End of Daze: The Return of Religious Horror

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Michael Shannon runs for the hills in 'Take Shelter' (Photo: Grove Hill Productions/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
WRITTEN BY
David Fear

When Linda Blair spewed pea soup and did some unmentionable things with a crucifix in The Exorcist, it was easy to place the blame: The Devil made her do it. Ever since the possessed child dropped Nixon-era audiences' jaws, a certain strain of vaguely religious horror is destined to creep into cineplexes on a regular basis, with demonic forces threatening the souls of us damned mortals. This month, however, the dread isn't due to the satanic, but springs more or less directly from delusions of the divine.

It doesn't take a theologian to recognize that a storm of biblical proportions is brewing in Take Shelter (Sony Pictures Classics). Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) summons a nasty confluence of dark clouds and rumbling thunder that doesn't inspire buying umbrellas so much as building an ark. Staring into the sky, the movie's blue-collar everyman, a construction worker named Curtis (Michael Shannon), furrows his brow. Why isn't anybody else freaking out about this hard rain that's gonna fall? do they not see the flocks of birds flying in helix patterns about their heads?

Actually, no, they don't. And neither his family nor his neighbors can understand Curtis' increasing obsession with tricking out a backyard tornado shelter. He's as convinced of impending disaster as Reverend Harold Camping was of last spring's nonrapture, only his fear isn't a recruitment tool. This is a modern angst as a brimstone-marinated nightmare -- and pills don't help. But whether he's a genuine prophet or merely schizophrenic is a question the movie dangles until the last possible minute.

Take Shelter trailer

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If Take Shelter's apocalyptic vibe is unnerving, the evil lurking at the center of Sean Durkin's excellent directorial debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is flat-out disturbing. As Patrick, the hippie with a Messiah complex, John Hawkes effortlessly embodies every monstrous, Manson-based stereotype of culty charisma (between this and his terrifying meth-head in last year's Winter's Bone, the sinewy star has officially become the compelling choice for Backwoods Bad Guy). Once the impressionable young Martha -- played by Elizabeth Olsen, talented younger sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate, who must have been kept in an attic all these years -- joins his "family," she becomes a virtual slave to her personal Jesus. She escapes to her estranged sister's gorgeous upstate mansion only to see members of Patrick's makeshift flock everywhere, ready to reclaim their lost sheep. Or, as her recurring flashbacks seem to indicate, is this a case of PTSD?

Both films flirt brilliantly with uncertainty. Whether their dangers are real or merely things that go bump in the psyche, each drops us into mindsets without a map -- the naturalistic landscape of the former's Midwestern suburbs and the latter's rural Catskills are so impossibly serene that you, too, can do nothing except worry that something ominous is afoot.

Martha Marcy May Marlene trailer

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But there's genuine paranoia, and then there's the kind that results from a mighty strong bong hit. Kevin Smith's similarly themed Red State (Lionsgate), a grimy tale of an extremist evangelical sect that kidnaps three teens and tortures them in the name of the Lord, starts off promisingly, drawing a homicidal, homophobic group of Bible-thumpers ( The Fighter's Melissa Leo among them) as the bastard spawn of Fred Phelps and Freddy Kreuger. Quicker than you can quote Leviticus, however, his clever twist on the slasher-flick genre devolves into characteristically polemical sound and fury signifying bupkes.

Though the Clerks auteur tries to attack the post-Dubya era of fundamentalism-run-amok head on, all three films seem to tap into a shared cultural anxiety. From economic meltdowns to end-times obsessions to God told-me-to-run presidential hopefuls, few of us can fall asleep easily these days. Of course, while Red State has religious wackos to blame, the characters in Shelter and Martha lack the luxury of an easy target. They've been turned into their own worst enemies -- which might be the scariest idea of all

Red State trailer

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