Film Review: ‘The Church’

The Lord works in injurious ways in “The Church,” a low-budget indie horror meller that traps protagonists in a house of worship where they’re beset by malevolent spirits. Just what those spirits are — whether they’re working for Yahweh or Beelzebub or both, etc. — is among many key questions left murky in a film that lands squarely on the amateurish end of the scale as both pure genre exercise and faith-based entertainment. Ambitiously opening on 30 U.S. screens, the project is best viewed as a training ground for first-time feature writer-director Dom Frank, who can only do better with the already-announced sequel.

The church in question is a historic inner-city Philadelphia cathedral whose flock has long been tended by Pastor James (Bill Moseley) and his ancestors. Lately, it has fallen into disrepair as a dwindling congregation can scarcely fund renovation and the neighborhood is gentrifying, rendering the building less valuable to speculators than the land it sits on. A developer is determined to buy out the church, even if it requires providing them with a sleek new facility elsewhere.

Still, James is resistant. Not so his covetous wife Loretta (Michelle Romano), who’s so impatient to ditch this dump and upmarket her life that she’s working behind his back to secure the sale. The facility’s boards must vote on the issue, so they gather along with some of the developer’s reps and overseas investors to make the decision. Once they do, they find themselves mysteriously shut in, at first bewildered and then terrorized by poltergeist-like disturbances. Soon they’re disappearing one by one, rewarded for faithlessness by waking in a dry-ice limbo to face some kind of eternal judgment.

The basic message is clear enough: God doesn’t want His church sold, especially not to satisfy the greed of a secular few. But just who is doling out this drastic vengeance and why is less obvious. A foreign guest (Daniel Wyland) mutters some ominous vague nonsense about “Romanian myths” he thinks might explain all this. There are also occasional glimpses of druids, and we spy an old headline reading “Church Burns Wicked Immigrant Family” — all hinting at other supernatural solutions, none of which make a lick of sense.

A movie like this can be crude and even a bit senseless, so long as it provides the basic satisfaction of seeing bad people get what they presumably deserve. But Frank fudges that, too: It’s not always clear what the one-dimensional characters here “did” (or even that they all favored the church sale), and only a couple of their demises actually address the relevant sin (avarice, infidelity). Otherwise, there’s just a whole lot of awkward silliness in which people get yanked off their feet, awaken in a sooty netherland, then fall dead to the ground (again?) amid superimposed flames.

There’s a certain DIY air to things from the start, not least in the highly variable performances. Despite all rough edges, you want to root for a project that’s so clearly homegrown. (It was shot in Philly’s First Corinthian Baptist Church, which filmmaker Frank’s family has attended for decades.) But “The Church’s” problem isn’t so much that it lacks polish or spectacle, or even that its special effects look like something a kid developed as an unenthusiastic school project.

Those limitations could conceivably lend a certain charm if the movie had energy, audacity, and a few good ideas — things present in such even-lower-budgeted Christian screen parables of damnation as Ron Ormond’s 1974 “The Burning Hell.” But Frank’s script is half-baked and his direction lethargic. Much of the highly clunky dialogue is beyond certain cast members’ abilities to smooth over.

Getting the worst of it are two chrome-domes, Wyland and ex-WCW wrestler Vito LoGrasso as a bodyguard. Coming off best (relatively speaking) are imported genre staple Moseley, and producer Matthew Nadu as the developer’s oily rep. (A second “name” thesp, Clint Howard, is basically a briefly shown special effect.) The women don’t get much to do but scream, their guiltiness signaled by how much cleavage they show.

In an era where improved, inexpensive technology has made a good-looking result possible for even the most modestly budgeted endeavor, “The Church” is notable for looking like a shot-on-video VHS flick from a quarter century ago or more. Miles Bergsma’s original score is uninspired, yet probably the most professional element of this particular package.

Though seven minutes of drawn-out closing credits constitute a minor sin in themselves, they do bring the single best thing here, an excellent soundtracked rendition of traditional gospel hymn “Sinner You Better Get Ready” by harmonic trio The End of America. That credit crawl also provides a parting grace note in the form of “Special Thanks to Upper Darby Pain Management.”

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