For this edition of Nightmare Movies, Kim Newman looks at a recent film from the busy Blumhouse boutique genre production label.
In 1985, the Reverend Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane in a white suit with a folksy-sinister accent) of the ‘Heaven’s Veil’ cult presides over what seems to be a mass suicide at his woodland retreat… and only a little girl survives.
In the present day, driven documentarian Maggie Price (Jessica Alba), daughter of the FBI agent who led the raid on the camp and later killed himself due to bad memories, and Sarah Hope (Lily Rabe), the grown-up sole survivor, visit the site with a crew of genially disposable techies in the hope of finding some answers… which lead them to an abandoned house the FBI never found (accessible by seemingly walking across a lake surface). The place is full of corpses, film cans (and video tapes) and other useful stuff, which prompts flashbacks that give a slightly different view of what happened on that fateful day in 1985. [SPOILER ALERT] For a start, Jacobs was given to deathtripping à la Flatliners and had an antidote prepared for his poison sugar cubes so his followers could be revived en masse, but Maggie’s dad showing up scuppered that plan, setting the charismatic loon off on his backup scheme, which involves killing the documentarians and bringing them back to life in CGI-ghostfaced semi-possessed form to perpetuate his cracked beliefs. Oh, and Sarah learns he was her dad and his faithful nurse Karen Sweetzer (Aleksa Palladino) his mom. [END OF SPOILER]
This lesser Blumhouse production is a collaboration between eclectic screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (Jessabelle, Night at the Museum) and not-that-busy-lately director Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis), which riffs on the suicide cult theme – resurgent in the movies thanks to The Sacrament – by blending Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, though it’s less concerned with weird beliefs and groupthink than simple creep stuff with a gang of Scooby-Doo-like kids in a van being done in and brought back in an eerie woodland setting. Alba, slipping a bit from the mainstream, and Rabe, a rising spook name thanks to varied turns on American Horror Story, are oddly given slightly thankless roles, upstaged by the decent, mostly engaging supporting stooges, who at least give the impression of being lively characters before their demon-zombification. It looks great, with blue-tinged widescreen images of ominousness, well-staged 1985 flashbacks and a couple of semi-workable scares, but it’s a predictable, pat programmer.