When I first screened faith-based producer-turned-director Gary Wheeler’s film of Robert Whitlow’s novel The List, I was inclined to cut it some slack—based in large part on the surface professionalism of the production. Watching it a second time did the film no favors. It still looked pretty slick, but the heavy-handed religiosity of it all stood out in sharp relief, as did the film’s myriad hoary clichés, spotty accents, dubious performances and alarming paucity of genuine thrills.
I’ve argued in the past (when Fox Faith came out with the über-turgid Thr3e earlier this year) that there’s nothing inherently wrong—or even untoward—with the concept of a faith-based horror picture. Whether or not you take the religious elements seriously, they’re present in nearly every vampire movie ever made. They’re inherent in things like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). In fact, in the case of The Exorcist—and at least one of its sequels, The Exorcist III (1990)—the horrors are in large part an expression of writer William Peter Blatty’s grapplings with his own Catholicism.
There’s obviously no reason why a faith-based horror movie can’t work—as long as the filmmakers remember to bring the thrills and chills with them. That’s precisely what Gary Wheeler and company do not do with The List. The foolishness of such an enterprise is that its appeal is limited only to persons already convinced of the religious agenda at hand. Anyone else isn’t likely to be impressed. In fact, a film like The List is apt to have the opposite effect to the one it purports to desire. The tepidity of the screenplay—which assumes the viewer is already sold on its “power of prayer” premise—works against it, because it’s all too easy, too cozy and too self-righteous. In the end, the film’s own commitment to its message feels phony. There’s more honest theology and faith in five minutes of The Exorcist III than in all 100-plus minutes of The List.
The sad thing is that the storyline of The List is fairly interesting. The whole idea of a secret society/blood covenant hording (for admittedly no very clear reason) a cache of money from Confederate wealth is certainly workable. The society itself has the potential to be majorly creepy—and some creepiness does come through in the Mephistophelean antics of Malcolm McDowell as its presiding master. There’s little doubt that the movie was nothing more than a quick paycheck for McDowell, but he at least seems to be having a fine time hamming it up in the manner of the later years of Orson “Just sign the check” Welles. For that matter, veteran character actor Pat Hingle taps into a similar vein of melodrama. The film is palatable whenever these two are on-screen. Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the rest of the cast—nor to the film overall.
By the time The List hits the 45-minute mark, any claim it has as a thriller is pretty much shot. The idea of pitting the power of prayer against the forces of evil is OK in concept. In execution, however, it’s simply lame, since the forces of evil amount to little more than a coma and some chest pains—the latter easily vanquished when the saccharinely sanctimonious ex-missionary (Mary Beth Peil, who played Anne, “Our Lady of the Gutter,” in Shortbus!) takes a break from praying in her peculiar attic chapel to smudge a cross in finger grease on a window! With that kind of wrenching drama, there’s just not much to hold onto or get worked up about. Rated PG for thematic elements, including some peril and brief incidental smoking.