By: Emily von Seele
Religious horror is a fascinating corner of the genre. It is wide-reaching and offers endless possibilities for storytelling. A particularly interesting film that makes new strides within that space is Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous.
The film opens at the funeral of Frederic (Henry Czerny) and Ethel’s (Mimi Kuzyk) young daughter. The pair are understandably broken with grief. A former priest, Frederic struggles to make sense of the loss and to be supportive in the way that he knows Ethel needs. They try to find solace in prayer, but when you encounter a loss this tragic, comfort is hard to find.
One night, a strange man comes to their door, asking for help. He is lost and hungry and injured. Ethel starts to call the police, but Frederic stops her, believing that helping this man is the right and holy thing to do. Maybe he’s right, but maybe he should have made a different choice.
The man (played by writer/director Mark O’Brien) calls himself Aaron, and is initially very cagey. He doesn’t have solid answers regarding where he came from and where he is going. Frederic is mildly alarmed, but his religious teachings win out. “It’s only for the night,” he rationalizes. So they offer Aaron food and shelter for the evening.
One night turns into two, which turn into more, as Aaron ingratiates himself with the grieving couple. For Ethel, he is a lost child who needs love and protection. But for Frederic, he is something much different. For Frederic, this man is no mere stranger, and over the course of the story, we see Frederic’s past and beliefs challenged in a way he would have thought impossible.
This film is endlessly fascinating. Religious horror can take a lot of forms. Possession films tend to be the most common, but the spectrum is wide. Here, O’Brien relies on religious mystery to set the tension. Not the “holy mysteries” that were played up in church, but the space that exists between what is Good and what is Evil. Between God and the Devil. O’Brien muddles the two and makes them both dangerous, in different ways.
The horror on display in this film is the horror that lies within the hearts of human beings. Who needs to be tempted by the Devil when we can make our own decisions and create destruction and chaos wherever we go? Here, some misdeeds from Frederic’s past are unburied and he is forced to deal with them for the first time in decades. And through dealing with them, he begins to seal his own future.
O’Brien’s script is fantastic, and the performances in this film are magnetic. You feel the grief, the anguish, the yearning for comfort. And then as the plot progresses, the anger, the fear, and the confusion. What I love about this story is that it eschews the classic dichotomy of Good and Evil and conjures something grey in its place. Like a chasm of swirling mist, we know something’s down there, but we can’t see it. And the closer we get, the closer we are to losing our footing and falling over the edge of a cliff. It really treats religion as a complex philosophy instead of a handbook for how to be a good person.
Actions have consequences. They may not be the consequences that we hoped for or even expected, but they are consequences, just the same. The Righteous examines this notion from a truly unique angle, and Mark O’Brien gives us a film that is both fascinating and frightening.