Initially I was not that interested in seeing Nefarious since the film was written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, the team who brought you such unwatchable films as the God’s Not Dead series and (to a lesser extent) Unplanned. However, after a lot of urging by friends and hearing so much about this film on my regular podcast list, I finally got around to seeing Nefarious with two of my sons. And I can honestly say that this time the duo managed to get it right, and make a Christian horror film that actually works.
The film centers around a serial killer named “Edward” (exquisitely played by Sean Patrick Flanery) who is scheduled to be executed in the electric chair. Before that happens though, he is to be interviewed by a psychiatrist named “Dr. James Martin” (played by Jordan Belfi) who is there to ascertain whether or not Edward is sane enough to be executed, since Edward is claiming to be possessed by a demon.
What follows for the majority of the film is a conversation between Dr. Martin, Edward (who is allowed to speak at times), and an ancient demon named “Nefarious” who has full possession of Edward. Their conversation, which gets quite heated at times, displays the kind theological insight and cultural commentary that has rarely been seen on the big screen. The longer the conversation goes on, with Edward/Nefarious knowing and saying things about Dr. Martin that no mere criminal would know, Dr. Martin begins to realize that his first assessment of a disassociate identity disorder is not even close to being valid.
Eventually, he realizes that it is not really he that is conducting the interview, but is in fact the one being interviewed by preternatural intelligence, and his scientific training and atheism actually leaves him at a disadvantage. One that not even the prison’s chaplain, a serape-stole wearing modernist, can contend with. In the end, the demon makes an offer to Dr. Martin, one that he refuses, and Edward is executed while the demon Nefarious seeks out another host to possess.
This film surprised me and my sons, in terms of its dark tone and the depth of the theological points the film conveyed. And despite the fact that most of the film is a conversation, it moves at a fast enough pace. In fact, only the very end (with a shameless plug for the book that the film is a prequel to) is the only slow part of the film. However, there were three key takeaways from the film that stuck out to me.
1. The Film is Actually Theologically Sound
As mentioned above, we are all familiar with the trope that Christian movies are just so bad in terms of their two-dimensional characters, stale dialogue, and improbable storylines. Another aspect would be what my middle son called the “curse of the Christian film” whereby the screenwriters try to “hamfist a sermon into full-length movie.” While this is still the case for Nefarious, Konzelman and Solomon kept this trait to a bare minimum by sagely crafting a story around a psychological interview where a deep conversation about theology would be appropriate.
Furthermore, rather than relying on the standard superficial, saccharine and somnolent presentation of the faith that Christian films are notorious for, Nefarious works some very deep and and dense theological concepts into the dialogue. The result is a mix of St. Thomas Aquinas and John Milton’s Paradise Lost as the demon Nefarious recounts the fall of the angels at the moment of their creation and their refusal to be “slaves” in Heaven. Their spite in knowing that the Incarnation was meant to save souls that would eventually take their lost places in Heaven, and yet how they were not farsighted enough to see past the crucifixion and being foiled by the resurrection.
When Dr. Martin challenges Nefarious on the ridiculousness of rebelling and fighting against an all-powerful God, the demon correctly responds that it is not about winning. It is about a nihilistic desire to hurt and punish God by “destroying what He loves most”- humanity- by remaking them from God’s own image into a demonic one, and thus take as many souls with them into their own destruction.
2. A Realistic Look at Demonic Possession
Ever since The Exorcist came out in 1974, people have been fascinated with demonic possession and exorcism. The movie’s director William Friedkin based the film on a 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, which in turn was based on a real account of a possessed boy in a Lutheran family back in 1946. The family ended up converting to Catholicism in order to exorcise the demon over a period of three years. However, all of that was too mundane for Hollywood, and since then (with a few notable exceptions like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Rite) all audiences have seen of the demonic is its more sensational and phantasmagoric elements.
With Nefarious though, we are shown a more accurate view of demonic behavior that is more in keeping with reality as reported in the books of Fr. Gabriel Amoreth or the talks of Fr. Chad Rippeger. The demon Nefarious accurately describes the various degrees of demonic activity from extreme temptation all the way to possession/subjugation. He also factually describes how demons like himself will play the long game and gradually use a series of “heads I win, tails you lose” propositions to temp a soul away from God one lie at a time.
During the course of their conversation, Nefarious craftily but intelligently elicits one emotional response after another from Dr. Martin in order to make him lose his composure and thereby weaken his resistance. He even goes so far as to goad Dr. Martin into doing something any exorcist (or any priest or pastor worth their salt for that matter) will tell you never to do: inviting Nefarious to “come into him.” This will have near-tragic effects on him at the end of the film.
