My favourite thing about horror cinema is that it encompasses so many different types of flicks. Unfortunately, upon hearing the term “scary movie”, most people limit their thinking to mainstream slasher tropes, ignoring all the ghost stories, survival fables, Gothic romances, surrealist fantasies, and psychological thrillers out there. Truth be told, horror can no more be called a genre than the New South China Mall can be referred to as a store. Rather, it serves as an umbrella category for films too eerie, bizarre, or even impressionistic to fit anywhere else.
Take, for instance, Brian Gilbert’s The Gathering, which I’d classify as a theological thriller if not for the word “thriller”. Its tagline reads, “The horror is real. The terror is eternal,” evoking gruesome images of death and torment, yet the movie features only two casualties before the final act. The first occurs in the opening teaser, wherein a couple of hippies discover an ancient Christian temple in Glastonbury, England, by way of fatal belly flop. The second involves one of the supporting characters getting killed in a manner so convoluted as to suggest a hasty rewrite by screenwriter Anthony Horowitz to appease blood-thirsty executives.
Otherwise, The Gathering plays more like a dramatised essay on Catholic pharisaism and social responsibility with grand, poetic ideas that perhaps exceed its straight-to-video budget. In fact, the filmmakers approach their high concept with such detail that a single cast of characters isn’t enough to spew out all the necessary exposition. As such, we get two parallel storylines linked only by coincidence, by which I mean that one thread’s protagonist, or rather his wife (Kerry Fox), ends up providing food and shelter to the other thread’s heroine, who happens to hold the key to all of his questions, though neither knows it or, for that matter, ever finds out. What are the chances, really?
The first subplot focuses on the opening teaser’s temple, which houses marble carvings of the titular gathering: a group of nomads who seem to appear before every great tragedy in human history. The bigwigs at the Vatican entrust Dr Simon Kirkman (Stephen Dillane) with the archeological dig, hoping that his scientific objectivity will quell their worst fears about God, His wrath, and the illusion of free will. It’s interesting to see a Hollywood flick portray the heads of the Catholic Church as well-meaning liars rather than sanctimonious bastards. At the end of the day, they still grossly misinterpret the message of Christ, but their mistake doesn’t stem from corruption so much as a misguided sense of leadership that inadvertently deters personal responsibility.
The second storyline in The Gathering follows Cassie (Christina Ricci), an American amnesiac plagued with visions of death and suffering. She soon finds herself embroiled in a low-rent terrorist plot that I’m sure looked more impressive on the page, but there’s only so much you can do with a budget of $18 million. Incidentally, the villain of this storyline was abused as a child by the local clergy. I admit to having grown weary of the old “pedophile priest” stock plot, but here it serves a wider thematic scheme about organised religion and personal accountability. Plus, Christina Ricci sells the whole thing beautifully. She really is an underrated actress.
As I mentioned, the two threads don’t come together as seamlessly as I would’ve liked, but then theological thrillers aren’t about plot mechanics. They pertain to mythological ideals, spiritual crises, and the role faith plays in our lives for better or for worse. Sure, you could scoff at the notion of a Christian monument being raised in England around the same time Christ was being crucified right outside of Bethlehem or nitpick the presence of the gathering at the site of a car bomb just as the Iraq war was starting. I, for one, prefer to celebrate The Gathering for presenting sensible characters trying to make sense of complex moral issues.
Consider Father Fraser’s (Simon Russell Beale) concern that the masses will stop striving for a better future if empirical evidence of predestination is uncovered or, better yet, his belief that the gathering was cursed by God for failing to come to Jesus’ aid, sort of like the Wandering Jew. Given Christ’s well advertised message of forgiveness, doesn’t that strike you as terribly petty and vindictive? Gilbert resolves the issue with a strangely uplifting bit of irony, reminding us that every act of divine intervention is, by its very nature, subject to human interpretation. Yes, The Gathering communicates all these ideas and more. Beats a bulletproof behemoth walking around with a serrated blade, doesn’t it?