The Order

Movie Information

Genre: Horror
Director: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon, Mark Addy, Peter Weller, Benno Furmann
Rated: R

It was once called The Sin Eater, though owing to cast and filmmaker, you might be hoping The Order would qualify as A Priest’s Tale. And yet if there was any truth in advertising, they’d have changed the title to The Ordeal, because that accurately describes sitting through this film.

After the first five minutes or so of The Order, two things become abundantly clear: why this movie wasn’t screened for any critics, and why you keep wishing that someone — anyone — would burst into “We Will Rock You” (thus livening up this wake and drowning out David Torn’s sub-Tubular Bells musical track). Even so, I was willing to believe that all this nonstop dreariness might be an attempt to generate mood. But after another few minutes, that belief was pretty much shattered as well.

In a fall season that is abnormally full of horror films and borderline horror thrillers, The Order looked like the best bet for a worthy successor to last year’s The Ring. But this film doesn’t even qualify as a worthy successor to Ghost Ship or Fear Dot Com. And it doesn’t even belong in the same universe as the same team’s A Knight’s Tale.

The only person with cause for celebration over this mess is Victor Salva, since The Order makes you realize what a fine film Jeepers Creepers 2 really is by comparison. The Order comes strictly from the bargain basement of religious-horror stories — a sub-genre that can sometimes tackle pretty weighty issues within the confines of horror-film requirements (all three Exorcist pictures qualify on some level), but which, more often than not, is just so much pop rubbish (think The Omen and its offshoots). The Order is in the “more often than not” category, but I somehow doubt that any movie this boring is apt to become very “pop.”

Now, I don’t ask that this kind of film be believable. (Hey, I actually like Michael Winner’s The Sentinel, and it asks me to accept that the entrance to hell is in an apartment house in Brooklyn!) The Order, however, isn’t blessed with that kind of loopiness, nor does it find any redemptive entertainment value in over-the-top silliness. The basic problem is that no one involved seems to find any aspect of the film absurd (a distinct oddity from the writer/director of the playfully self-mocking A Knight’s Tale).

To judge by the (non) action on the screen, you have to conclude that Helgeland and his cast take all this oh so very seriously — and perhaps the film’s underlying idea could be taken that way. The concept of a “sin eater” — a person who, through an esoteric ritual, can take on another’s sins at the moment of death — is, after all, grounded in historical fact. And it’s a good springboard for a creepy and thoughtful horror story, though this ain’t it. Instead, we are presented with one of those secret sects that so frequently pepper Catholicism in popular fiction, and of which even the staunchest anti-papist might be rightly skeptical (I’m betting that even Northern Ireland’s the Rev. Paisley wouldn’t buy into this one).

Here the order is called (yes) the Carolingians (whether North or South Carolingians is not addressed), and it’s not much of an order, since it seems to consist of faith-wavering Father Alex Bernier (Heath Ledger); comic-relief hero Father Thomas Garrett (Mark Addy); and the ex-communicated (huh?) head of the sect, Dominic (Francesco Carnelutti), who hardly counts, since he wisely opts out of the movie by shuffling off his mortal cassock in the first reel. In fact, it’s his death — and the marks on his body that indicate the presence of a sin eater — that sets Father Alex and his companions loose on their investigation.

The very fact that our priestly duo is joined by Alex’s former exorcism case (!), Mara (Shannyn Sossamon) — who not only once tried to murder Alex, but is a recent escapee from a mental hospital — probably tells you more than you need to know about the script. The whole thing revolves around a cira-600-year-old Italian sin eater, William Eden (as in Garden of, and played with a German accent by Benna Furmann). If that doesn’t make sense, try this: Eden has achieved some kind of Flying Dutchman immortality after apparently having taken up the calling (or the diet, if you prefer) as a mere lad of 10, yet he was conveniently allowed to attain adulthood for purposes of (I suppose) believability.

Throw in some Vatican intrigue by way of Cardinal Robocop … er … Driscoll (Peter Weller), and you end up with a largely incomprehensible mess that still manages to be predictable. And that’s not to mention the pair of strange children (“Orphans — though of what, I have no idea”) who look like something you’d find under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robe, and seem only to exist so they can dissolve into a flurry of CGI bats. Which brings up the whole question of the film’s effects.

They were — and, in context, still are — great when first used 23 years ago in Ken Russell’s Altered States. Here they merely look desperate and out of place — but then, much the same can be said of the performances. The usually likable and often effective Ledger just sort of shambles through the role of Father Alex, while Mark Addy tries to find the humor that isn’t in the script as Father Thomas. Shannyn Sossamon, on the other hand, seems to be on autopilot — as if she didn’t realize she wasn’t still making The Rules of Attraction. Helgeland doesn’t handle his directing chores any better than his writing ones, and probably needs to seek out an artistic sin eater before tackling his next project.

Most bad horror movies at least offer the compensation of being unconsciously funny. The Order just makes you wish you were unconscious.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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