Well, as you can see the world of the supernatural is our next forward step in film. Perhaps it's signaling a step past the teen slasher state that we are in, and a move into a more richly fun world of hauntings and ghosts... But... here's the man with his finger on the dead pulse of it all... Moriarty
Hey, Head Geek...
As the haunting of the Moriarty Labs continues, I am gradually coming to believe that it is my fault. I have spent my life, after all, as an Evil Genius, and perhaps there is a price to pay for that. Could it be that all the Evil I've done is catching up with me? If so, then perhaps it's time for me to call in William Eden, the Sin Eater.
Before I go into further detail about Eden and his role in Brian Helgeland's new film, allow me to offer up an apology to the fine folks at Tippett Studios. When I got e-mail concerning the FX work on HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, I recognized a few of the names of the people who wrote me as former ILM staffers. I was not aware that they had changed studios, and so I credited the wrong people with the FX work on De Bont's new film. Let me set the record straight. The work that I've heard so much about is being done by Tippett Studios, and I'm sure it's going to be excellent. It's rare for me to hear this much positive buzz from inside a production, and it's a good sign.
Now, as I was saying, Brian Helgeland is currently in production on his second film as a director, following the currently in-release PAYBACK, and it looks like he's continuing to push the envelope of mainstream darkness in films. Like his script for LA CONFIDENTIAL, this film refuses to allow us to categorize the characters as "good" or "bad," instead presenting us with some complicated moral and ethical issues wrapped up in one of the most accurate treatments of the tenets of the Catholic faith that I've ever encountered in a screenplay.
The mood of the film is set right off the bat by a classroom debate in which the hypothetical murder of Hitler is used as an example of how sticky the whole "good"/"bad" debate can get. Alex Bernier, the professor of the class, challenges his students by asking what they would do if they were able to meet Hitler before his rise to power. Would they kill him, knowing what he would eventually do? Alex argues that "As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy." If murder is wrong, shouldn't that apply no matter what? If Hitler were at an ATM machine and someone were to kill him for his money, would the robber be a good person because of the suffering they prevented? How about if Hitler killed himself? Would that make him a good person?
It's not until after class that we learn that Alex is actually a Catholic priest who occasionally serves as a consultant for the Washington, D.C. police. When he's called into a crime scene, we also meet Lucy Sinclair, a cop who tried to kill herself after a particularly brutal case a few years earlier. Alex was involved in that case, and he and Lucy are familiar with each other. The crime scene they're at is the office of the French Ambassador, who has been found dead at his desk with Aramaic letters carved into himself. Alex lies and says he can't help at all with what the characters might mean. It's obvious he's afraid, though.
He's got good reason to be, too. William Eden, a mysterious figure, haunts the first half of this film. His meeting with the French Ambassador starts the film. We see him visit a hospital nursery and seemingly inhale the souls of sleeping children. Throughout these early scenes, we're given very little clue as to the nature of Eden.
The Catholic Church is central to this film, something which may isolate some viewers. I'm personally fascinated by the evolution of dogma over the centuries, and Helgeland has played with the doctrines in such a clever way that I found myself totally absorbed as the script changes gears and heads to Vatican City where we meet Father Dominic, Alex's former teacher. He's tormented by spirits, haunted by the past, and Alex only makes things worse by sending Dominic the ancient lettering to translate. Dominic summons Alex to Rome, saying he can't just give him the translation over the phone, that it's far more complicated than that.
As Alex works to solve the mystery from a theological standpoint, Lucy works to solve it from a secular one, using forensics and science. When fingerprints from the murder scene turn up as matching those found at the scene of a 1918 murder in Brooklyn, Lucy finds that her science may not be enough, and that the fragile sanity she's worked so hard to rebuild may be tested more than she ever expected.
The way Helgeland brings these characters together and the way he builds the suspense in the script is excellent. I'm not sure if Catholicism actually maintains a belief in the Sin Eater, but it's fascinating because of the way it ties into the whole notion of no simple good or bad. Catholics believe that extra ecclesiam nulla salus, or "there is no salvation outside the church." The Sin Eater goes directly against that belief, serving as the one person who is able to offer salvation to the wicked, absolving their sins without the involvement of a priest. The Sin Eater is the one who the truly evil turn to in their last efforts to get into Heaven.
Nothing I've said takes place after page 16 of the script, so I really wouldn't call any of this major spoilers. I won't detail any more of the story, since part of what makes it so wonderful is the horrible feeling of dread that builds gradually throughout the entire story. This isn't a horror film that depends on big shocks dropped at regular moments. Instead, this is along the lines of THE EXORCIST or ROSEMARY'S BABY or ANGEL HEART, a film that earns its scares honestly, drawing us into a world in which these things are real, in which the intangibles of faith become tangible, and in which what you don't believe can hurt you.
A big part of this film's success will depend on casting, and I must admit that I'm in the dark about what sort of cast Helgeland has put together for the film. Antonio Banderas was rumored to be involved as Eden, but I haven't heard that officially. I pictured Eden as older, with a more vaguely European presence, but Banderas might be able to pull it off. The casting of Alex and Lucy is just as important, though. These are people with a great deal of pain in their pasts, and Helgeland needs great actors, not movie stars, to make them feel real. If everything comes together properly, this may well be one of the smartest theological thrillers ever made. It takes the ideas it presents seriously, and it respects its audience to be scared by what's inside them more than any external spook or specter.
There's a chance I may abbreviate this series to six parts instead of seven depending on the availability of certain materials. Tomorrow I'll either be reviewing A STIR OF ECHOES or LOST SOULS. Either way, we're down to what I consider the cream of the crop of Hollywood's efforts in the supernatural right now.
Of course, we've still got that last surprise to discuss, don't we? Until then...