Blumhouse gives us a film about a young woman at a purity retreat dealing with her inner demon.
Shay (Jahkara Smith) and her sister Jo (McKaley Miller) are taken by their father, Kyle (Jim Klock), to a purity retreat to affirm their commitment to staying virgins until marriage. Jo, a rebel, has been before and hates the retreat, while Shay agrees to go because she has only just met Kyle. He had an affair with her mother years ago and never found out she was pregnant. At the camp they’re met by Pastor Seth (Scott Porter), the head of the retreat, who gives a sermon condemning Lilith, the first wife of Adam from the Bible, who was sexually unchaste. That night Jo convinces Shay to join her and two other girls in a ritual to summon Lilith as a figure of female empowerment, something which appears to give Shay strange powers and visions. As the “purity ball” approaches, Shay starts to believe that there may be something deeply wrong with the retreat, and with her.
One man’s devil is another woman’s angel. That’s an actual line from this movie (paraphrased, maybe, I’m not rewatching it just to see) and it’s pretty much the central theme. Lilith, a figure who plays a role predominantly in Hebrew mythology, was the first wife of Adam, the first man. She was made out of Earth, just like Adam, and that led to a massive conflict between them because she refused to be subservient. They were created equally, so she wanted to be equal. Naturally, Adam refused this and she left him, leading to the creation of Eve, who is born of Adam and thus below him. Lilith is usually portrayed as a demon for this, even though her sin was just asking to be equal to Adam, not even above him.
This movie uses that as a jumping off point, because we are watching a “purity” ritual which directly requires women to be subservient to men. First, girls are subservient to their fathers, to whom they must devote their purity, and then to their husbands, to whom they devote their fidelity. The film points out that, while this may seem to be upholding God’s law upon Christians, the truth is that most of the time men are given more leeway. When Jo asks if their husbands are also expected to be virgins, the Pastor says that “we all know some things are a little different for men.” Even if men are asked to be chaste, they’re allowed to monitor their own chastity, whereas the women are required to place theirs under a man’s watchful gaze. It’s also shown that women are punished at the retreat for being impure and not just with a stern talking to, despite the fact that many of the men are shown to do much more “impure” acts. Basically, the film is a commentary on the fact that programs and traditions about “protecting” women are really just an excuse to guarantee their subservience.
While the film’s supernatural and demonic elements are focused on Lilith, the real evil in the movie is sexism and religious practices used to justify it. It gives the movie a much greater impact that a plain monster movie. If you like horror movies that have social messages, this is one you should check out.
I can’t do a spoiler-free version of this, but I also think it’s literally impossible to spoil this film, because I’ve now watched it twice and I’m not 100% sure what I saw. Anyway, let’s do this.
Jude (Travis Tope) is a nerd. We know this because he likes classwork and talks down to a substitute math teacher and gets bullied by Derek (Jake Manley), a guy who literally looks like he’d be the bullied one in any other movie. He’s still haunted by memories of losing his father and his only companions are his friend Kent (Dylan Everett) and his girlfriend, Nell (Clark Backo).
One night he goes to a party at another student’s house and gets dragged into a game of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” by Derek and his girlfriend, June (Haley Ramm). In order to decide who is paired up, Derek deals out a deck of nude playing cards he found, one of which appears to be Jude’s mom. Jude and June get paired up and go into the closet where June offers to make out, despite both of them being in relationships (though she denies it). Jude declines and they wait out the whole seven minutes.
When they leave, the house has changed as have the behaviors of the people in the party, but neither of them notice. Overall, the party is now much more violent, leading Jude to leave and head home after texting Kent. When Jude gets home, he is surprised to find himself accosted by his father, who we earlier learned is dead. His father accuses Jude of murdering Derek by stabbing him with a pencil. When he goes upstairs, he finds that his room is completely different, being covered with darker and more violent imagery. Jude tries to flee the authorities and ends up running into his guidance counselor, Mr. Wallace (Gary Cole), who punches him and tries to shove him into his trunk, ultimately putting him in the back seat. Wallace reveals that Jude is in another world and needs to get back into the closet. Jude sneaks back into the house with the closet and waits seven minutes, but it doesn’t work.
