"From Within" isn't all that successful as a horror movie, or even as a regular movie. It is, however, often times very interesting in its approach, shifting back and forth between a commentary on religious tolerance and a vengeance fable that pulls no punches regardless of denomination. It's interesting and problematic, because by the end of the film, the Godless pagans look just as guilty as the fundamentalist Christians. In other words, I no longer could determine which side represented good and which side represented evil. Maybe that's the point of this film: That religion is dangerous no matter what god you happen to pray to. Or maybe it has nothing to do with attacking any particular religion; maybe it's just a way to make the overused idea of supernatural forces wreaking havoc seem original.
Whatever. What I know for sure is that, even though "From Within" had some genuinely engaging moments, it still didn't quite live up to its potential. Consider the fact that it takes place one of those small Southern towns where the vast majority take faith in God a little too seriously; while effective as a plot device, the truth is that we've seen too many horror films about communities with frightening mob-like mentalities. There's also the fact that religion is generalized to the point of turning virtually everyone into a caricature. The only neutral character is a teenager named Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice), who seems to recognize that, in spite of her own faith, people should be allowed to worship as they see fit.
The story: A string of deaths are plaguing the God-fearing town of Grovestown. At first, they all appear to be a part of a suicide pact; it begins when a teenager named Sean (Shiloh Fernandez) blows his brains out right in front of his girlfriend, Natalie (Rumor Willis), who later kills herself in her father's shop right before her father hangs himself. As more people die, the townsfolk begin to fear that it's not a pact, but a curse. Here enters a brooding teenager named Aidan (Thomas Dekker), the son of a woman who practiced witchcraft before her untimely death; when he's physically beaten by Lindsay's pious boyfriend, Dylan (Kelly Blatz), Lindsay takes pity on Aidan and takes him home. It there she learns more about his mother, whose demise may have been at the hands of extremist vigilantes seeking revenge for the death of a young boy.
The character development is interesting, if a little one-dimensional. Take Lindsay's stepmother, Trish (Laura Allen), an alcoholic who seems detached from everything. When she's not passed out on the couch in front of the TV, she throws herself at her boyfriend, Roy (Adam Goldberg), an angry kind of guy whose wardrobe always consists of dirty undershirts and baseball caps. Dylan's father, Pastor Joe (Steven Culp), is introduced giving a sermon, and we immediately sense that every word coming out of his mouth is laced with hypocrisy. At the other end of the religious spectrum, there's Aidan's cousin, Sadie (Margo Harshman), who deeply distrusts Lindsay simply for being an outsider. She only wears black, and she can never speak to anyone without copping a seriously off-putting attitude. She supplies one of the films best moments of humor; as Lindsay and Aidan talk seriously about what's happening in town, Sadie sits at a piano, hitting dramatic chords.
I've said plenty about the characters, and that may not be a good sign because this is supposed to be a horror movie. What about the horror, anyway? There are some great atmospheric moments during the suicide scenes, in which the victims see ghastly apparitions of themselves. This obviously plays into the film's title, suggestive of the inner demons we all have. Exactly what brought on this curse is something I leave for you to find out. I will say that it isn't all that surprising given the vindictive nature of the story.
That brings me to the disturbing ending, which is satisfying in that twisted, downbeat, horror-movie way that can't easily be described. I use the word "satisfying" reluctantly, mostly because I didn't like the fact that I felt any sense of satisfaction. It's not a pleasant ending--it's ugly and mean-spirited, and it actually made me rethink how I felt about certain characters. Then again, maybe that was the intended effect. Director Phedon Papamichael seems to have labored under the belief that duplicity wears many masks, none more convincing than that of righteousness. If that was the message of the film, I can't help but question why it had to be sent in the guise of a horror story. A simple parable would have been just fine. (No, I'm not making comparisons to "Doubt," which is anything but a horror film, although it is worth noting that it was able to send the exact same message without resorting to supernatural occurrences and grizzly death scenes.) In spite of its flaws, I'm well aware that "From Within" was made for a very select horror-friendly audience, and I have no doubt that they will respond to this film.