By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Rachel Hudson, Les Best and Nick Triola
Written and directed by Daniel Tucker
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” the British novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote. “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” As the author of many popular works of Christian apologetics, Lewis may not have anticipated quite how often those “omnipotent moral busybodies” would slowly but surely come to be seen in the public imagination as members of his “team,” as it were. While even a generation ago, the idea of presenting a religious authority figure or true believer as a villainous wolf in sheep’s vestments would have been truly transgressive, it is today a bit rote—particularly in genre cinema and literature. (How many frocked heroes have there really been since Fathers Merrin and Karras tag-teamed Pazuzu back in ’73?)
Public opinion has, with improbable quickness, warmed to this position, and in this cultural context, a new religion-centric horror-thriller may seem like a late whack on the head of an already heaven-bound seal. And yet, writer/director Daniel Tucker’s NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD proves itself a worthy—if extremely dark and harrowing—contribution to the subgenre and conversation. There is something powerful and affecting about the overall quiet way it depicts how the search for community, a sense of belonging and security can open the door to extremism and barbarism. Its brutality, in other words, is all too relatable—and only becomes more so as the narrative descent into man-made hell proceeds.
Jessica (Rachel Hudson) is a local journalist, punching above her weight and hungry for investigative scoops that go beyond local kids’ sports. She gets her wish and then some when her editor asks her to do a piece on a recently opened evangelical church called Emeth, which has found many ripe-for-conversion fish in the community. On her first visit, she finds a congregation that seesaws between the ostentatious friendliness of young smiley-face cultist upstart Michael (Nick Triola) and straight fire ’n’ brimstone antagonism of the mercurial founder Father (Les Best). During an interview, Jessica confronts Michael on the church’s preceding reputation as not only a homophobic and misogynistic sect, but one that has previously been involved in arson (!) and the stoning of divorcees (!!).
It would, of course, be best for Jessica if she simply filed a story with a not-so-subtle bit of shade and moved on with her life. Unfortunately for her, she soon discovers that a young man in town she’s falling for, Thomas (Jordan O’Neal), is Emeth’s semi-prodigal son. Soon thereafter, her abusive ex-boyfriend (Austin Lynn Hall) and previously level-headed best friend (Vivian Glazier, throwing a beguiling and essential naturalistic vibe on the pyre) throw their lots in with Emeth’s fellow born again-ers. And finally, Thomas abandons his semi-arranged engagement to pious Georgine (played with weirdly endearing, spectacularly starry-eyed creepiness by Jordan Hancock) to be with Jessica, who is soon pregnant with his child, setting the stage for the already hostile dynamic to go to some truly grim, unsettling places. Ultimately, the concept of what does or does not constitute righteous retribution is interrogated in a bloody, traumatic manner.
At times, the dialogue here does get heavy-handed. There is a fair bit of unnecessary on-the-nose grandstanding, and we probably could’ve used fewer dueling-Bible-verse scenes. That said, NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD is nevertheless a serious, earnest, scary exploration of how our innate desire for transcendence and meaning can be perverted, boasting a cast of strong indie talents able to turn from smoldering nuance to incandescent explosiveness on a dime. In particular, Hudson’s journey from self-assured modern woman to prey to a dark heroine capable of going toe to toe with the apocalyptic Best, menacing Hall and religious extremism in general is a well-played arc on all ends.
There is a barely concealed rage below the surface of NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD, and arguably a thumb on the scale against organized religion. Believers, however, should take the film less as an attack than as a cautionary tale. After all, the Christianity of Emeth and its real-world corollaries is about as far from the reason-based faith of C.S. Lewis as one can get.