Jude goes to find June, in the process finding out that in this universe he’s not friends with Kent, and tries to prove to her that they’re in another world. She believes him after her sister tries to smother her to death and Jude rescues her. Together, they find Mr. Wallace, who helps them get into the closet again. While in the closet, they have sex, something that eats up 3 of the 7 minutes.
Back at the original party, the guests have become concerned since Jude and June disappeared. The police arrive to stop the party, but Kent doesn’t want to explain the missing people, so he convinces the kids to refuse the officers entry. The officers respond by calling the parents of the kids, who still refuse to leave, until finally they get the homeowners’ mother to open the house. During the wait, Kent has suspicions that Jude and June are on another planet.
Jude and June exit, thinking they’re home, and talk to Jude’s mom, who says that she came by the party but they weren’t there. They then get chased down by Mr. Wallace’s car, which they flee, realizing that they are now in yet another dimension. They get a call from Nell telling them to come to Kent’s house, where they find versions of Nell, Kent, and Derek, all of whom are aware of everything that has happened in each dimension. They challenge the pair to a game called “Lie and Die” where, if they lie, one of their family members gets murdered. They manage to turn the game back on the group and escape, with Jude realizing that they can get back to their home if they destroy the closet while they’re in it. They’re successful, but as they walk out together, Derek walks into the closet and disappears, with only a bloody pencil left behind from his death in the other dimension.
This movie is best described as “really good idea, not great enough execution.” That happens with a lot of Blumhouse horror films like this. Let’s go over the good and the bad.
First, the good parts: I like the idea of being sent to other universes where you’re being held accountable for the bad deeds of another version of you, which has been done in comics but not so much in film. The movie actually does that part pretty well because it shows Jude holding a pencil earlier in the movie when being ridiculed by Derek, contemplating stabbing Derek in the throat, which is exactly how his other-dimensional counterpart killed him. Basically, it creates an implication that, in a world where violence is slightly more acceptable, Jude would have done it. The third, even darker, universe is also a great idea, except that it’s so rushed and so little of it is explained beyond “this is a world where everyone’s worst thoughts drive them” that it doesn’t really land like it should.
Well, that brings us to the bad parts: First, I don’t care about anyone in this movie. Seriously, Jude isn’t interesting, June is somehow even less interesting, and they never explain Mr. Wallace enough to have him be anything but a persistent deus ex machina. If I don’t really care what happens to these people, there really aren’t any stakes. The idea of Jude running into the father he lost should be a great scene, but it’s basically glossed over so that they can keep the plot running. There are a lot of scenes like that in this film, where they should be good scenes, but because I don’t really care about the characters, there’s literally no weight to them.
That actually brings me to the second point, they went too plot heavy. There are just too many things happening in this film and with this many going on, none of them feel super important. We have a plotline about finding a naked playing card of Jude’s mom that is resolved with a really unsatisfying explanation. Jude cheats on his girlfriend, and loses his virginity in the process, and seems to feel no guilt or concern apart from worrying that 3 minutes isn’t long enough for sex (Foreplay, Jude, foreplay). We have a huge amount of time dedicated to Kent keeping the police out of the house which, honestly, is interesting, but it kind of adds nothing to the A-plot.
Third, the performances are wildly uneven. I don’t want to call anyone out, but if you’re going to do “show, don’t tell” in a movie where the point is that the universes are only subtly different, then you need some strong performances to really sell the shock of being in a different world. I don’t think the movie delivers, nor do some of the actors. It’s made even more bizarre by the idea that Mr. Wallace apparently exists beyond realities and that, in one of the realities, the people all know what happened in the other ones and use it against our main characters. If you’re going to have a real “darkest timeline,” then you need someone to sell the darkest timeline and if you’re going to have an omniscient character to explain everything then, well, he needs to explain more or better.
Then there’s the ending, where Jude is implied to now be on the hook for murdering Derek in this world, which isn’t set-up well. While, yes, it’s going to look bad that Jude walked out of the building saying “I didn’t murder Derek,” any attempt to charge him with the murder is going to run into the problem that he never actually had the opportunity since the last time Derek was seen alive, and certainly didn’t have the opportunity to kill him and hide the body. It just doesn’t actually scream “trouble pending” as much as “minor inconvenience ahead.”
Overall, this movie had a lot of potential, but it just didn’t fulfill it.