By sheer force of its versatility, religious horror can strike a nerve like no other...
...For some the subgenre gives voice to the pain inflicted upon them by hateful doctrines or to their fear of what blind faith can make people capable of. For others it can represent (either symbolically or, to some, literally) a battle between good and evil that’s waged in the souls of all humanity. And for those in the middle, it can be a meditation on the idea of faith itself and what it means to be unsure of our place in the universe. That capacity for depth can make religious horror a unifier of sorts for Atheists, Agnostics, and Believers alike, and there’s something beautiful about when one movie is able to bring people from all philosophies together under one cinematic banner, if only for a couple of hours or so.
David S. Hogan’s The Parish is not one of those films. It plants its flag squarely in the Christian tradition of demonic evil being overcome by the affirmation of one’s faith in Jesus Christ and, as a result, will most likely alienate a large portion of its potential audience. There are aspects of writer Todd Downing’s story (loss, loneliness, the bonds of one’s love for their family) that could appeal to audience members from any walk of life, but the potency of those qualities is limited by an over-reliance on religious morality. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with creating a film with a particular audience in mind, but it does mean that The Parish will most likely only appeal to a certain kind of horror fan.
Liz (Angela DiMarco) is a single mother struggling to cope with the death of her husband, who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. In an effort to escape the pain associated with his memory, she and her daughter Audrey (Sanae Loutsis) move to a small town to try to find a fresh start. As the latter attempts to adjust to her new Catholic school, Liz does her best to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Unfortunately for the two of them, the town harbors a dark secret that Audrey inadvertently stumbles upon, and soon they find themselves being stalked by the spectre of a dark nun (Gin Hammond) with evil intentions. Enlisting the help of the kindly but battle-worn Father Felix (Bill Oberst Jr.), Liz slowly begins to unravel the mystery surrounding her family and draws closer to a final confrontation with the demonic forces that have been stalking them.
Now, before diving into the film I want to get something out of the way: I’m not a Christian. That being the case, I’m not going to speak to the spiritual themes of The Parish’s narrative. What I will do is look at the film from the lens of a horror critic (or a KILLER horror critic, see what I did there, har har) and judge it by the merits of whether or not it works as a piece of genre cinema.
On paper, The Parish sounds interesting enough. The family-moves-to-a-new-town-to-escape-a-dark-past-only-to-be-met-with-a-new-horror trope is a little tired, but with a sympathetic mother/daughter duo, some well-crafted atmosphere, and (most importantly) competently executed scares, some of that staleness can be forgiven. Sadly, we only see flashes of promise in all three categories. DiMarco does an admirable job of carrying much of the emotional weight of the film, but all too often the relationship between Liz and Audrey falls flat due to sitcom-esque dialogue and a lack of chemistry. And there are a couple of scenes here and there when a palpable sense of dread can be felt (most notably during Father Felix’s Gulf War speech, which attempts to mimic the eerie stillness of Robert Shaw’s iconic USS Indianapolis monologue in Jaws) but these moments of anxiety are few and far between.
These issues could be forgotten if it weren’t for the inexcusable reality that The Parish is almost completely incapable of breeding fear. There are a few bloody dream sequences involving Liz and her dead husband that come close to eliciting a spine-tingle or two, but they are scarce and marred by makeup that bears a suspicious likeness to children’s face paint. The spooky nun, that old horror chestnut that is usually able to drum up goosebumps in even the dreariest of cinematic outings, lacks the spooky oomph you normally see in such a character. And most infuriating of all is the peppering in of ineffective and cheap jump-scares, a telltale sign that the film lacks the ability to create real dread and must rely on other tactics to truly frighten the audience.
Overall, The Parish is an attempt at horror that will only hit its target with a specific group of people. It has sincerity and heart, something entries in the genre can lack sometimes, but its moral simplicity and dependence on stale conventions holds it back from being the type of religious horror film that can draw in more than just the faithful.
The Parish comes to VOD and DVD March 16th from Uncork’d Entertainment.
By Pat Brennan
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