particularly unnerving sequence Pastor Baarker and his flock slit a woman’s throat because they believe she had an abortion–in reality she went to the women’s clinic to get tested for breast cancer.
Much of the film focuses on Baarker’s battles with Angela (Sarah Smyth) a counselor at the abortion clinic. Angela stands her ground against Baarker even as the congregation burns crosses on her front lawn. One day, as a violent storm looms on the horizon, the voices in Rebecca’s head tell her that Angela must burn.
Part of She Who Must Burn’s power comes from the film’s superb cast and the desolate, atmospheric settings. But the film’s greatest power comes from wrapping it’s pro-choice message around the trappings of a horror movie. The obsessive behavior of Baarker and his followers and their tendency towards violence doesn’t seem all that far fetched when viewers recall the real life bombings of abortion clinics, the many attempts by the the far right to overturn Roe V Wade, or some of the more outlandish statements made by televangelists like Rev. Pat Robertson.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s unexpected Election Day victory, She Who Must Burn becomes even more topical. The President-elect has made it clear that he intends to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe V Wade–Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence is an evangelical Christian who opposes not only choice, he’s also a supporter of gay conversion therapy.
Twerdun’s performance as Baarker might also remind some viewers of white supremacist Richard Spencer, who made post-Election Day headlines when he led his followers in a sieg-heil salute to Trump. Like Baarker, Spencer is well dressed, articulate and soft spoken–the most frightening kind of madman.
The film’s score, which sounds like a cross between church prayers and satanic chants, adds to the story’s ever encroaching sense of doom and dread.
Classic films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are pretty scary, but few films will get under your skin quite as intensely as She Who Must Burn.
Lucy the Scream Queen?
Before she became the reigning sitcom queen of 1950s and 1960s TV, Lucille Ball was a successful movie actress. Though her many films continue to be shown on TCM, Ball’s film work has been largely forgotten in favor of her incomparable success on the tube.
I therefore highly recommend that Lucy fans check out the new Blu Ray release of her 1947 film noir Lured.
Though dark and eerie, as any self-respecting film noir should be, Lured isn’t a horror movie per se, though it does have it’s fair share of scary moments. Lucy plays a broke showgirl from New York. She’s stranded in London, where a mad serial killer is on the loose. Who will be next?
Lucy gets roped into working with the London police, working undercover to help them find the killer–never mind that she has zero experience or training as a police officer. Hey, this is a movie, not real life!
What makes Lured of particular interest to horror fans is the presence of fourth billed horror icon Boris Karloff.
Karloff, best remembered for his three portrayals of the Frankenstein monster during the 1930s, gets to go a little mad in Lured–certainly not the first time the actor played a loony tunes.
In Lured, Karloff injects a little humor into an otherwise dark story. Not a performer known for his comic timing, Karloff is nonetheless quite hilarious as Charles Van Druten, a fashion designer who has lost his grip on reality. He stages a bizarre fashion show in his home for an audience of empty chairs (except for his dog). The delusional Van Druten believes that all those seats are occupied by the crowned heads of Europe. When Van Druten snaps, poor Lucy has to run for her life–as part of her police undercover work, she manages to get herself hoodwinked into being Van Druten’s “model”.
Lured is also of interest to classic horror buffs because of supporting cast member George Zucco (1886-1960). Though not as well remembered as Karloff, this superb character actor appeared in many 1940s chillers–he and Boris worked together in Universal’s House of Frankenstein (1944), the same year in which Zucco worked with Bela (Dracula) Lugosi in the delightfully cheesy Voodoo Man.
Zucco’s career was beginning to wind down when he appeared in Lured. Health problems forced his 1951 retirement–he died in 1960 while residing in an assisted living facility.
Lured’s Blu Ray includes A Scandal in Paris as a co-feature, a delightful film which doesn’t fit into this column.
We love anything which comes from producer/director writer James Wan. The Australian auteur has achieved great success with spooky, old fashioned tales of ghosts and demons–films like Insidious, The Conjuring and Dead Silence are among the scariest films we’ve seen this past decade.
Though not as good as it’s predecessors, Insidious Chapter 3 (which Wan merely produced) is nonetheless a good film to watch on a dark and stormy night. Set several years before the events seen in the first film, the wonderful Lin Shaye returns to the franchise. We learn how her character Elise Rainer, a retired medium, got back into the ghost hunting biz–we see what happened to her right before her first meeting with the demon from the series’ first film.
Insidious Chapter 3 gets off to a slow start. Be patient. Late in the film there’s a doozy of an extended sequence in which Elise goes into a trance and briefly crosses over to the “other side”. As she makes her way down a long, spectral corridor, Elise meets a variety of departed souls. Some are friends, but others are foes.
Elise’s journey to the great beyond is an unsettling experience both for her and for viewers–these kinds of cinematic interludes are why we love horror movies!