Studio: 101 Films
Director: Peter Handford
Writer: Peter Handford, Bethany Clift
Producer: Bethany Clift
Stars: Andrew Squires, Jennifer Nelson, James Zakeri, Michael J. Tait, Jodie McEnery, Holly Fletcher, Will Fox
A troubled Catholic priest finds himself haunted by the ghost of a suicidal teen girl whose life he failed to save.
The box cover for “Heretic” touts the film as “The Exorcist meets Carrie.” Among the questionable aspects of that statement is the attribution of it to a media outlet named “horrornet.com.” Try visiting that address and the browser returns a server error. Google results indicate that such a domain may have existed at one time, although how a now defunct website featured a 2012 movie released on DVD in 2014 is anyone’s guess. A better question is if a critic quote is going to be unverifiable, why not come up with higher praise than a false comparison to two better movies?
Other than having a Catholic priest and a teenage girl among its characters, “Heretic” has next to nothing in common with “The Exorcist” or with “Carrie” in terms of content or tone. It certainly does not have any demonic possessions or blood shower displays of telekinetic power. It also does not have the same dense spiritual mythology or sympathetic innocents to root for. A more accurate descriptive mash-up would be to say that “Heretic” combines the heady drama of controversial topics more appropriate for an arthouse indie with a lackluster infusion of under-delivered cerebral thriller.
Father James Pallister is a troubled priest. In the movies, there never seems to be any other kind. Refreshingly, Father James’ faith crisis is unrelated to issues of sexuality or unsavory temptations of the flesh. James is troubled by repercussions stemming from a tragedy in which a young parishioner came to the priest for counsel before subsequently taking her own life. Her death rippled to the stepfather who commits suicide himself six months later. As Catholics are wont to do, Father James now bears the guilt of having advised stepfather and stepdaughter to trust in God’s plan only for their demises to be the result. Following a ghostly vision of the young girl back to the home where the deaths took place, James finds himself mysteriously trapped inside and forced to face his own personal demons.
Father James Pallister, who has the eyes of a British Kyle Chandler, is no Lancaster Merrin or Father Karras. James appears to be a pleasant enough priest, well liked by his parish, but there is an oddly lacking compassion in his demeanor that prevents James from being a sympathetic hero. He has a woe-is-me proclivity for finding strength in his hip flask, which even the script calls out for being cliché, and never truly exhibits behavior that would mark him as a figure to feel for. There turn out to be story reasons for this, but it is still a problem for “Heretic” in having its driving personality be one with a brick wall of unidentifiable emotion between the character and the audience.
More problematic are core themes that try to cover virtually every hot button topic plaguing the contemporary Catholic Church. Multiple suicides, underage sex, consensual incest, two different girls contemplating abortion and a third attempting to seduce a priest are all piled into a story overburdened with subject matter that makes more sense for an afterschool special or Oscar-caliber drama than a low-budget horror film. So much melancholy of this type heavies the mood unevenly with a tone ill fitting for a haunted house ghost story.
Getting caught up in the slow churning gears of “Heretic” is made further difficult by a screenplay that avoids drawing clear lines around the film’s morality. The fifteen-year-old girl whose death drives the story should be cast to resemble Carrie White to better tug at the viewer’s heartstrings. She should be naïve and well intentioned to a fault, making her misery seem unjust and in need of vindication. “Heretic” instead casts an attractive woman who in no way appears to be the requisite age and makes her complicit in the questionable deeds that foster her dire circumstances. She is less a victim and more of an accomplice in creating her own oppression.
The same is true of nearly every character in the film. Everyone shares at least some portion of culpability in his/her misfortunes, which may be an intention of co-writers Peter Handford and Bethany Clift, except it leaves the audience without an indication of what “Heretic” actually wants to say about the people in the situations depicted.
It could be that “Heretic” doesn’t know either. Its plot sort of gives up on being an introspective psychological portrait by turning in a twist that keeps “Heretic” treading in mediocre waters. “Heretic” starts with a veneer of being a smarter than average thriller until a snail’s sprint to an uninspired final revelation solidifies the film as fairly routine horror fare.
Review Score: 40