One of my favorite scenes in horror film history comes at the end of 'Rosemary's Baby.' The titular baby has been delivered and promptly kidnapped. Rosemary, who has begun to suspect that the child is stashed away next door, sneaks into the neighboring apartment brandishing a kitchen knife. There what Polanski's brilliant film has spent two hours suggesting and insinuating is abruptly made explicit. Rosemary peers into the crib and shrinks away in horror. "He has his father's eyes," says Roman Castavet. Rosemary doesn't understand. Then, finally: "Satan is his father, not Guy! He came up from hell and begat the son of a mortal woman." The others in the room cheer, "Hail Satan!" Roman continues, delivering a crazed incantation that culminates in another hearty call and response: "Hail Satan!"
The scene epitomizes the allure and the potential danger of religious horror. 'Rosemary's Baby' and its progeny borrow from a narrative that many (if not most) people in the western world take very seriously. Even non-believers know the story, and come to the film with their own take on it. A lot can go unsaid, such as that Satan begetting a son is a really huge, apocalypse-portending deal. Done well, as 'Rosemary's Baby' most certainly is, this stuff can be immensely creepy. But it can also go south very quickly. Strike the wrong tone and you end up with something cheap and hokey rather than scary. Examples abound. 'End of Days,' anyone? 'Legion'?
'The Rite,' opening tomorrow, is a particularly interesting specimen, since it constantly tightrope-walks that line between eerie and cheesy. 'The Exorcist' is its obvious inspiration, and for good reason. Below the fold, we offer seven less canonical examples of religious horror that works.
1. 'The Ninth Gate' (Roman Polanski, 1999) – Three decades after 'Rosemary's Baby,' Polanski went back to the well with this wonderful, unbelievably undervalued occult horror flick. Ambiguous, somewhat incomprehensible, but beautiful and endlessly engrossing, the movie – set in lush libraries and mansions and possibly a castle – effortlessly combines the classy and the silly. It also features a classic musical score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar.
2. 'Stigmata' (Rufus Wainwright, 1999) – This one may be mostly for religious mumbo-jumbo junkies, but it's pretty good. Moody and stylish, it does the job as a horror film but also ends up halfway-thoughtfully considering the problem of corruption within religious institutions – even as it makes mincemeat of Catholic theology. Fun stuff.
3. 'The Devil's Advocate' (Taylor Hackford, 1997) – Yes, Keanu is a problem, and the ending is a cheat, but this intense, impressively committed movie has too many pleasures to deny. If nothing else, groove on Al Pacino hamming it up as the Devil himself, shouting lots of exquisitely written nonsense about God and free will.
4. 'The Last Exorcism' (Daniel Stamm, 2010) – Of the films on this list, 'The Last Exorcism' is the closest cousin of this weekend's 'The Rite', in that one of its pleasures is trying to figure out whether there is in fact anything supernatural going on. Daniel Stamm's film is better, largely because it maintains the mystery longer, not tipping its hand until the abrupt, vaguely disappointing ending.
5. 'Constantine' (Francis Lawrence, 2005) – If the first three films on this list were too silly for you, then don't even bother with this completely ridiculous phantasmagoria, where it turns out that Jesus was killed by the Spear of Destiny, which is now hidden somewhere in Mexico. There is also Tilda Swinton as the winged Archangel Gabriel, which is nothing if not interesting.
6. 'The House of the Devil' (Ti West, 2009) – Though very few people saw it, this is one of the last decade's very best horror films. 'The House of the Devil' is 80 minutes of extraordinary atmospheric build-up to 15 minutes of incredibly satisfying pay-off.
7. 'The Rapture' (Michael Tolkin, 1991) – It's almost impossible to blurb this profound and utterly singular movie – along with 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' the most sincere and probing cinematic examination of Christianity and its philosophical implications, in mesmerizing thriller form. If you haven't seen it, this is your weekend viewing. It is unforgettable.