The Theology of Evil and Eternity: Nefarious, Screwtape and World Wars
COMMENTARY: Different demons for different times, but with a strangely similar message.
Now streaming on a platform near you, Nefarious is a film that has been lighting a fire.
The critics hate it; those who have paid money to watch it seem to love it, many Christians particularly so.
Released in April 2023, Nefarious is a horror film written and directed by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, based on Steve Deace’s 2016 novel A Nefarious Plot. The plot revolves around a psychiatrist (Jordan Belfi) who must determine if a convicted death-row inmate (Sean Patrick Flanery) is faking his alleged demonic possession.
Nefarious intrigued me, not least because it is a horror film concerned with the theology of evil. There have been few horror movies that have managed to combine horror and faith in the right proportions; The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) comes to mind as one that does seem to have this about right. In contrast, there have been any number of horror movies that have appropriated the trappings of Catholicism as a gaudy stage prop, devoid of meaning.
Would Nefarious, I wondered, be just another sensation-seeking-splatter fest with holy water thrown over the “corpse” of what was once a good story idea? Furthermore, films with the right intentions can be too keen to proclaim the “message” and, in the process, leave the story — and any drama — on the cutting-room floor.
I approached Nefarious, therefore, with low expectations.
Yet the first thing I noticed was its energy. It moves at a pace from the start that seems to emphasis the tension at the heart of the plot — and that is not about whether an execution takes place or not. This is a movie plot line operating at a number of different levels: the proposed execution, the personality and worldview of the atheistic psychiatrist charged with ascertaining the sanity of the condemned, and, as the clock ticks on for what seems an eternity, the interior life of the besieged inmate sitting incarcerated at the plot’s center.
Eternity is the real theme that permeates this movie from the start: the eternity of heaven and hell, but with an emphasis on the latter. The insane — or is it demon-possessed? — inmate is the reference point that holds this prison universe together. Flanery’s performance as Brady/Nefarious is exceptional. At turns, we are presented with the pathetic whimpering of Brady the condemned killer before the calm certainties of an entity who claims to be demonic.
Days after watching the movie it is impossible to get out of one’s head the infernal logic of Nefarious, voiced over and over, on subject after subject, seductively setting out right and wrong, lies and truth. It reminds anyone who will listen that there is only one battle — and that we are all enlisted in it, whether we realize that or not.
Nefarious, like Screwtape, the demon letter-writer in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1941), is a clear-eyed assassin of the human soul, with a deep knowledge of its prey’s weaknesses. The 21st-century demon has a genius for the demolishing of the compromised doctor and prison chaplain’s empty self-serving worldview while highlighting their professional ineffectiveness. It’s almost painful to watch, as I’ve met both of these types in real life. And, as with their cinematic counterparts, they have no answer to evil. They prefer to wish it away with bogus psychology or even more discredited theology rather than confront the fact that evil is one of the most obvious features of human history and all too visible in today’s world.
The filmmakers behind Nefarious, by placing the demonic at the center, are doing precisely what Lewis did 80 years ago. When Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters, Britain was at war. As Lewis composed his fiendish correspondence, the British were in a battle for survival. London and other cities were on fire. Bombs and incendiaries rained down on a terrified populace. The English city of Coventry, in November 1940, suffered the heaviest bombing ever experienced by a civilian population. So many firebombs fell upon that city — approximately 30,000 — that lead pipes on the side of houses melted and the city streets ran with molten lead mixed with the blood of those who lay dead or dying.
Lewis talked of this time as the most opportune to concentrate minds on the only thing that mattered: eternity. The younger, more inexperienced demon thinks that wars are a good time for men to lose their souls. The older, more cunning demon understands that precisely the opposite is true. That is because it becomes a time when many will be called to a self-sacrifice hitherto unimaginable. In addition, with the constant threat of death, many choose to make their peace with God and, with no material comforts available, cling fast to him throughout the conflict in a way inconceivable pre-war.
Nefarious is exploring a similar theme. Whether we choose to admit it or not, and, more importantly, whether we choose to engage in it or not: We are at war. Just as it was at the start of the Second World War, we live in a time where the daily struggle between good and evil is being thrown into stark relief. In this film, as spelled out by the demon Nefarious: There are moral abominations of all sorts, as evidenced by their supporter’s abuse of the English language: “reproductive health care,” “choice”, “assisted dying,” et al. The war today may not be with visible armies draped in flags and insignia, but, be under no illusions, it is a fight to the death nonetheless. This is a conflict more subtle than a declared world war but one increasingly on a global scale. And it is a conflict involving a foe with just as deadly a barbaric ideology as that which drove the Nazi war machine with a diabolic frenzy to decimate British cities — and exterminate human beings en masse.
In the movie Nefarious one might have expected a low-key, tense prison drama, turning on a discussion about the morality of state executions and the culpability of the criminally insane. What is on display, in fact, is much more expansive and universal.
To say Nefarious is countercultural is an understatement. It is one of the most pro-life films ever made. This is not just on account of the way that it treats abortion within the plot, which is as unexpected as it is sad. But this is true also in the way the movie treats the subject of euthanasia, with an unexpected twist that works to pointed effect in the overall plot. And then there is the fact that the movie revolves around a state-sanctioned execution of a death-row inmate. This movie pulls no punches on any of this, while all the time drawing the audience ever deeper into this curiously time-limited and claustrophobic world.
Nefarious is an excellent movie. The acting is uniformly good; the direction assured; the plotting pitch-perfect. The story — essentially a two-hander — is an interesting-premise-turned-into-a-suspense-filled drama, with an ending that can never be taken for granted.
Predictably, perhaps, the vast majority of critics loathed the movie: “Preachy propaganda for right-wing beliefs,” “a Christo-fascist manifesto,” “a Christian and Conservative propaganda piece.”
One suspects Nefarious would have loved these reviews.
But what exactly were these critics reviewing? It sure as hell was not this movie.
And that’s the thing: Nefarious reminds us hell exists.
We have been warned.