The incendiary brute power of ‘She Who Must Burn’

JUNE 10 ― It’s really wonderful when you encounter a little something that reminds you that, even in this age of easy access to all sorts of information, you can still find something new to surprise you and keep the fire going for whatever it is that you’re passionate about.

As the saying goes, you learn something new every day, even when that something is something as trivial as films and you’ve devoured thousands and thousands of movies and have memorised the filmography of hundreds, maybe even thousands of directors.

As luck will have it, my endless curiosity led me to acquire a little known horror flick called She Who Must Burn last week, not knowing anything about the film’s director, Larry Kent.

Call it a blind buy, if you will. It was a 2015 film that only got released on VOD in late 2016 to very little fanfare, but I chose to take a punt on it anyway purely because of its synopsis and a trailer I saw online.

I didn’t plan on watching it soon after, because I had other things I wanted to watch first, but an article I read in the May/June issue of Film Comment about a “ramshackle Anglophone film-making collective led by non-native Montrealers” in 1960s and 1970s Canada put it straight in front of the queue because one of the names mentioned in that unsung group of movies and directors was none other than Larry Kent!

And it was from that article that I found out he first made his mark after clashing with censors all the way back in 1963 with his film The Bitter Ash, and later on in 1967 with High.

So here’s a guy who’s practically a living legend, an independent film-making cult hero in Canada (although even after more than half a century, commercial and critical success has still, so far, eluded him), and I had never even heard of him nor seen any of his films before.

Imagine the shock to discover, after watching She Who Must Burn, how beautifully confrontational his latest film is, made when the guy is already in his late 70s (he turns 80 this year).

Imagine the fire in his films when he was making them as a young man!

Not having seen any of his other films, and taking the writer’s words in the aforementioned Film Comment article for it, the fact that his body of work has been described as remaining “staunchly iconocolastic”, with the writer quoting a critic who described She Who Must Burn as “being designed to send distributors, programmers, and other content providers running for the hills” can only mean that this is one guy who loves pushing people’s buttons.

And boy, do I love the buttons he’s pushing in this film! Imagine The Sacrament, Holy Ghost People and Take Shelter being put in a blender with subtlety set to “low” or “none”, and you may start to see a little bit of what makes She Who Must Burn such a compelling viewing experience.

Telling the story of a rural community that is staunch in its belief in a radical and unnamed Christian church (but which clearly and probably intentionally resembles the notorious Westboro Baptist church), it opens with a religious man turning up at a doctor’s office.

He then shoots the doctor point-blank before getting down on his knees to tearfully sing “Amazing Grace” while waiting for the police to arrive.

That example of religious extremism (or, dare I say, terrorism) sets the ominous tone for the rest of the movie, as we’re then introduced to a happy couple, the male half being a Deputy Sheriff and the female half, Angela, being the counselor of a Planned Parenthood clinic that’s located right smack in the middle of that rural community, with protesters dutifully gathering outside to protest the “sins” being committed in that clinic.

More ominous clues are then dangled, one in the form of Jeremiah, who’s the preacher and leader of that radical church, the other in the form of multiple dead babies in the community (which the community thinks is God’s punishment for the “sins” being committed by Angela) and another, even more ominous sign in the form of an incoming storm that has so far killed quite a few people in other towns.

All of this sets the stage for a really harrowing series of events, even when the film’s title clearly hints that there’s a she here who will probably be burned.

But when it comes, Kent delivers it with a powerful display of blunt and brute force that one can’t help but scream with moral outrage at the tragedy that’s unfolding before one’s very eyes.

It’s melodramatic, it’s nowhere near subtle, but its pure brute power gets things done with unmistakable success.

This is a film that’s made to upset you, to leave you thinking about the very real dangers of religious fanaticism, not to mention the other issues that it also touches like abortion and oppressive systems of patriarchy.

If only there were more films as incendiary as this one.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. 

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