|RE-INVENTING GOOD & EVIL...in Filmland|
|by Charles Jarvis|
|SCP Newsletter, WINTER 1999, Volume 24:2|
"Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm."--Simone Weil, philosopher, convert to Christianity and friend of C. S. Lewis
Today's horror films can leave you stranded in a threatening universe where Good is confused, God is gone, and evil is on a rampage. They're like the title of that 70's book by a French nouveau philosophe, God is Dead. Marx is Dead. And I'm Not Feeling So Well Myself. Terror alone seems to shape otherwise shapeless lives. For three decades we've had an increasingly strong diet of cinematic worms, gnawing away at peoples' ability to see evil in proper perspective. In the world of postmodern film, evil's on the loose and good is running for its life.
In contrast, the classic Gothic horror tale, such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, contained certain themes which gave a framework to books, plays and later horror films: a timeless Good exists; the universe displays order and destroying that order brings disaster; evil exists and is clearly distinguishable from Good and unalterably opposed to it; evil is cosmic rebellion which disintegrates lives and communities but Good is clearly superior; Truth is absolute, dependable, and has power to overcome evil; and life involves the call to energetic, concerted and courageous work against evil and its destructive effects. All of these elements are present to an extent in classic Gothic horror films from Bela Lugosi's Dracula to Gary Oldham's recent portrayal. Evil is certainly real and powerful, but also defeatable by a Power more powerful.
My, how the themes have changed in forty years. C. S. Lewis warned that there are two great mistakes people make in dealing with the devil and evil. On the one hand we can have an unhealthy, absorbing fascination with evil; on the other we can be completely ignorant of its reality and intentions.
The rise of the power of evil in films is evident in the late John Cassavetes' role as protagonist in Rosemary's Baby, a pioneer postmodern horror film directed by Roman Polanski. In that film we were drawn into a world of profound evil swirling with angst and tension for no obvious reason. It is all the more frightening because at first all outward appearances suggest normalcy, wealth and promise with a vague threat looming. Slowly we see that sweet, doting grandmothers are actually coven leaders looking for a young woman to bear the devil's child and bring on the Age of Antichrist. The only thing resisting the diabolical plan is Mia Farrow's terror, and that's not much of a barrier to Beelzebub in heat. God is nowhere to be seen. Religion is impotent or absent. Goodness is not well defined. Evil is overwhelming and there is no stopping it. Finally Mia is resigned to the triumph of evil.
Some of the most popular films since Rosemary's Baby have been horror films starring lead characters so evil they are...well ... invincible. Who are the stars? A hockey-masked psychotic that nothing can stop (Halloween I, II, III,...). A fried-face psychotic who can't be killed even when he's killed (Friday the 13th I, II, III,...). A human-digesting machine which can't be stopped even when it's blown to smithereens (Jaws I, II, III...). An angry, slimy alien that replicates as fast as you can say "Look out..." (Alien I, II, III...). A cruel telephone psychotic who can't be drowned even when he's drowned (I Know What You Did Last Summer I, II...). Another cruel psychotic who loves to tease on the phone (Scream I, II, III...).
Where is ultimate Good in these films? It's hard to find. Here the opposition to overwhelming evil usually comes from panicky mundane people who finally get their dander up about the decapitations and slashings occurring all around them. In such films Good seems harmless at best, while evil is far more captivating, as Weil warned. Freedom from the Gothic framework has been declared. It is now Postmodern evil, and it is truly bad.
The End of Days Revisited
The movie End of Days seems to be trying desperately to recover some semblance of the Gothic horror framework. Here evil is definitely evil. After all, we are talking the devil here, called only "The Man" (Gabriel Byrne of Stigmata fame). Good is hard to identify at first but finally stumbles onto the scene in the person of Arnold Schwartzenegger, that hulk of Glock and Austrian spiel. He's "baahck" after a two-year hiatus from action films as hard-bitten Jericho Cane, an alcoholic former cop. In the end evil is defeated when the devil's time lapses and he must descend into hell through through the church floor. The world continues on its merry, shallow, oblivious way, partying blindly into the new millennium.
The film opens at night in the Vatican in 1979. The moon is full and crossed by a comet. I thought it looked like a badly painted eyebrow. Lo and behold, the priest observing this sign reveals it is the Oculus Dei, the "eye of God." That was the last hint of mystery in this movie, but confusion abounds. The Vatican seers tell the Pope that the moon sign means the devil's future concubine has been born. Where? New York, of course, pre-Mayor Giuliani New York, when very bad things were still happening there. The Pope says, "She must be found." A Cardinal snaps, "She must be killed!...Or all our souls will perish!" What? Murder to save the world? That's nutty theology even for Hollywood and this film is just kicking off. Turns out this fellow is head of something called a "Masonic Order, Knights of the Holy See," a secret clerical hit squad determined to kill the girl born under a bad sign. The devil's future girlfriend is born, dedicated to the prince of darkness in the hospital morgue, and protected for two decades by the delivery nurse who becomes her evil stepmother.
It's now December 1999 (look at that date backwards and upside down, friend, and be scared. Be very scared.). The cosmic fiend is back in history just in time to try to impregnate a young woman on New Year's Eve 2000, ushering in the End of Days or the Age of Antichrist from Revelations 20, verse 7. This time, thankfully, we don't have to depend on naive, helpless Mia Farrow to save the world. Jericho Cane, whose wife and children have been murdered by thugs before End of Days starts, is angry and armed to the teeth. He unwittingly works as a bodyguard for the devil, dressed in the flesh of the elegant, sneering "Wall Street scumbag" he possessed. The devil is "a man of wealth and taste," as Mick Jagger told us in Sympathy for the Devil. And he relishes in destructive mishaps after all these centuries cooped up in hell! The least little glitch and -- POW -- he has a bus crush. Even his own Satanists aren't safe.
Jericho gradually discovers the breadth of the satanic underground in New York and he's determined to stop The Plan and save The Girl (Robin Tunney). Along the way he meets bald, corpulent "Father" Rod Steiger, whose actor's hell is now to repeat lines like, "There are things/forces here at work you can't possibly understand/imagine." I suppose if you repeat a line enough it becomes foreboding? The rest of the movie is Jericho with his doomed sidekick Chicago (Kevin Pollack), pulling Glocks out of his coat sleeves, hammering Satanists with machine gun fire, making the devil bleed black blood, getting possessed, literally falling on his sword, foiling The Plan, and saving The Girl. He manages to delay the satanic coupling long enough to have the apocalyptic timer go off and -- whoosh -- the devil is back below the streets of New York where he came from.
Simone Weil's warning is applicable. The fictional devil played by Gabriel Byrne is "varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm." Generally, the filmmakers are emotional manipulators speaking to a theologically vacuous audience. Vatican hit squads? Declarations by a priest that "we will save ourselves" (where's God?)? Satan jamming a crucifix into a priest's head? Impotent prayers? Arnold said he did the film in part because "It had the supernatural, which is important today, because people today love supernatural movies." That statement reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's warning that when men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They will believe in anything. If they'll believe anything, they just might submit to anything or anyone that promises answers in this fear-filled world.
Charles W. Jarvis is a corporate consultant who also heads The Winthrop Center for America's Future, a center for cultural and policy analysis [He was also Tal Brooke's first Christian friend when Tal returned to Charlottesville, Virginia, after his years in India]. Mr. Jarvis' e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. ©Copyright Charles W. Jarvis, 1999.
An abridged version of this essay review first appeared in Human Events, Dec 1, 1999, and is used with permission,courtesy of Human Events and Charles Jarvis.
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