Studio: After Dark Films
Director: Jourdan McClure
Writer: Ryan Finnerty
Producer: Doug Archibald, Jourdan McClure, Ryan Finnerty
Stars: Bill Oberst Jr., Hannah Levien, Whitney Nielsen, Daniel Mentz, Galen Howard, Jaquelyn Johnson, Jefferson Rogers, Liesel Hanson, Martha Brigham, Nick Kauffman, Peabo Powell, Rachel Orlikoff
A young woman infiltrates a suicide cult at their desert commune in order to learn the truth behind her sister’s death.
Off the bat, “Children of Sorrow” earns a fair amount of goodwill for being psychological “found footage” horror about the inner workings of a death cult instead of routine jump scares set in the woods or an abandoned building. Unfortunately, the effectively eerie and often unsettling atmosphere is frequently offset by filmmaking choices that undermine what the movie does right.
Charisma is not quite the right descriptor, as his screen presence is too creepy to qualify (and I mean that in a good way), but there is a magnetic quality to Bill Oberst Jr. that makes him the perfect person to portray cult leader Father Simon. His unique blend of coldly staring stalker and affable average gentleman strikes the right cautious tone for a conflicting spiritual leader who is equal parts likably charming and explosively deadly.
Joining Oberst as his brainwashed congregation is an impressive supporting cast turning in remarkable performances for an assembly of unknown talent. Let’s be frank. Expectations are usually safe to calibrate on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to a small indie horror film with unrecognizable names. But the men and women in “Children of Sorrow” are very believable as contemporary wayward hippies, even when fighting against material struggling to make their mindsets appear convincing.
“Children of Sorrow” is set in 2008 and makes specific mention of how the cult members were recruited online. That is a detail in conflict with the Manson Family, Branch Davidian, and Jonestown throwback vibe of misguided youth counterculture from decades past.
Here is a group of 21st century twentysomethings with broken backgrounds, albeit ones accustomed to modern luxuries. Yet their cult compound lifestyle is depicted like it is still the 1960’s and they are somehow content with it. Laundry is hand washed in a bathtub. Recreation consists of sack races and bowling a basketball into dishes. Entertainment comes from a talent show where two of the performances are amateur juggling acts. “Children of Sorrow” has trouble coming up with something realistic to occupy the daily lives of a desert community and the result is unconvincing.
The story’s setup is that new member Ellen is infiltrating the cult in order to learn the truth behind her sister’s death. Ellen secretly records her investigation on a smartphone while Father Simon’s faithful follower Mary records a “behind the scenes” on Simon’s plan to program his new flock of sheep. “Children of Sorrow” is then put together from a combination of these two first-person perspectives.
The film faces two chief challenges by framing itself as “found footage.” The first is that its fictional motivation does not add up. It is already convenient that Father Simon and Ellen both happen to be recording their separate threads for reasons that are not entirely clear. Recording a personal diary about a cloak-and-dagger investigation makes no sense when all Ellen is really doing is collecting evidence against herself for when her motives are inevitably uncovered.
Father Simon’s reasons for filming are even more tenuous. He has fatal plans in mind from the beginning, in effect making his recordings an ill-advised collection of evidence against himself too.
When followers spin the chore wheel to earn a weekly task, one woman “wins” the ominously labeled “Simon’s Room” assignment. The camera zooms in and focuses on her pained reaction over this chore’s implication. That makes sense from a storytelling point of view, but the zoom doesn’t wash with a justification for why cameraman Simon would intentionally highlight the subtext of the scene. This is but one moment that asks if shooting “Children of Sorrow” traditionally may have been a better way of wringing emotion out of the story.
The second problem, which is more difficult to overlook, is that “Children of Sorrow” is a top contender for most offensive shaky handheld work ever depicted in “found footage.” Filmgoers often overinflate their need for Dramamine when it comes to criticizing the subgenre, but the constantly bobbling cinematography is indefensible here. It is as though the camera is mounted on a wobbly bedspring and being operated by a jack-in-the-box walking across a trampoline.
Any shot involving sunlight is equally distracting. Exteriors are overblown and brightly lit interiors frame heads in silhouette by shooting directly into windows. It becomes a fight to decide which is worse, the constant bouncing of an ADHD camera or the overexposed lighting.
There are also bizarre “Day 7,” “Day 15,” etc. intertitles that do not even break up scenes properly. On day 37 for instance, events progress from morning to afternoon to night, back to daylight, then to dawn or twilight and then to daylight again before moving to day 38. In addition to losing track of its own continuity, separating scenes by days assigned seemingly random numbers adds nothing of substance to the narrative.
But the worst title card of all is the one at the beginning stating that police would eventually discover the bodies of ten cult members before the movie then goes back to the beginning. Telling the audience in advance that practically everyone will die deflates much of the “who will survive” tension as one more detail doing more harm than good for the film.
The reason why all of these seemingly little things earn a mention is because they add up to a great deal of misdirected elements that get “Children of Sorrow” lost in how best to present its premise. There is a lot of quality acting in the movie along with a number of frightening scenes that suggest more careful consideration of the format and its technical application could have produced a great film instead of an okay one.
The movie does not ask to forgive too much disbelief, but the audience has to work so hard to move past the missteps that suspending it becomes a chore. It is a fitting metaphor for a film about cults to say that the devil is in the details. In this case, those details are the pitchfork stabbing holes in “Children of Sorrow” to the point where the moments that work take on a lot of unnecessary water from the ones that don’t.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 60