One of the easiest complaints to make about horror films is that they prominently feature characters at their center who mindlessly kill for no reason discernible to the audience. Even if the answer is just ‘they’re frickin crazy,’ that’s not very satisfying to the viewer. All the enjoyment is quantified by the rush and danger of watching the good guys escape or defeat the horror that is after them. But the best slasher films have a history or mythology built into them to explain why the killers are that way. Some, like THE PURGE, have an elaborate backstory that sets up the chaos of the lack of morals in the film. Others, like SAW, one of my favorite horror films of all time, are more about the mystery of who is doing them and play like macabre film noir. However, the most frightening things tend to be the most realistic, which is what makes HOSTEL so much more frightening than say A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Which brings me to SHE WHO MUST BURN, which made its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is about a small town (non-specific) in some state in America (also non-specific), where the local religious (religion non-specific) are so fervent in their anti-abortion beliefs they are shooting doctors and tormenting a social worker who counsels patients. Of course, there are crazy religious nuts who believe this sort of thing is all part of God’s plan, and burn down clinics etc., I am assuming it has happened at least once with doctors inside. With a political bent and conflict ripped from the headlines, the film seems to have everything going for it. That being said, this film is one of the more flawed horror films I have seen in recent memory for a number of reason.

First and foremost, the SHE WHO MUST BURN never picks a lead villain. This is a mob mentality, it could be the preacher, it could be the woman who speaks in tongues, it could be the prophet who is now in prison, but by choosing none of them, the film fails to gain any traction. Their goals are sort of general and easily sidetracked by mob mindset. Plus all of the characters are equally crazy and equally reprehensible, making them all sort of the same, and kind of dull.

As much as I personally can’t understand the desire to want to fight ‘killing babies’ by ‘killing people,’ in the context of this film it doesn’t even make sense. The woman they set their sights on is not even a doctor. The mother and daughter they attack were getting a breast cancer test. So the film seems to be saying these people are all just dumb and sloppy. Maybe they are, but it makes them incredibly lame villains. Plus they are so over the top it is completely unbelievable the town would allow this to go unchecked. The sheriff just gives them a pass warning that it will come to a head someday. And then it does. Although there is no good reason as to why. Why now? Why is this happening at this moment? No particular reason. All the more reason it just doesn’t make sense.

There’s a storm a coming, the sheriff seems to say, and in one of the most on-the-nose metaphors of film 101 – there is.   An actual storm is making its way to this town, so everyone needs to… well they don’t really make a strong case as to what they should do, as they tell the zealots to go home and get inside, and the good guys to get in their car and drive. The storm takes forever to come, so the zealots put up a road block outside of town, somehow beating the good guys who left immediately. S till the rain doesn’t fall, just creates a menacing overcast sky.

Another major flaw in the film is that it doesn’t know who its hero is. At one point it seems to be the counselor, but since there is a murder and a threat, maybe it could be her police officer husband, no, he gets killed, so it must be the counselor, no she gets burned alive, so it must be… the old sheriff who didn’t listen to reason? No because number one, who cares, and number two he doesn’t do anything. In fact the hero sort of turns out to be ‘God’ as lighting strikes some of these mob members and kills them, and puts out the fire. Only, of course, not fast enough, so our counselor could be hero dies anyway. Why have so much foreshadowing of the storm if it doesn’t actually affect the plot?

Oh yeah, sorry, spoilers above, but really this movie was spoiled about five minutes in when the police sheriff  maintained  ‘people are going to do what they are going to do’ and tells his deputy to move because he couldn’t control his town of crazy zealots. Really? What sort of police sheriff is this? Yet he’s the one that gets to live. So the end of the film is thoroughly unsatisfying. I’m not saying I need the hero to live, or win. But I need to know who you intend the hero to be, because that’s what the film is about: the struggle of the hero against the forces opposing them. Our counselor is left in the car as her husband is killed, then dragged out, tied up, and burnt alive, with basically no struggle.

The ultimate failing of the film though, is that the kills are dull. There is a shot to the head, a blunt hit with a tire iron, and a couple of knives to the throat, and the aforementioned burning alive, which is long and doesn’t look very realistic. There is very little tension, as we know who the bad guys are the whole time, and they never sneak up on you.

SHE WHO MUST BURN has a great title, and basically no more. I never believed a minute of the film, and I had no one to root for or against. The film seems to be hijacking an important issue, but saying nothing with it. The film’s old indiegogo funding pages describes it as feminist, political, ultra-violent. It is none of those things. Wanted to like this film, but couldn’t.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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