3. An Accurate Description of the Culture of Death
The most intriguing plot element in the film is when Nefarious tells Dr. Martin that by the end of their time together, he will have committed three murders. By doing this the demon (and the writers) are making the point that despite the Dr. Martin’s polished and respectable life, he is directly complicit in the murders other people--the assisted suicide of his mother, the abortion of his unborn child with his girlfriend, and the signing of the death warrant for Edward/Nefarious.
While not specifically mentioned by name, what the film is describing is the notion of the“culture of death” as described in Pope Saint John Paul 2’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. This was his observation that we live in a culture of “structuralized sin” where “scientific and technical advances and increasingly secularized world have led to an eclipse of the value of human life” and valuing “efficiency and productivity over human persons.”
The movie deftly shows this in the conversation when Dr. Martin tries to claim the moral high ground by citing all the advancements made in the world from his “woke” worldview. Nefarious ripostes by mockingly citing all of the fallout of such a progressive world by mentioning that there is more slavery (especially sexual) in the modern world than in ancient times. Or that the Old Testament act of “the passing through the fire” that involved the sacrifice and immolation of infants, is now happening at a rate far surpassing the ancients in the form of abortion. In fact, in one of the more unnerving scenes in the film, Nefarious knows the exact moment when Dr. Martin’s girlfriend is having an abortion and tells Dr. Martin as much. All the while relaying how much the infernal powers love abortion, and how modernity cannot see its connection to pagan human sacrifice because it happens in secret and in the silence of the womb--even though the outcome is the same when “medical waste” is incinerated.
A Very Different Kind of Horror Film
Now I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the problems with the film. There are times when the dialogue or the interactions do suffer from the “curse of Christian film,” but the brilliant delivery by Sean Patrick Flanery makes up for that. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Jordan Belfi (Dr. Martin) who, granted that he is supposed to be portraying an intellectual simp, does not offer a suitable contrast to Flanery. There are also some scenes in the film, such as having the police officer who apprehended Edward witnessing the execution with his service pistol, that are blatantly improbable. Finally, the ending segment with Glenn Beck interviewing Dr. Martin made for a dismal denouement. As one commentator stated, “If you want this film’s message to get out to as many people as possible, you probably shouldn’t used Glenn Beck to sell it.” After all, a lot of conservatives and Christians (since Beck is LDS) find him offputting.
Nevertheless, the film is well worth seeing and in time owning a physical copy. After all, if you want to see more of these kinds of films, then it is important to support them even if you they are not always exactly what you would want. In this case, since the film covers very serious topics in a very blunt and well...demonic manner and contains disturbings images (like the execution scene), it is certainly not for everyone. Yet it is the first time I can say I have seen a Christian film that can rightly be called a “horror” film for two key reasons.
The first is obviously because of the setting and the story, as you watch a demonic entity delve into the mind of a pretentious man and lay bare all the of evil present in him and the world he blissfully inhabits. So many people today, on all sides of the aisle, are obsessed with conspiracy theories about sinister people or organizations that are out to control the world and their lives. And yet, Christians (who should know better) and anyone else with even a shred of spirituality or religiosity, will rarely recognize the reality of diabolical machinations that are right out in the open.
Which leads to the other reason why Nefarious is a true horror film, and that is because of the sense of horror it should engender in Christians who see one of our own being openly disdainful of (like “Fr. Serape” in the movie) what our own faith says about the spiritual battle going on all around us. Worse still, are those who will simply reason that since they are not involved with anything demonic or “structurally” sinful, they are just fine. But this is yet another trick of the Evil One.
As J.B. Cyprus states in his Screwtape Letters-style book The Bentrock Letters: A Demon’s Guide to Trapping Prey--a book that appropriately enough, take place inside a prison--reminding ordinary people that “their lives are ‘just fine’ and that they are on balance ‘good people’ with little need to change” remains for the Devil “the most reliable way to keep someone on the wide and easy road to Our Domain.”
Just as Nefarious scolds Dr. Martin about how his atheism will offer no protection from the powers of Hell, Nefarious is an excellent film that remind us that we are in a fight for our lives and that of the whole world. Not only is being lukewarm about it not an option, but as the Scripture reminds us, it is a cowardly and spiritually emetic act to hold onto.
Photo Credit- Saturday Evening Post