'Nefarious': Satan's Not Dead
Simple storytelling isn't inherently bad—but mistaking one's target audience is
When news of the film Nefarious crossed my path, I could barely believe my eyes: an R-rated Christian horror film by the creators of God’s Not Dead, with early reviews leaning toward the positive end, including praise for its smart writing and stellar acting?1 While the trailer seemed to indicate a hint of hokeyness, my overall impression was one of heightened interest.
Especially intriguing to me was the film’s premise:
On the day of his scheduled execution, a convicted serial killer gets a psychiatric evaluation during which he claims he is a demon, and further claims that before their time is over, the psychiatrist will commit three murders of his own.
“What could be these three murders be?” I thought. “How would they get worked it into the plot? I needed to know!”
And so I watched the movie. And now I know. And now I am publishing this review, while trying to avoid any major spoilers.
As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: Content (C), Artistry (A), and Preference (P). (C-A-P. Get it?) As a further reminder, I no longer provide an aggregate score at the end of my reviews (the reason for which I explain here).
Content: 8 out of 10
The main bulk of this movie consists of two characters (a prison inmate and a psychologist) debating demonology, ethics, and the like. Because there’s a lot of ideological back-and-forth, some might consider this film to be brimming with sermonizing, proving to be another entry into a long list of faith-based films that skimp on narrative proficiency in favor of bland homiletics. After all, Christian filmmakers tend to rely on didactic techniques rather than true image-based artistry.
I’m often first in line to offer such critiques of faith-based films. But in this particular instance, since the narrative of Nefarious centers on a conversation, much of the didactic material is organic to the story. Sure, there are a few statements here and there that feel forced, but since the movie’s central conceit is a debate, a majority of the discussion avoids coming across as a verbal form of beating the audience over the head with a Bible.
The film is rated R for some disturbing violence, some of which has been called gratuitous, although I have a hard time agreeing. The content fits with what Barbara Nicolosi has called “R-rated truths, which Christian artists should always prefer to G-rated lies.”
Artistry: 7 out of 10
A good story will have a clear sense of cause-and-effect. If you can rearrange the various scenes in a movie and it doesn’t hurt the overall flow, you have a poorly constructed narrative. This can especially be a potential pitfall for a movie which, in many respects, is nothing more than a glorified stage play (with two characters debating in a static setting): the conversation can meander without any clear direction.
For the most part, Nefarious avoids this pitfall; the conversation between Edward (the possessed inmate) and James (the psychologist) has an ebb and flow to it, progressing in intensity throughout its duration. Combined with the skills of cinematographer Jason Head, Nefarious remains engaging for the majority of its runtime.
It’s clear that Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (the filmmakers behind the God’s Not Dead franchise) have grown in their craft over the years. The clunky pitfalls that haunt many a faith-based film are largely (though not completely) absent. There’s no sinner’s prayer, no moment of conversion for any of the characters. There’s no “egoistic castle-building” to make Christians look good. In fact, there are no genuine Christian characters in the film at all. (There is the insertion of a character that could be considered anti-Catholic, but I don’t buy it, especially since both Konzelman and Solomon are Catholics themselves.) Furthermore, the narrative isn’t wrapped with a neat, tidy bow at the end.
There are, however, some tonal and structural issues with the script. According to Konzelman himself, the movie is “designed to lure the mainstream horror audience into the film, nonbelievers.” If that truly is the case, they should have worked harder to make their atheist protagonist (Dr. James Martin) at least a little more believable. Specifically, the pro-life/pro-choice section of the debate would not have rattled a confident atheist as much as the film portrays; while a Christian audience (of which I am a member) would find that part of the film passable (even if not entirely believable), a nonbeliever would likely balk at the way that part of the conversation plays out.
Additionally, if the target audience truly is the unbeliever, it is baffling why the film ends with a protracted epilogue in which one of the main characters appears on a talk show with real-life personality Glenn Beck (who plays himself). This is baffling in its ineptitude. Not only is it artistically clumsy (pulling audiences out of the world the filmmakers have created), it’s also a blatant turn-off for an unbelieving moviegoer. (Heck, it was a turnoff for me.)
After the film’s centerpiece (the lengthy debate between Edward/Nefarious and James) is over, the narrative starts to lose momentum and direction. Part of this could have been avoided by jettisoning the first of James’ three murders and replacing it with a third one near the end. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: my proposed new/third murder would not only provide a more shocking ending, it would also serve as a nice bookend to the prologue (if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about). It would also more effectively employ the not-quite-dead horror movie trope.
Preference: 8 out of 10
The last time I went to the theater to watch an R-rated Christian horror film was 2008. The movie was House, based on the bestselling book by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. It was one of the first movies to which I took my bride-to-be, and it ended up being a poor choice. The movie was a disaster.
Nefarious is a different story, both literally and figuratively. Overall, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t. Considering my opinion of the filmmakers’ earlier work (God’s Not Dead in particular), that is surprising—pleasantly so. My personal enjoyment gets an extra point (8 instead of 7) simply for keeping me engaged during the entire back-and-forth between the two main characters. Kudos to the screenwriters—and the actors—for making such material consistently compelling.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say Nefarious is more a thriller/drama hybrid than an actual horror film. It’s certainly marketed as a horror film, but a lot of films are poorly marketed. And honestly, if it hadn’t been marketed as a horror film, I might not have been interested enough to check it out.
I’ve already addressed the filmmakers’ misguided approach to their target audience. But since their questionable motives aren’t apparent in the film itself, I think it’s best to judge Nefarious on its own merits. Rather than condemn the movie as a failure for being a persuasive parable to reach unbelievers (which is what the filmmakers intended), Nefarious is, functionally speaking, a decent film geared for an explicitly Christian audience. That may not have been the film Konzelman and Solomon were trying to make, but that’s the film they ended up with.
But even with its weaknesses, Nefarious represents a filmmaking team that is (slowly) taking steps in the right direction.
Thanks for reading Unpop Culture! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Of course, a week after the film’s initial release, additional reviews have skewed more negative.