Story Front // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 18th, 2010
Not all spirits are good...
...and neither are all movies.
Two boys have spent the day horsing around, shooting at an abandoned house. When they go inside to have a look, they don't know what to make of what they find. A stack of pornos, some ritualistic symbols, and a strange presence freak them out; so they bolt, but not before grabbing some magazines. Later that night, they're perusing the articles when an unseen force attacks young Sam, nearly killing him. Thirty years later, the grown up Sam (Bryan Massey, Mad Money) has all but forgotten about that incident, but he's haunted by the tragic death of his wife five years earlier. Just as Sam hits rock bottom, his sister-in-law, Laura (Laura Spencer) shows up out of the blue. He's lonely and she's attractive, but he senses something very wrong. Laura becomes possessed by the demon come back to finish the job and, this time, Sam may not have the faith to fight it.
Here are three words I never expected to write in sequence: haunted pornographic magazines. Here are two more: gospel horror. It's an unfamiliar subgenre to me, and I'm not sure I want to see what else the category has to offer. To be fair, writer/director Miles Hanon never expressly calls The Familiar by that directly; it's a term of my own devising (though less clear, I actually think that witness horror sounds better). The message in the film is so ham-fisted, it can't be called anything else.
Whatever the quality of individual Christian-oriented genre films, which tends to be fairly poor, I understand the thinking behind making them. Spiritual themes and Christian morality make complete sense in science-fiction and western realms, but not so much in horror. If the filmmakers are serious and non-hypocritical about their message, then you can guarantee that there are certain aspects integral to horror that can't exist in gospel horror. Sex, violence, prurient themes are why the kids flock to the theaters. I give all credit to Hanon for not compromising his principles for DVD sales, but it turns The Familiar into a neutered and extremely chaste slice of horror. Think M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, but even more lily-white. It's still possible that Hanon could have succeeded at building terror without those aforementioned tools, but that's where the film really runs into trouble.
If it's good, I couldn't care less about a fiction film's agenda, but it's nearly always true that the worse the movie is, the more that agenda comes to the forefront. The Familiar slaps you across the face in the opening scene and then proceeds to beat viewers into a guilty, sinning pulp by the time the credits finally roll. It's not a swift-moving hundred minutes, but it has some eye-rollers that keep the mood light. The Christian message is clear from the beginning. After the boys get done with their wholesome, family-friendly activity of shootin' stuff, they have their innocence ripped from them by dirty magazines, their minds corrupted by nasty sex thoughts. It's rarely as blatant as this, but it sets the mood and makes everything else all the more apparent. When we find out that the two things demons hate most are having Bible verses read to them and the word Jesus, it has already gone so far over the cliff that it's hard to even care anymore.
I can't really speak to the quality of the performances, because the material they had to work with is so awful. Hanon's fixation on his message kills any chance of chemistry among the actors and, especially, the tension necessary for a horror movie. There isn't a second where we question what's going on; it all plays out exactly as you'll expect the first time you see each character. There is no suspense, no thrills, no drama, no quality. Laura Spencer is completely adorable, but when the cuteness of your lead actress is the best thing going for your movie, you have problems.
The DVD release of The Familiar is a bare-bones affair. The anamorphic image looks acceptable, with fair clarity and mostly accurate colors. The picture is hindered by some blocking, especially in the night scenes, but it's never too bad. The sound is better, but still not special, with a normal stereo mix that features easily-understood dialog and well-balanced music and effects. There are no extras.
I can see churches showing their youth groups this film, at least to prepare them to handle a demonic possession themselves. It won't make the film much more enjoyable for them, but at least they'll have learned something.
You can pray to the god of movies to get your two hours back, but they're already gone.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Story Front
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Website